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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
F. H. Conant's Sons

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 408-413 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Portraits | Illustrations | Maps

Portrait of Eugene Henry Conant

Portrait: Eugene Henry Conant

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As president and treasurer of F. H. Conant's Sons, Incorporated, of Camden, New York, Harold T. Conant is the head of a large furniture manufacturing industry that has been a prominent feature in its locality for considerably more than three-quarters of a century. In fact, ever since his grandfather, Francis H. Conant, came to Camden in 1849 the Conants have been industrial leaders here and the furniture factory that today is shipping beautiful chairs all over the world had its inception in a little plant started on the site of Grove Mills in 1851. Following a fire that all but wiped out the industry in 1876, the modern factory was built by Mr. Conant's father and uncle, Eugene Henry and George Conant, and from that time the history of the present organization is dated.

Francis H. Conant, who founded the chair factory in Camden, was born in Albany, New York, September 19, 1815. His childhood was passed in Stow, Massachusetts, and there on his twenty-first birthday he was united in marriage to Mary E. Gates, who bore him six sons, five of whom lived to maturity: Frank E. enlisted in the Union army during the Civil war and fell at the battle of Antietam. Walter N., Eugene H., John A. and George F. all followed their father in the furniture business. For a few years after his marriage Francis H. Conant lived at North Bay, New York, where he was engaged in the general merchandise and other business enterprises, but later he returned to Stow, whence he came to Camden in 1849, bringing with him his family. Here he entered into a partnership with General Lyman Curtiss in the milling business and later became a partner of the Hon. T. D. Penfield.

Mr. Conant began the manufacture of chairs in a small way in 1851 and three years later bought the property along the Mad river that is now the site of the very extensive factory of F. H. Conant's Sons. There he built the Camden Chair Factory that has been in operation to the present time. About the close of the Civil war Mr. Conant purchased the Detroit Chair Factory and moved to that city, taking his family there to live. They resided there for several years while the father was carrying on the business he had thus acquired, but later moved to Adrian, Michigan. Eventually Mr. Conant returned to Camden, where he made his home until after the death of his wife. From then on, however, he spent most of his time in the west. He married Mrs. Sarah Beach of Coldwater, Michigan, and it was in Coldwater that his death occurred May 12, 1887, in the seventy-second year of his life. Mr. Conant was known in Camden for his public spiritedness and interest in all that pertained to the community welfare, as well as for his business enterprise and energy. At various periods during his residence here he held the offices of trustee of the corporation and member of the school board. As a member of the local Congregational church he gave generously of his time and means to the advancement of its work, serving for many years on its board of trustees and acting as superintendent of the Sunday school.

Of Mr. Conant's five sons, Eugene Henry will be longest remembered in Camden, for he was the one who carried on, for the most part, the work his father began here. He was born while the family was living in North Bay, New York, on June 12, 1847, and came here with his parents when he was about three. His general education, gained in the local public schools, was supplemented by a course in the Utica Business College. Eugene H. Conant began his long career in the furniture industry as bookkeeper and head of the shipping room in his father's chair factory in Detroit. He came back to Camden with his brother, Walter N. Conant, to take over the business of the Camden Chair Company, with which he was connected forr most of his life. In 1869, however, he acquired an interest in the Rochester Furniture & Chair Company of Rochester and went to live in that city for the three years that he was secretary of the concern. He returned to Camden to become a partner with his father in the chair factory, which was then run under the name of F. H. Conant & Son. The father withdrew from the business after the disastrous fire of 1876 and Mr. Conant formed a partnership with his younger brother, George F., which was terminated only by the death of the latter in 1898. From then until his death in 1915, Eugene Conant was the sole head of the business.

On the 4th of November, 1874, Mr. Conant was united in marriage to Miss Caroline E. Phelps of this village, and they became the parents of three children: A son, Harold F., is now the head of the business; Alice P. Conant married Charles F. Sisson, Jr., of Binghampton, New York; and a third child, Miss Mary E. Conant, has passed away. Like his father, Eugene H. Conant was actively interested in the development of his home community. He was president of the village at one time and did much to bring about many improvements, both as an official and as a private citizen. He was one of the men instrumental in getting the railroad company to extend the E. C. & N., now the Lehigh Valley Railroad, through to Camden. The opera house here is another monument to his energy and enterprise. During the administration of Governor Morton he was appointed one of the trustees of the state custodial asylum at Rome, but when at the end of his four-year term the late Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York, signified his desire to renew the appointment, Mr. Conant felt that the pressure of his many other interests made it advisable for him to decline a second term of office. In later years, as the opportunity presented itself, Mr. Conant traveled extensively in Europe and the Near East, as well as in this country. He was a man of wide interests and to the day of his death took a keen pleasure in adding to the range of his experiences and cultural information.

To Harold T. Conant has been passed on the burden of managing the large enterprise built up by his father and uncle. Born in Camden, in 1877, he obtained his early education in the public schools of the village, later becoming a student at famous old Phillips Exeter Academy at Exeter, New Hampshire. As a young man he was most fortunate in having the privilege of two years of travel abroad in Europe and elsewhere, as part of his educational preparation for life. Upon his return to the States he became associated with his father in the chair manufacturing business and since the latter's death has headed the concern. In 1915 the firm was incorporated under the old name of F. H. Conant's Sons, with Harold T. Conant as the president and treasurer, his present offices. In addition to his manufacturing business Mr. Conant is intimately identified with the First National Bank of Camden as vice president, and president of the Conant Lumber Company of this village.

