Hoke Furniture notes and timeline.
Memories of The Hoke Furniture Company
by John Hoke, January 5, 2009
OUTLINE of points to reference in an article on this subject:
- As many long time residents of Thurmont and the surrounding communities recall, there was a time when ones' vocation didn't require a long commute down congested highways, or the frequent delays in tangled traffic in order to come home at the end of a day at work. In fact, there was once sufficient employment right here in Thurmont to satisfy most of the town's economic requirements. Many folks made their careers working right here in Thurmont at the various factories such as Claire Frock Co., Thurmont Shoe Co., Moore Business Forms, just to name a few. One such business that some of the newer residents may not remember or be aware of was The Hoke Furniture Co. The following is a brief history of that business and the people whose hard work and dedication were responsible for its existence and contributions to the community.
- Lloyd and Clara May Hoke [Mr. and Mrs. Hoke] returned to Thurmont following WW II in early 1946 after Mr. Hoke had re-enlisted and served 4-1/2 years in the U.S. Army.
- Mr. Hoke graduated as an Electrical Engineer from Univ. of Md. in 1932. After enlisting (for a second time, see below) in the Army in the spring of 1941, Mr. Hoke studied at Harvard, MIT, and Yale Universities which prepared him for his role in the development of a top secret project known as RADAR. His rank was 1st Lieutenant, and he served in the signal corps.
- Note: Prior to WW II, Mr. Hoke had previously served in the U.S. Army (1934-1936) as a mounted (horseback) soldier, that is, he was part of the last regular mounted army unit to use horses. His commanding officer at that time was Douglas Macarthur. Later, during his second tour in the Army (1941-1946), his old (mounted) unit had been converted to a mechanized unit using tanks, trucks, ½ tracks, jeeps, and motorcycles.
- It was always Mr. and Mrs. Hoke's dream to own and operate a wood products company. With this vision, the Hoke's put all of their energy and resources into building a new business in Thurmont. Mr. Hoke was 36 years old when he started the business.
- In the summer of 1946 Mr. and Mrs. Hoke (using their savings from 4-1/2 years in the Army) purchased at an auction from the estate of Mr. Leonard Waesche a small, 3-story building located at the corner of Maple Drive and Miller Alley. This location is one block back from Main Street and opposite the location of what is now the Thurmont Middle School.
- The old building required significant improvements to be used as a wood products manufacturing facility. A major improvement involved the construction of a new steam boiler plant and a dry kiln, used to cure the moisture from the raw lumber before processing.
- As adjacent property was available for sale, Mr. Hoke would acquire the property in order to make way for expansion of the furniture plant. Eventually, the land associated with the business extended all the way to Boundary Avenue (next to the railroad tracks at the north end of the property.
- Another improvement to the facility was the construction of a Fire Pond at the north end of the property. This was intended to supplement the town's water supply in the event of a catastrophic fire [see later references to the fire of 1985]. The Pond also served as a great place for recreational fishing (in the spring, summer, and fall), and ice skating in the winter months. Many of the kids in town would frequent "Hoke's Pond" for just these reasons. With the open property extending for several acres, this made a perfect place to raise and enjoy horses. Many of the town's folk still remember the horses that Mr. Hoke kept on the property. Mr. Hoke had a passion for horses and was an accomplished equestrian. [See reference to Horse Calvary above.]
- Mr. Hoke's father, Henry Hoke, was a Lumberman and operated a saw mill in nearby Emmittsburg. Initially the Hoke sawmill provided a ready source of hardwood Oak, Maple and Poplar lumber for the early years of operation, however, as business grew and the output of the saw mill was somewhat limited, Mr. Hoke eventually outsourced a large portion of the lumber.
- The primary resource and asset that contributed to the success of the Hoke Furniture Company was its employees. The Thurmont area and surrounding communities have a long history of families with multiple generations of woodworking craftsman. This combination of skilled talent and new opportunities following WW II made for an excellent proving ground for a new business enterprise like The Hoke Wood Products Company (later renamed as The Hoke Furniture Co.).
- Initially, the product line would include juvenile furniture such as cribs and play yards. Also, in the early years, the product line would include the manufacture of lumber panels to be used as core for laminated plywood panels. These panels were manufactured and sold per the specifications of a local plywood manufacturer. The lumber core product became the mainstay of the operation for many years until the addition of a line of occasional tables and later on case goods and tables for bedroom and dining room furniture were added to the product line. Hence, the changing of the company's name from the Hoke Wood Products Company to The Hoke Furniture Company.
- Due to market demand and new opportunities with local furniture designers, the product line transitioned from juvenal furniture and lumber products to furniture products. During the 1950's and 1960's, trends in the furniture industry leaned toward a new interest in decorative and ornate furniture styles. A fortuitous combination of designers, marketing professionals, suppliers, plant management, and skilled craftsman fell into place and The Hoke Furniture Company was off and running.
- In proportion to the increasing demand for the products manufactured by Hoke, so grew the size of the factory. As adjacent properties became available, Mr. Hoke would acquire the property and expand the building as needed to keep up with the space requirements for a business of this type. Eventually, the building was expanded so as to connect with the adjacent wood working business at the other end of Miller's Alley. Ultimately the factory and out buildings encompassed approximately 65,000 square feet of factory area. This being situated on what eventually encompassed approximately a "city block" along Maple Drive.
