Virginia's Oldest Family Business
By Jill Koeppen
As one of Virginia's oldest family-owned businesses, Suter's Handcrafted Furniture in Harrisonburg has seen its fair share of changes since the company began crafting cabinetry and furniture in 1839. During the course of more than 160 years since the company's inception, Harrisonburg has grown from a very small farming community to a mid-sized town known for its poultry companies and James Madison University, named as one of the top universities in the U.S.
WHEN SUTER'S OPENED THEIR FIRST FURNITURE SHOWROOM on Bruce Street behind Asbury United Methodist Church in the early 1930's, the company had a small, cramped showroom in front of the woodworking area where the furniture was made. As Suter's grew, the showroom was relocated in 1950 to its current location on South Main Street in Harrisonburg. "At that time, the showroom was surrounded by farm land," says sixth-generation business owner Carol Suter Michael. In fact, Harrisonburg had a mere 10,800 residents then.
Just as Harrisonburg has seen tremendous growth, so too has Suter's. Today, the company sells its furnishings to customers throughout the United States. Offering furnishings in solid cherry, mahogany, and walnut, Suter's specializes in classic furniture styles such as Chippendale, Queen Anne, and Hepplewhite. A visit to the showroom reveals heirloom quality four-poster beds, secretaries, dining tables and chairs, and corner cupboards.
How does a company like Suter's continue to meet the needs of customers after decades of making furniture? Michael explains, "We have always crafted our furniture with quality first and foremost in our minds. Back in 1839, when Peter S. Suter began this company, a solid wood, handcrafted piece of furniture was the norm. But over the years, craftsmanship has fallen by the wayside. Today, handcrafted solid wood furnishings have become more and more difficult to find."
During the latter part of the twentieth century, Americans became accustomed to a fast-paced society and disposable goods. This change of thinking closed down many small companies who specialized in handcrafted goods simply because customers were not willing to pay the price of quality. Larger manufacturers were able to make products that had a similar look, but with inferior materials and a lower price.
During this time Suter's made a conscious decision to maintain attention to details and craftsmanship, even if it meant that the company's products were more expensive than those made by larger manufacturers. Michael attributes the longevity and success of the company to "sticking to what we do best -- and not cutting corners."
Michael maintains there are customers who come into Suter's frequently who tell her they have owned their Suter's pieces for 40-50 years and the furniture is still serving them wonderfully. Other customers are younger and they have inherited Suter's furniture from their parents or grandparents. Having seen the endurance of the pieces, they visit Suter's to add to their collection. "It's these types of examples that really make me feel proud that our business has survived so many years," Michael says.
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