I got to thinking the other day that many of the folks who visit the Smokies simply take the place at face value and don’t realize the remarkable history behind what they are seeing. I, myself, grew up coming here twice a year, spring and fall because my grandparents got us started and we kept on coming. In the “old days” when I was a kid, we would wander fascinated thru the shops downtown and look at all the beautiful handmade crafts. I figured out who I wanted to be when I grew up by looking through those shops. So when faced with the prospect of writing something about the area, I decided to call on Randy Ogle. His family dates back to the original settlers of Sevier County and still carries on the traditional Fine Craft of Chair Making.
One of Randy’s ancestors, a William Ogle, would have been the original settler in the area if not for the fact that he died on the journey. His wife and family carried on and settled in what became White Oak Flats, later to be called Gatlinburg. Randy’s line is descended from Harkless Ogle, one of William’s sons. Harkless was Randy’s sixth great-grandfather.
Settlers moving into the mountains had to develop sufficient survival skills just to carve a life from the wilderness. Being able to cut and season timber to create housing, barns and workshops were essential to life. Then there were also household necessities that were needed. Chairs were as high on the list as beds, so chair making became a necessary skill. As more folks settled in the area, the trades that came with them grew and more household goods were provided. These settlers were perfectly happy with their ability to provide for each other without needing access to the “Big Cities”. This was a good thing as there were no real roads into the area until around the 1920s
Another one of the original families of settlers was the McCarter’s. This was the family that brought woodworking into the area. Since frontier women needed to be as versatile as the men it’s no wonder that one of the McCarter women became well known for her abilities as a woodworker and gunsmith. In 1915 that woman, Mary L. McCarter-Ownby taught her 16-year-old nephew, Isaac Ogle, the fine craft of chair making, beginning the tradition in the family.
Wade Ogle, Isaac’s son, and Randy’s father grew up in the trade and worked with his dad. In 1956, Wade built a woodshop next to his house in the area close to downtown known as Widder’s Knob”. There he and Isaac made chairs for the newly thriving shops on the Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg.
In the early sixties, Wade moved out to the area called the Glades. By the mid-sixties, Wade built the h. Not long after that Isaac came back to work with him and they added on the showroom that you see today. There they both worked until their deaths.
Like many kids who grew up in settings like this, Randy was continually in the shop playing and hanging around while the men worked and so was put to work doing various tasks until he was the equivalent of a Journeyman woodworker by age 17. This wasn’t necessarily his goal in life, his desires ran along the lines of engineering. But life has a way of shaping us, the necessity of an income with a wife and a child sent him back to the reliable moneymaking abilities he grew up with, so back to chair making he went.
Today it is basically the same workshop and showroom his father and grandfather built. And many of the furniture designs are the same ones that have been handed down father to son. Randy takes pride in the quality of the furniture he produces and it is well-founded. These are pieces that are made to last generations. Elegantly simple chairs, tables, and headboards along with special ‘one of a kind’ pieces of furniture, make up the majority of what the shop produces. They are strongly influenced by the wood itself and its different colors and qualities. Guitar building has become a hobby on the side.
Sometimes old friends drop by with instruments and spontaneous jam sessions will occur, old-time folk and traditional music are what is usually played. This is one of the advantages of having your own business. Randy says he likes to just sit and visit with his customers for a while and get to know them in order to know what will make them happy. He also likes to get a feel for the room his work will go into, sometimes it needs to blend with the environment and sometimes it needs to be a ‘stand-alone’ piece. When I asked him what his favorite thing was to make, he grinned, which he does a lot, and said,” I don’t really have a favorite piece but I sure do love a good challenge.”
So, if you are a visitor to the Smokies, and you want to get a little ‘first hand’ knowledge of the history of the area and the philosophy of the folks who settled the eastern mountains, take some time and find Ogle’s Chair Shop in the Gatlinburg Crafts Community and talk with Randy a while. Your time won’t be wasted and you might just find a beautiful piece of furniture to pass down to your grandkids. And if you are really lucky you just might hear a little old-time music in the process.
Written by Liza Bach.