Have a Seat, and Read about the Milne Chair Company

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - by Harmon Jolley
The Milne Chair Company was a huge factory complex in Avondale.  Milne Street is still found there today. Click to enlarge.
The Milne Chair Company was a huge factory complex in Avondale. Milne Street is still found there today. Click to enlarge.

Walter Scott Milne was born in Ethel, Ontario in 1864. His means of learning about a business opportunity in Cleveland, Tennessee – seven hundred fifty-three miles away – is not clear from the record available to me. However, in 1893, W.S. Milne purchased the Cleveland Chair Company in its fourth year of operation. This enterprise was renamed the Milne Chair Company.

The Milne family was active in the business, and saw it prosper. Some histories of Cleveland and Bradley County note that W.S. Milne and his family took part in the civic affairs of their community and were generous in donations. Milne also did well enough in making chairs and rockers that he was able to afford multiple automobiles in the early years of the horseless carriages.

The business of crafting products from wood can be dangerous, with all the proper ingredients present for combustibility. On more than one occasion, the Milne factory caught fire. After a blaze on December 3, 1912, W.S. Milne decided to relocate to Chattanooga, where there was a richer infrastructure for manufacturing. Two hundred fifty workers in Cleveland were affected by the move.

A new factory was built on thirty-five acres in the Avondale community near Orchard Knob Avenue. Long, three-story rectangular buildings were joined on one end to form the chair complex. Dry kilns were heated by waste sawdust collected from the woodworking machinery. W.S. Milne proclaimed in a Chattanooga Times advertisement that his factory was “the most modern electrically-equipped chair factory south of the Ohio River.”

Several Chattanooga businesses profited from the construction. James Supply supplied transmission machinery, belting, valves and fittings for the “best equipped chair plant” according to their Times advertisement. Chattanooga Boiler and Tank furnished the water tower.

Towards the end of 1913, the now Chattanooga-based Milne Chair Company was ready. The December 27, 1913 Chattanooga Times reported the formal opening. One hundred guests of the manufacturing leadership were invited. The owner’s daughter, Margaret Milne, turned the switch to activate power throughout the plant. Guests were given chair spindles as souvenirs.

Subsequent years saw the Milne Chair Company faced with difficulty in keeping the family business going. W.S. Milne passed away in 1924 after an extended illness. W.S. Milne’s son-in-law, Harold Morrison, and brother, David E. Milne, served in leadership roles but both died in the 1940’s.

Mary B. Milne, widow of the founder, was head of the company in 1950, its last full year of operation. On May 23, 1951, the Chattanooga Times covered the previous day’s auction of the Milne property. This included brick buildings totaling 245,000 square feet of space, and thirty-four acres. It was reported that Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel purchased some trucks and was expected to bid on woodworking machinery; all destined for a baseball bat factory that he planned to build in Chattanooga.

The former Milne site provided an address for various occupants in ensuing years. In the latter part of 1951, the Southern Champion Tray Company occupied two floors of one wing. On October 13, 1976, the Chattanooga News-Free Press reported that the Chattanooga Housing Authority bought the property for residential development.

If you have information on the Milne Chair Company, or have a photograph of a Milne chair, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.


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