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Memories rescued from Statton auction

January 15, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- Jessica Statton Peachey watched quietly Thursday morning as an auctioneer led throngs of bidders up and down the rows of her family's 82-year-old furniture business, selling off sanders and drills, telephones and printers, and the last Statton Furniture tables, chairs and cabinets the company would probably ever sell.

"It's weird to have so many people in your space," said Peachey, 32, the great-granddaughter of founders Philo and Helen Statton. "I used to ride my Big Wheel down these halls. I grew up in this factory."

The company, off of Frederick Street in Hagerstown, announced last fall it would be closing due to a dropoff in sales as it has struggled to compete with less-expensive manufacturing overseas. Thursday was the first day of a two-day complete liquidation auction that company officials say is meant to prevent bankruptcy and ensure the company can provide its employees everything to which they are entitled.

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Numbered tags adorned everything from office equipment to the building's fire extinguishers.

"Anything that's not nailed down goes," former plant superintendent William Whittington said.

The building is to be auctioned at 1 p.m. today.

The first day of the auction attracted more than 500 bidders, including buyers from major furniture manufacturers from the Carolinas to New York, said Thomas Bikle, director of marketing and real estate for J.G. Cochran Auctioneers and Associates, which is running the auction. Also in the crowd were furniture connoisseurs, woodworking supply collectors and dozens of longtime Statton employees who stopped by to see the building one last time and walked out with a tool or two to remember it by.

"It's a part of your life they're selling," said Andrew Wivell, 45, of Smithsburg, a 25-year employee who worked as a supervisor until about two years ago. "This was like home."

When the company closed, employees had first pick of personal items they wanted to save from the auction, Peachey said.

"Some of 'em bought their tools and others bought their benches, for very little," she said.

Others returned to the auction to do the same thing.

"Guys that worked for us years ago, that I haven't seen in years and years, have come back for this and are getting things, getting tools that they used," Peachey said.

Dennis Stouffer, 59, of Boonsboro, whose 40-year career at Statton ended around Thanksgiving, bought an air sander that he had used and some staple guns.

Scott Smith, 50, of Falling Waters, W.Va., who was laid off in September after 32 years, picked up a belt sander, a band clamp and a few other tools. He said he has been living on unemployment since September, but is thinking about taking advantage of a self-employment class and opening his own custom shop.

Lennis Knott, 52, of Boonsboro, who ran machinery at Statton in the 1970s and 80s, bought a table and a "Statton Connoisseur Collection" plaque to hang in his garage.

"There's a lot of pride in what went out of here," he said.

Doug Frost, 46, of Hagerstown, who spent a decade working for Statton starting in 1982, said there was no furniture around that could match Statton's in quality.

"This furniture will last forever," he said. "That other stuff gets wet, gets damp and falls apart."

Peachey, who worked at the company as a sales and marketing manager for seven years, said the furniture's quality was a product of construction processes few companies use anymore, such as a 27-step finishing process, dovetailed drawers and "floating construction," which allows the wood to shrink and expand as the weather changes without cracking.

As mom and pop furniture stores die out and customers turn more and more to catalogs and discount importers, many never hear about the value of these features, Peachey said.

"There's nobody to educate the customer about what fine furniture is, so our furniture is getting lost amongst everything else," she said. "People think that Pottery Barn is high end."

With each company like Statton that goes out of business, the art of fine furniture-making comes closer to extinction, she said.

"We are truly one of the very last people that do what we do, and have a history of doing it and passing that history down," Peachey said. "Once it goes, it goes."

One of the bidders at Thursday's auction said he is making an effort to keep that art alive.

Stephen P. Hebert, President of Jefferson, Md.-based Monumental Construction Co., was at the auction to rescue old woodworking machinery that might otherwise end up being sold to scrappers.

"It's a shame, because this stuff is made so well, but some of it is obsolete in today's marketplace," he said.

Hebert restores the equipment and uses it for custom woodwork and restoration projects for clients like the White House and historic churches. He is teaching the craft to his son "as a link to carry on the tradition of woodworking in the finest sense," he said.

Statton, he said, is a prime example of that tradition.

"I've been building furniture my whole life and I know what's good, and this is good stuff," he said. "This was a treasure, and most of us didn't even know about it."

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