Article and Photos by Waitsel Smith
I’ve talked about Lenoir before – a beautiful little town nestled in the foothills of North Carolina, the Gateway to the Smokey Mountains. Now I’d like to tell you about one of its residents, T. J. Stone.
T. J. Stone was a man who cared little for conventions and traditions if they interfered with his fanciful mind. He was born in 1874 in Thomasville, NC to Quakers. Little is known of his childhood, nor is it clear what drew T. J. to furniture; but in 1895, at the age of 21, he left for New York City to study carving – the same year that George Vanderbilt was finishing the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. We don’t know with whom he studied or for how long; but in 1899, he married Rosetta Triplet – making her Rosetta Stone! – and moved to Lenoir, NC.
When T. J. was born, the furniture industry in North Carolina was almost non-existent. Most US factories were located in the Northeast. But when he returned from New York around the turn of the 20th century, things had moved south: due partly to the development of railroads in North Carolina, partly to the abundance of hardwood forests in the state, partly to the availability of cheap labor, and partly to mere circumstance. High Point, NC, which is just up the road from Thomasville and near the center of the state, became the hub of furniture manufacturing, not only for the South, but for the entire nation.
The town hosted the first regional furniture market in 1909; and, in 1921, opened the Southern Furniture Exposition – the largest marketing center for home furnishings in the world. In spite of these successes – and perhaps inspired by them – by the 1920’s, western North Carolina, and especially Lenoir, was starting to catch up. Names like Broyhill and Bernhardt were becoming standards in the industry.
It is unclear what T. J. did for work, initially, after returning from New York; but in 1909, he and his brother, Bert, decided to start a company producing serious, high-end furniture. It was a difficult undertaking to say the least; but getting the financial backing necessary to carry it out became impossible; so the brothers folded their enterprise. Disappointed, T. J. joined the Merchant Marines and, for the next twenty years, did four-month stints to the Orient, shipping out of San Diego. It was during these trips that he finally found the inspiration needed for the kind of furniture he envisioned. Only the Oriental mind was clever enough to devise combinations unusual enough to attract T. J.’s eye.
Between trips to China, the Phillippines and other Eastern ports, T. J. built tables, chairs, sofas, china cabinets and other furniture pieces, usually heavily carved and usually out of mahogany from British Honduras. Mostly he did pieces for family members and friends; but occasionally he worked on commission. Never satisfied with simply copying an historical style, as most furniture makers did – and never venturing into modern styles – T. J. would use an historical style as a foundation, and then embellish it with his carving. Almost always, the carving would take a fanciful turn.
The furniture shown in this article is owned by Mary Lib Crews of Lenoir. Her father, Judge Alfred Reese Crisp, was a great admirer of T. J.’s furniture, and one day visited his shop to ask if he could commission a piece. T. J. never acknowledged him – never even looked up from his work. But Judge Crisp didn’t give up. He kept showing up and hanging around the shop until, eventually, the two men became good friends. Judge Crisp ended up commissioning a house full of furniture, most of which is still owned by his daughter, Mary Lib, and is today one of the finest collections of T. J. Stone’s work anywhere.
Dragons and other oriental motifs abound in T. J.’s work – but so do fishing rods and fish, baseball bats and balls, shotguns and game, musical instruments, ship parts and any other fanciful thing he could work into a piece – even barnyard animals looking out their stall doors. One idea that I like is a baby’s chest with baby shoes as pulls. So he was clever – but he also enjoyed a good practical joke, such as a wood stove made entirely of wood.
These are two especially interesting pieces. I don’t know how I would classify T. J. Stone’s work. Considering the styles that were prevalent during his working life, it’s not Arts & Crafts – too ornate. It’s not Rustic – too refined. I think it shares certain characterisitcs with the Naive category of painters. And yet, he certainly wasn’t naive – he knew exactly what he was doing. It shares some similarities with Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil. It also has that 1930s look of Depression Era furniture. He’s hard to pin down. On the other hand, his style is not unique or developed enough to be called “genius.” It is fanciful and curious, and that is about as much of a stylistic label as one can give it.
He jumps around among traditional styles, but doesn’t regard any of them too highly. Here he is dabling with his version of a Renaissance chest…
… but then, here he goes delving into a mixture of French Provencial and Federalist style. Purity of design means nothing to him. He will apply his carving to any surface, regardless of period…
… but then he does a piece like this – a very Americanized version of a Sheraton table… except for the brackets, which, if anything, are Baroque! I would really like to ask him, “What were you thinking?” I imagine his reply would be as fanciful as his work, because I understand he was a character. Unfortunately, he kept no journals or other records of his thoughts, so we can only imagine. But why would he embellish a classical style like this with something as foreign to it as those brackets? It doesn’t make sense – to us. But it must have to him. I think he was probably having fun with it, and, to a certain extent, with us.
T. J. worked during the Prohibition Era, so many of his pieces have hidden compartments for liquor, and even entire bars. Here is a pedestal table shaped like a golf bag, with its own 19th hole built in.
Because of his love for the sea, T. J. often incorporated nautical elements into his furniture. This set looks as if he took parts from a ship and turned them into funiture; but they are all original parts made by him.
As I said, T. J. Stone was a character. He dressed like a clothes horse and had women in many ports of call during his seafaring days. He carved out a life for himself that was as fanciful and curious as his furniture. Once, Mrs. Duke of the Dukes of Durham – yes, the ones who built Duke University – asked for one of his pieces. When he delivered it, she said something critical about the furniture, so he had it loaded back on the truck and left. Mrs. Duke never got to own one of his pieces. Another admirer was George Murphy, owner of the Chicago White Sox. For him, T. J. built some of his sports motif furniture.
There are many stories surrounding T. J. Stone: among them that, early in his career, he helped to start Fairfield Chair Co., and that, later in life, he was a master carver for Bernhardt Furniture. It’s difficult to separate what’s true from what’s not because, as I said, written records on T. J. are scant. However, as time goes on, others may come forward with what they know and perhaps the life of this interesting man can be further pieced together.
What is known is that T. J. worked alone in the shop behind his yellow house on Main Street in Lenoir for most of his life, although he did teach his nephew to carve. At some point, he moved to Lincolnton to be near his sister. He probably wanted to move to the coast and live on a houseboat, where he could be near the sea. But Rosetta did not like the sea, so he did the next best thing: he built a house shaped like a boat – for which he got in trouble with the local building code. He also built a playhouse shaped like a shoe, after the nursery rhyme, “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” T. J. had a fanciful mind and was always trying to think of ways to give it vent.
After the death of Rosetta, he remarried to a much younger woman, Caroline Poe, daughter of Edgar Allen Poe (not the author). They lived in Lenoir, her family’s home, until T. J.’s death in 1952 (the year I was born). Whether or not he knew Caroline when he lived in Lenoir before is unknown. And whether or not there is an interesting story behind that, given T. J.’s reputation with the women, is food for speculation.
T. J. was buried in the Poe family plot in Belleview Cemetery. Interestingly, Caroline, his wife, who died much later, is not buried there. Although he was a furniture designer and builder, he primarily considered himself a carver. T. J. Stone is just one of many unusual and interesting people who have called Lenoir their home.
Many thanks to Mary Lib Crews and to Mike Stone, great-great-nephew of T. J., both of whom still live in Lenoir.
Waitsel Smith, November 20, 2012
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Text & Photos © 2012 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.