Backtracking: The Early Years: A rise and fall for an area furniture manufacturer – Oneonta Daily Star




My guess would be that somewhere across our region there a few homes that still have a piece or more of Kroehler brand furniture in use. Chances are pretty good that they were made in Binghamton, although it was several years ago.

Fine retailers far and wide, such as Bresee’s Oneonta Department Store, sold Kroehler Furniture as late as the early 1980s. Kroehler was a highly respected name since the late 19th century.

Although the company was started in Naperville, Illinois, in the 1890s by Peter Edward Kroehler, the company grew. According to the Naperville Heritage Society, Kroehler patented what was called the Unifold Davenport, a folding metal bed frame with a removable mattress that soon became a customer favorite. By 1915, Kroehler Manufacturing had four plants in Illinois and Ohio, and one in Binghamton.

A look through archived information at the Broome County Historical Society shows that it was Benjamin G. Kroehler, Peter’s brother, who gave up his practice of dentistry to come to Binghamton in 1906 to supervise the construction of the company’s new Binghamton plant, once found at 75 Ely St. Mr. Kroehler served as plant manager until 1936, succeeded by a nephew.

The Binghamton plant opened on April 10, 1907, and became the company’s second facility, employing 12 people. By the mid-1960s, the number had grown to 700 people.

As a company, Kroehler barely survived the Great Depression, and during World War II while rationing and restrictions were on raw materials such as the wire and lumber to produce furniture, Kroehler sought contracts from the government for war work, making furniture and filing cabinets for USO offices, duffel bags and artificial limbs for soldiers.

In the post-World War II boom, Kroehler was delivering 128 truckloads of furniture a day to stores primarily in the Midwestern and Northeastern states.

Smaller profit margins during the 1960s and early 1970s undermined the company’s performance. Operating at a loss, the company closed the Naperville plant in 1978. After losing millions of dollars, the Kroehler family sold the business to a Chicago investment firm that disposed of the furniture plants and eventually sold off rights to the Kroehler name. At peak, Kroehler had 14 manufacturing sites and $200 million in annual sales.

From the selloff, Binghamton survived and took on the Kroehler name in December 1981. In an interview with Leaman L. Burghardt in the Sunday Press of Dec. 27, he felt that the company’s decline was because the company grew too large. Burghardt had been the manager of the Binghamton plant since 1967 and became a leader of investors seeking to buy the factory from Kroehler.

“There’s no place for a General Motors or a Ford in the furniture business,” Burghardt said. “This is a very fragmented, highly competitive business. The key here is specialization, knowing your market.”

The local investors successfully bought the plant for $1.7 million in 1982, naming it the Kroehler Manufacturing Co. of Binghamton.

The new Kroehler found limited success, as the company shut down operations in mid-January 1984. Ninety workers were idled, but the company insisted it still had the good name reputation, plenty of back orders for furniture, but no money for raw materials. They sought Chapter 11 protection from its creditors that year.

By 1986 it was the end of the line for Kroehler, as an auction of the building’s furniture and equipment took place on May 6. An auction had taken place in 1985 to liquidate the remaining stock of household furniture.

Various developers looked at the former East Side plant through the late 1980s and early 1990s for possible use as a warehouse or light manufacturing plant, but there were no takers.

Following several years of deterioration, demolition began on Sept. 9, 1994, after the city took ownership a year earlier when $590,000 in back taxes on the property were owed.

Former Binghamton resident Elinor Severson, then of Windsor, told The Press & Sun Bulletin, “I worked here for 29 years. It’s said to see it go. It was a good company. I educated my children because of that company.”

On Monday: Two new developments on the campus of the State University College at Oneonta in 1962.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

Ask Mark… 

Have you ever had a question about a history-making event or a prominent person in our area and didn’t know where to find the answer? Well, we’ve got an expert who might be able to help you. Historian Mark Simonson has spent many years chronicling major local happenings, and he’s ready and willing to dive into The Daily Star archives for answers, which will appear in this newspaper and online at www.thedailystar.com.

Write to him at “Ask Mark,” The Daily Star, P.O. Box 205, Oneonta, NY 13820 or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. 



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