- Furniture designs were developed and perfected to meet with the emerging market trends. The company established showrooms in New York City, N.Y., High Point, N.C. and Hickory, N.C. Bedroom and Dining Room Furniture became the specialty products of the company. Designs were primarily that of the French and Italian Provincial Styles. Furniture components included custom veneered table tops, hand carved overlays, specialty hardware and glass, and unique furniture finishes developed especially for the Hoke product line. Many designs were so unique that they were patented.
- Much of the furniture manufactured was based on custom orders from furniture buyers representing furniture stores all across the country and abroad. Regular customers were located in major cities in the USA, the Virgin Islands, Europe, and also Saudi Arabia. Custom furniture orders were placed as far as a year in advance.
- As time progressed into the 1970's the Hoke line of products was expanded to include contracted furniture for Hotels and Government requirements.
- Also, a specialty product for many years included the hardwood clock cases that Hoke produced exclusively for the Hamilton Clock Co. in Lancaster, Pa. Clock cases included grandfather clocks, wall clocks, and mantle clocks.
- The last product line developed by Mr. and Mrs. Hoke included a line of 18th Century Early American reproductions of select furniture designs that were representative of the Maryland craftsman of that time period. The line was known as the "Maryland Manor Collection". Due to the late development of this product line in the life of the company, these products never saw a large distribution as with other Hoke designs.
- The Hoke Furniture Company not only designed, marketed, and manufactured its products, but it also shipped those products on a factory-owned customized furniture van / tractor-trailer. Regular factory direct deliveries were made to New York, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Miami, Dallas, L.A., etc.
- Departments within the factory included;
The Mill Dept., which cut-to-size those furniture components that would later be assembled. Various types of hardwood lumber and specialty plywood would be incorporated into the construction of the furniture.
The Carving Dept., where many of the custom and high intricate carved furniture components were manufactured.
The Cabinet Dept., which assembled and final-fit the various furniture parts, i.e.; case good assembly, fitting of drawers & doors, table assembly, etc. as well as the final inspection of the products prior to finishing.
The Finishing Dept. was the area where custom wood finishes were applied to the products based on the customers specific requirements.
The Hardware and Packing Dept., where custom hardware, glass, lighting components, etc. were applied to the product based on its design. Also the furniture was final inspected and wrapped for shipment in this area.
The Upholstery Dept., where custom fabrics, cushions, etc. were manufactured and applied to the various furniture products, i.e.: dining room chairs, headboards, etc.
The Clock Department, clock cases that were contracted by the Hamilton Clock Co. out of Lancaster, Pa. were assembled, finished, and fitted with glass, hardware, and in some models, the movements. Clocks varying from Grandfather, Wall, and Mantle clocks were produced and shipped to Lancaster each week on a factory truck designated for this purpose. The Shipping and Receiving Dept., where all materials, new components for manufacture as well as finished products ready for shipping, were organized and distributed as such. Most of the furniture shipped by Hoke was "blanket wrapped" as opposed to crated or cartoned furniture.
- One last department that can't be overlooked was the Front Office. This was the heart of the operation, with executive, sales, administrative, accounting, and management personnel that kept the manufacturing operation running smoothly.
- At its busiest point, The Hoke Furniture Company employed over 120 persons from the surrounding area. It is because of their hard work and dedicated efforts that this business grew and flourished.
- As with many small furniture businesses during the late 1970's and early 1980's, the economy had turned consumers away from "high end" furniture styles and in fact, the entire furniture industry saw a down-turn in sales across the country. After 38 years in business, Mr. and Mrs. Hoke decided that it was time to sell the business and enjoy their retirement. By this time, their children had grown and pursued their owned ambitions. An opportunity presented itself to sell the business to an organization from Carlisle, Pa. who wished to expand their wood products business. In 1983 Mr. and Mrs. Hoke sold the building and business. Unfortunately, the new owner's plans did not work out and Mr. Hoke and a business partner re-acquired the building and real estate 1-1/2 years later.
- In the fall of 1985, as many of the residents of Thurmont at that time recall, there was a devastating fire, which destroyed over 2/3 of the building. The old factory that was purchased in 1946 as well as the additions that were built along Maple Drive were burnt to the ground. Only the latest section of the building, which was built primarily of concrete and steel, still stands today. The fire was later determined to be accidentally set by some children. Fortunately, and due to the heroic efforts of the various fire companies who fought the blaze, no one was seriously injured. The people who suffered most in the disaster were Mr. and Mrs. Hoke, who had no choice than to watch their life's work go up in flames. This tragic event later proved to be a realization that the town needed to expand and improve the water distribution system in order to prepare for the possibility of future large scale disasters like the "Hoke fire". Since this time the town has added wells, water towers and replaced miles of piping as part of the improvements to the infrastructure of the town.
The Hoke Furniture Company as we knew it no longer exists. Nor does the fire pond, the horse corral, or the old buildings that were once a vital part of the facility. Yet it does endure in the memories of those town's folk who lived nearby, fished at the fire pond who participated in the plant's operation. I would expect that if you asked just about any town resident over the age 50 if they remember the factory, they would probably tell you that they not only remember the factory, but that they or someone they knew worked there at some point in their life and helped to contribute to the legacy that was once The Hoke Furniture Company.