My grandfather, Joseph C. Wilson, was 60-years my senior. He lost his mother and father at a young age and was raised by family. He lived through the Great Depression. After graduating from New Harmony School in 1937, he went off to serve our country in World War II in the United States Navy. He achieved the rank of Sergeant second class aboard a supply ship in the Pacific. From what I understand, it was aboard this supply ship that he learned how to make a deal. From my perspective, my Grandfather returned home from the War and bet everything he had on his hometown. He established a business at the intersection of Main and Church Streets in our little town of New Harmony, a town filled with a rich history and culture. He bought the buildings using his GI Bill and just began selling. Anything and everything that people might want. He named the business Wilson Furniture, but those who visited know that it was more than just furniture. Case knives, Levi’s Blue Jeans, Mohawk Carpets, Lawn-Boy Mowers, Hand-woven baskets, copper kettles -- all quality, and all American made.
He was known for selling Tell City Furniture, which my office is full of today. And more than once in my career, I have sat down with a family at a Tell City maple dining table my grandfather sold to their family 60-years ago. This means that he sold the table to them when he was my age. And the next generation of the same family are again entrusting me to sell the exact same table for them, 60-years later.
Still to this day the hand painted mural proudly shows on the west side of the building at Main and Church Street, which I drive by as I start and end each day. I can see it from my home just one block away. “WILSON FURNITURE CO.” It is something I am very proud of.
A plaque was installed on the front of the building by my father and his brothers that reads, “This corner business was owned and occupied by Joseph Cawthorne Wilson for 50 years and was known as Wilson Furniture Company. He, with love and support of his wife Ruth, raised 6 sons, educated them and set an example for them and their children. We will not forget. The Boys”
I often visit with people inside those buildings at the coffee shop or on the patio, which was the alley where we would park to go into the building when I was a kid. I tell them about my grandfather’s business and how he made deals, as well as the subtle connections he and my grandmother made in the community.
My grandfather’s business would last 50-years, yet he simultaneously created the foundation for our family business today. I remember the week in 1995 that we moved him out of those buildings he bought fifty-years earlier, delivering his items to the other end of New Harmony to The Auction Center, our family’s business which began in the back of Wilson Furniture store by my father, Bill, in 1984. In my view, the business life cycle of our family continued with that transition. William Wilson Auction Realty to this day is still selling, or re-selling the same items sold at Wilson Furniture Company two generations ago.
My grandfather witnessed so much change during his time in business. At one time the road that passed in front of his business was US 460, a main east-west artery between Evansville and St. Louis. Thousands upon thousands of cars would pass by his Wilson Furniture store. And he was always ready to make a deal with any who would stop.
Once, Charles Kuralt stopped into the store when he was exploring for his “On the Road” series. Another time, Luke Skywalker himself Mark Hamill stopped in to buy a pair of Levi’s while he was in the area visiting his in-laws. Local TV legend Hal Wolford featured my grandfather on his Backroads series. But times would change, and the interstate highway system reduced the traffic. He became older, and the succession of Wilson Furniture Co waned, like many furniture stores across the Country.
Our family has numerous memorabilia items of Wilson Furniture Co displayed in our homes and office. In fact, I am constantly on the lookout for any new items that might surface in the market. More than once, someone has brought a piece of memorabilia to me or someone in our family and shared a story about my grandfather. Or about my incredible grandmother and his wife of more than 50-years, Norma Ruth Wilson, who we lost in 1994.
Continuing the Legacy.
Like him, I live in our hometown of New Harmony. I find it to be very rewarding. Everything about it. The history, people, and experiences I meet just by living in New Harmony have provided me and my family with a lot of prosperity thus far in my life.
The lessons I learned from my grandfather are still evident today in our small town, and in our business.
My grandfather taught me how to wash a car--from the top down. He taught me how to make homemade ice cream by turning the crank.
He taught me to be respectful of elders and care about family, Church, neighbors, and community.
I witnessed his steady demeanor, and his collected approach to making a deal. And the way that he talked to people.
I carry a Case knife everyday in my pocket. I value quality-made items. I cherish traditions.
75-years ago he put our family into business and worked tirelessly to create a good name. I consider it an honor and immense privilege to continue that legacy. And I realize the incredible responsibility that comes with it.
We lost my grandfather in 2003 at the age of 83. I often visit Maple Hill Cemetery on my regular jogs and stop to keep his and other members of my family’s markers clean.
Pay my respects.
And realize that I could not possibly be in the positions that I am today, if not for the legacy that my grandfather provided.