- Last Updated on 11:53 AM 04/23/12
- BY Doug Ford
Daystrom Furniture of South Boston manufactured dinette sets, buffets, hutches and other furniture for untold numbers of consumers from 1962-1996.
For thousands of its employees, it provided even more, allowing them a chance to live the American dream by providing jobs in what once was a solid manufacturing economy in Southern Virginia.
A 50th anniversary reunion is set for April 28 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Edmunds Park to celebrate what Daystrom meant to South Boston and its residents.
Aubrey Duffer of South Boston was there from the beginning of Daystrom’s run in South Boston until it closed its doors permanently.
Starting in the accounting department, Duffer moved to purchasing and was there a number of years before moving to production control manager.
Duffer stayed in that position until the plant shut down in 1996, staying an extra two months to help dispose of some inventory.
“It (Daystrom) had about 1,000 employees at one time,” recalled Duffer.
“It produced about 850 dinette sets a day, plus bars and stools, then got into case goods such as buffets and hutches, and it later got into contract furniture for Exxon and Gulf for their service stations.”
Daystrom was a good place to work, with a payroll comparable to that of U.S. Plywood and Burlington, two other large industries in Halifax County, Duffer said.
“Fran Piechota, our second president, was instrumental in getting the company to move here from Olean, New York,” he added.
In the 1960s, Daystrom developed and patented designs in metal and vinyl and laminate and acrylics for the low-end kitchen dinette product category.
Its close proximity to U.S. Plywood resulted in a business relationship that benefited both plants, according to Duffer.
“We used particle board from U.S. Plywood for seat bottoms and table tops, and that was a key component to our success,” said Duffer.
“We made our own laminate tabletops and our own tubing. We had an electrostatic paint shop, and we basically made everything on site.”
South Boston Mayor Carroll Thackston came to Daystrom as director of personnel relations in January 1966.
“Back then it was probably close to our peak in production, and in the mid-70s we were going full blast,” recalled Thackston.
“In 1966 we were steadily hiring employees, not only from Halifax County but adjoining counties and North Carolina.”
Thackston recalled one solid employee pool in particular.
“We had a lot of tobacco farmers who sold their tobacco and came in and promised me they were through selling tobacco (for the season),” said Thackston.
“They would say, ‘Just give me a job.’
“They would work until April - planting time - and would leave, but they were all hard workers and great employees.
“Back in the 1970s it was a tight job market,” Thackston continued.
“ABB, Burlington, all were hiring. Plywood was hiring, and it was tough to find employees,” noted Thackston, who estimated that over the life span of Daystrom in South Boston it had between 8,000 to 10,000 employees.
“We had to accumulate orders as they came, and we had to work them in day by day,” Duffer said.
“There were so many colors and 25 different vinyls, and it was a busy place. I had about six or seven people in production control doing the scheduling.
“At one time we were shipping out four boxcars full of furniture a day, and we had the rail siding where we could put up to 12 rail cars, and we had to move them around.
Daystrom also shipped out between 25 and 30 truckloads of furniture each day, Duffer recalled.
“We had six tractors and drivers and double the amount of trailers.
“We would always schedule loads out and bring materials like steel back to save freight costs,” he added.
In the 1970s, Daystrom had to compete with increasing competition from overseas, and in the 1980s the entire product line was overhauled, moving the company away from its dependence on low-end metal kitchen dinettes to a line reflecting the consumer’s demand for more upscale casual dining.
Daystrom also began to expand by manufacturing wood casual dining furniture and developed substantial wood-working capabilities in order to compete with the import market. But in the late 1980s, the furniture industry became a buyer’s market.
Increased production from overseas created an overload of worldwide manufacturing capacity, with major retailers dominating the industry, with many independent retailers disappearing.
Wood took the place of metal as the consumer’s choice for dining furniture, and Daystrom’s manufacturing facilities weren’t designed nor equipped to be a low-cost wood producer.
Many manufacturers in Daystrom’s category declared bankruptcy, and Daystrom’s owner LADD Furniture ultimately recognized the product category in which Daystrom competed was compromised, making the decision to close the company and using the cash generated to help pay its debts.
Some of the industry’s biggest players and Daystrom’s competitors, including Stoneville, Douglas, KellerCal-Style have since been liquidated, but Daystrom was one of the “last ones to hang in there,” according to Duffer.
“We went into some imports, and that kept us in there longer,” recalled Duffer.
“Labor was cheaper overseas. For instance, we did a lot of metal welding. Welders in Mexico were paid $2.50 an hour, and welders at Daystrom, some of the higher paid employees, made $11 and $12 an hour.
“Labor still is the biggest issue,” he continued. “Right now, China is buying wood logs from U.S.
“We’re shipping them over there, and they’re veneering them and making plywood. They’re using their wood for the interior and our wood for the facias, and they’re selling the wood back to us cheaper than we can buy it in the United States.
“That’s a fact.”
Duffer and Thackston each stress that throughout Daystrom’s time in South Boston, its employees were its biggest asset.
“Back then, we didn’t really have a full time chamber of commerce or IDA director,” said Thackston.
“I well remember Aubrey Houghton, who was the city manager back then, and also the chamber president, would bring prospective businesses as clients over there and have me talk to them.
“I would always stress the work ethic of our employees and how appreciative they are of their job. It was like one big family.
“That’s why I think having this reunion is a great idea,” and Thackston added he hopes as many former Daystrom employees as possible will attend the reunion.
Daystrom was a good corporate citizen, allowing its employees to participate in a number of community service organizations, according to Thackston.
“We were allowed to be a part of the chamber of commerce,” Thackston pointed out.
Daystrom gave back in another way through employee sales events, Duffer added.
“We would always take defective merchandise, returns and things like that. We would accumulate them and a couple of times a year would have employee sales, where they could come and buy at a tenth of regular retail.
“Pretty much everybody who worked at Daystrom over the years had a Daystrom dinette set in their home, bar stools or something through those sales.
“The parking lot would be full, and Daystrom employees would bring some of their families with them.”
HISTORY OF DAYSTROM FURNITURE
• Daystrom, whose name derives from the last names of its two founders, Daymen and Brunstrum, got its start in Olean, N.Y. in 1934.
• Daystrom became a successful manufacturer of metal ashtrays before beginning to manufacture high-line chromium kitchen furniture, upholstered stools and chairs in 1938.
• The Olean plant was shut down in February of 1962 and was relocated to South Boston operating under the name of Daystrom Furniture.
• Francis Piechota was instrumental in choosing the South Boston location over several other locations in North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.
• Shortly after its move to South Boston, Schlumberger Ltd. purchased the company.
• At the height of its operations, Daystrom employed approximately 900 factory employees, 100 supervisory and office workers and had built four additions to the original building.
• Sperry & Hutchinson purchased Daystrom in 1971.
• LADD Furniture Inc. purchased Daystrom in 1981. LADD Furniture was named for the four furniture companies from which it was built, Lea Industries, American Furniture, Daystrom Furniture and Drew Furniture.
• Six men served as president of Daystrom while it was in operation in South Boston including Larry Alles, Francis Piechota, Calvin Raney, Stuart Switzer, Bob Keith and Jerry Grubbs.
• LADD made the decision to close Daystrom Furniture in 1996.
(Provided by Linda Piechota using personal records, Daystrom history from LADD website and memories of Francis Piechota).