Winchendon: A History  of Forests and Furniture

New England in the 18th and 19th centuries was an evolving region. Rich in natural resources, Massachusetts was able to grow a sustainable, self-reliant economy based on the availability of those resources.

Among the most valuable of these assets were the lush northern forests populated with hardwoods like oak, hickory, white and red pine, elm, ash and red maple. As a result of this seemingly endless resource, Massachusetts became an important center for shipbuilding and a bustling port of trade.

Many of the highly coveted items traded were those that were hewn from the native hardwood trees. The colony soon became a hub of manufacturing and attracted talented local woodworkers as well as artisans who crossed the ocean to settle into a new life in America.

One of the earliest settlements was Winchendon, Mass. Prior to the European settlements, the land was occupied by the Pennacook tribe of Native Americans that fled north to escape the communicable diseases the settlers inadvertently brought with them. This paved the way for settlement expansion and manufacturing opportunities.

On June 10, 1735, as a result of a petition from Lt. Abraham Tilton of Ipswich, the House of Representatives made the grant of New Ipswich Canada, now known as Winchendon. Winchendon’s wood products were among the first manufactured goods sold.

Indeed, the area soon became known as “Shingletown” because of the profusion and quality of the shingles produced there. In 1850, at the beginning of the American Industrial Revolution, water power was harnessed, and Winchendon’s rapidly growing industries included cotton mills, woodworking, metal working and wooden toys.

Winchendon at one time had the largest toy factory in the world and acquired a new nickname, “Toy Town.” In fact, the original rocking horse was “born” in Winchendon, in 1912, and was named Clyde.

Since the days of the earliest settlements, the Winchendon-Gardner area has been famous for the production of fine quality woodenware and expertly crafted generational furniture. It is in this environment of long-held, traditional excellence in workmanship that George E. Ladeau founded Winchendon Furniture in 1939, originally known as the Winchendon Custom Upholstery Company, Inc.

His son Richard developed and perfected his skill as an upholsterer while working for his father at a local furniture manufacturing company. As the demand grew, the upholstery division required more space, so Richard began his own company and eventually incorporated the repair and restoration of his customers fine antique furniture.

Some of these antique items most likely had been produced from the local native hardwoods during the prior two centuries.

Over the years, it became more difficult to find the quality craftsmen that had been intrinsic to the company’s reputation. The decision was made to offer high-quality brand names, rather than to continue manufacturing and restoring existing furniture.

Over the next 30 years, the company gradually and completely transitioned into a retail business that remains committed to its traditional roots by carrying brands that use well-resourced, high-quality materials in the manufacture of their products. As a result of this change, the company expanded and required larger accommodations.

It had outgrown the tiny corner space in the Winchendon Fashions Building and relocated to the warehouse building at 13 Railroad St. In 1980, it expanded the selection in Winchendon by opening a large showroom in the same building and a second store in Amherst, New Hampshire. In 1999, it renovated the Amherst store to include additional showroom space and a new design center.

In 1972, after Richard Ladeau’s death, his sons Jack and Joe have continued the family tradition. Richard’s grandsons Keith, Jeff and Ryan have joined the company as well, adding a third generation committed to their continuing vision of excellence.

Several years ago, the company opened a showroom in Keene at 20 Main St., providing the same quality brand furnishings they are known for. The Main Street location also offers design assistance along with customizable furniture options, including mattresses that are manufactured by the Amish from ecologically resourced materials.

Recently, the company was able to purchase an expansive selection of fine furnishings from Ekornes, a Scandinavian company well-known for its Stressless trademark. This large inventory was purchased at a substantial discount, and Winchendon Furniture is passing these savings along to their customers.

Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 30, Winchendon Furniture will host a pop-up showroom in Keene at Kohl’s Plaza, which will house this impressive collection. For further information, call 355-1116.