In 1912 Mr. Conant was married to Miss Nathalie Vieau, daughter of C. J. Vieau of New York city, the ceremony taking place in that metropolis. Mr. and Mrs. Conant have a son and a daughter: Francis Henry and Caroline Ann. Mr. Conant is a republican in his political views and religiously is affiliated with the Protestant Episcopal church, holding the position of vestryman in the local parish. His active participation in civic affairs is quite in keeping with the traditions of public service inherited from his father and grandfather and he is quite properly looked up to as one of the leading citizens of his community. Mr. Conant's clubs are the Fort Schuyler Club of Utica, Rome Club of Rome, Teugega Country Club of the latter city, and the Salmon River and Lakeview Clubs. From the foregoing it could well be inferred that he is a lover of outdoor life and sports from golf and motoring to hunting and fishing.

Were there sufficient space in a work of this nature to trace in detail the history of the manufacturing establishment of which Mr. Conant is the president, it would be found that in a large measure it is but the history of the chair industry in the past six or seven decades. As has already been stated, the enterprise started in a small way in an old building known as Owens' mills. When in 1854 land on both banks of the Mad river was purchased for a new factory site, a grist mill having a good supply of water power was remodeled to suit the needs of the new factory. The business grew steadily, giving foundation to the owner's hopes that it would eventually develop into a large industry. When Eugene H. Conant came back to Camden from Detroit to become associated with the business the factory was producing cheap, common wood and cane seat chairs, tables, hall racks and other articles of furniture in a small way. After the fire of 1876, when the father withdrew from the concern, Mr. Conant and his brother decided to build a bigger and better factory, with the purpose of developing their business as fast as the industry would permit. Accordingly, they erected a modern building, for the time, which had about a third the capacity of the present plant, and turned their attention exclusively to chairs. At the same time they began to manufacture a better grade of furniture that would appeal to discriminating customers. Little by little, as they perfected their methods and brought out new designs, their line of chairs found favor with the best class of the furniture trade and they were able to discard their cheaper lines until today the factory makes nothing but high-grade chairs. In recent years an increased demand for good furniture has made the wisdom of this policy more evident, but it is only fair to state that the furniture manufacturers and dealers all over the country have been educating the general public along the lines of interior decoration, so that higher standards of artistic design and workmanship are more appreciated today than formerly. In this movement F. H. Conant's Sons has had its part. The designs put out each year for the annual furniture exposition at Grand Rapids and salesmen's samples vary, of course, in accordance with the styles most in demand. The firm was the first to manufacture the once popular Morris chair, while today the so-called "period" furniture is perhaps that most generally wanted by the better class of people. A "platform rocker" found a wide sale in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and was made in large quantities for the company's export trade.

The same influence that dictates styles in furniture determines the woods that shall be used. Golden and quarter-sawed oak were once extensively used by the Conants, but today mahogany and walnut and birch and other cheaper woods finished to resemble the former are most in demand. Oak is finished with a dull or soft finish, where once it was highly polished. But whatever the fashions of the hour, the materials for the finer chairs must be brought from the ends of the earth. Oak, walnut and birch from our own forests, mahogany and other tropical woods from equatorial jungles.

The Conant plant, which now turns out over half a million dollars worth of goods annually, is built on about twenty acres of land in the north part of Camden, along one of the main thoroughfares leading into the village. All of the buildings have been erected especially for the purpose for which they are now being used and are equipped with the best known modern conveniences for heating, lighting and fire protection. The two principal buildings face each other from opposite sides of the road. One — a four-story structure, sixty by one hundred and fifty feet — is where the chairs are cut, shaped and assembled ready for the upholstering and finishing. Adjoining it is a kiln with a total capacity of forty thousand feet used for drying the lumber. From the construction department the chairs are taken across the street to the finishing department. Two adjoining three-story buildings, one forty by one hundred feet, and the other forty by one hundred and fifty feet, contain the office, upholstering department, storage, and shipping rooms, and the rooms for varnishing, decorating, polishing and drying. In addition there are separate buildings for storage of excelsior and other packing and upholstering materials, oils and varnishes, a heating and lighting plant, a blacksmith shop for tool and machinery repairing, and lumber sheds. A great water tower provides sufficient pressure to operate the automatic sprinkler system that is one of the factory's chief safeguards against damage from fire. All the intricate operations necessary to produce a fine piece of furniture are carried on in these buildings from the drying of the raw lumber to the final rub of the polisher and tap of the upholsterer's hammer. The methods change as new improvements are developed and different styles are evolved, but always the same staff of trained workers is necessary. Among the two hundred and more employes of the plant are expert cabinetmakers, hand carvers, whose work is art, skilled finishers, deft upholsterers, machinists of long and varied experience, and artists to do the hand painting on the more elaborate pieces. Veneering is an art in itself, while the delicate inlaying of the marquetry designs calls for workmanship of the highest order. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an industry in which so much artistic talent and craftsman's skill is employed, or where the entire management from the buying of the raw materials to the marketing of the finished product calls for so much constructive imagination and world-wide information.

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