Rocking, Talking. Tinkering. Greg Harkins's eclectic world.
Mississippi has some great storytellers. Greg Harkins is one of them. With his signature white beard and a twinkle in his eye, he’s been mistaken for Santa Claus more than once, and says he’s been mistaken for worse. Building toys is not his thing. Instead, Greg builds chairs and other furniture. But he is known for his rocking chairs.
A native of Jackson, Greg’s family has lived in central Mississippi for six generations. A good Irish Catholic, Greg attended St. Joseph Catholic School then headed to Mississippi State back in the early 1970s to study psychology. In between graduation and grad school, he spent time doing odd jobs for a local chair maker. “I looked up and three and a half years had gone by! I had missed grad school!”
Deciding it was time to get a practical job, Greg moved back to Jackson to work as a cook. That lasted only a year before he began missing the freedom of the chairmaker’s shop. “I like being free to work as long as I want to work, and to play as long as I want to play.”
That was the beginning of a lifelong pattern for Greg. He became a chairmaker’s apprentice and really learned the skills associated with the trade that dates back to the 1840s. “I learned from a man named Tommy Bell, who learned from the Blalocks, who learned from a Mr. Spruill, who learned from a Mr. Rouse who came here from Germany.” The men he apprenticed with were already in their '80s and '90s when Greg began learning the craft in the mid-'70s.
Chair making came naturally to Greg, who remembered the stories told on his grandmother’s front porch. “She must have had eight to ten chairs across her porch, and she had a story about each one – where the trees were from, what they did with the rest of the tree, that kind of thing. I heard those stories so many times they became a part of me.”
Not only did the stories become a part of Greg’s life, he learned by experience to be a master storyteller in his own right. He appreciates the past and honors his ancestors by telling their stories and making connections between the stories of days gone by with his life today. To spend time with Greg Harkins to is hear story after story, all told with great love and affection, often to the point of tears.
“I get emotional sometimes,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye after talking about how his father was adopted, so neither he nor his father were “true Harkins” until a family marriage sealed the deal for him. “My daddy’s goal was always to be the best Harkins he could be and to never bring shame to the family name.”
Not all of his stories are tear-jerkers, however, unless those hearing them laugh until they cry. He knows how to put a spin on words to make even the most mundane situation seem hilarious, and often times those stories are about his family, friends and his own exploits.
But it’s the stories that tie him to his chair making. “What makes me passionate about it is the very history of what I do. What I put into it. Where I live. How I live. It’s what my life is all about.” That life is centered off Highway 16, north of Canton, where his home sits way back at the end of a gravel road. He owns his own tract of hardwood timber where he harvests most of the materials for his chairs. His home is quintessential Greg. Pens with animals are set up around the house, including a pen full of Guinea hens that lay small green-, blue- and teal-colored eggs. “The yolks in those eggs are tremendous,” he exclaims.
The side porch is filled with a variety of objects that may come in handy at some time or another. A set of steps leads into his large open kitchen and living room, made entirely of wood, naturally. The massive rough-hewn wood-topped island has a built-in gas stove worthy of the best chef around. A pan with link sausages left over from breakfast still parks on one of the burners. Greg cuts off a piece and takes a bite. “That’s good stuff!”
He’s known for throwing grand parties with roasted pigs, cooked rabbit and gravy and smothered quail. Greg’s parties are legendary, as is his cooking. He’s a master of wild game and is a tamale-maker extraordinaire. “I started making tamales years ago when my (now ex) wife opened a bakery in Canton. I thought about what she could serve that would stand on its own, and I figured that would be tamales. I began making them and even won the Greenville Tamale Festival one year. I placed in every category!”
Greg said he got his love of cooking from his father, who was a mess sergeant in the Army. “He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and at Normandy Beach.”
As a child, Greg cooked with his dad and his grandparents. “We always cooked. My mother’s father had a restaurant in Fort Smith, Arkansas that I used to visit as a child. He came from Greece and spoke no English, but he had enough sense to buy a piece of land that no one else wanted next to the railroad track. He built the restaurant himself, brick by brick and called it Jim’s Liver Palace until he married my grandmother and she changed the name of the restaurant to Jim’s Place.”
On the road to Greg’s rural home is St. Anne’s, a church built in the 1840s in the Thomastown area in the community of Lucy. Several years ago the abandoned church was slated to be demolished due to vandalism, but Greg wanted to save it. “The church was built by my great-great-great-grandparents after they came here from Ireland in 1838. I went to the bishop at the time and he said I could have it.” He had the church moved to his property in Vaughn and he meticulously worked to restore the church to its former glory. On occasion, he serves dinner in the church for those in the know. People can enjoy a piece of history along with some of Greg’s best dishes. “I love that I can spread my arms in here and know that I am passing through the same space my ancestors walked through, and I enjoy sharing it with others.”
His devotion to the church has been costly, but it’s also been a labor of love. “My goal for the building is for it to become an active church again. The only thing that will keep it together in coming generations is for it to have a congregation.” For now, the church continues to be a venue for rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions, dinner parties and family gatherings.
Greg’s shop fronts the west side of I-55, just south of the Vaughn exit. Kind of like the Harley-Davidson of rocking chairs, a person can’t just come in off the street and buy one. Every chair is made to order, and it can take months to get one.
The chairs became a hot commodity in 1980 when Greg presented one to future president Ronald Reagan at the Neshoba County Fair. A photographer took a photo of Reagan sitting in the chair with his wife, Nancy, in his lap. The photo made news outlets across the country and soon everyone wanted a Greg Harkins chair. “Not many people have had the opportunity to visit Washington and present chairs to presidents. I’ve been blessed to visit the White House two times and the Executive Office two times.” He has gifted chairs to Jimmy Carter and the Bushes, as well as Vice President Dan Quayle, Pope John Paul II, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Hope, George Burns and John Glen among other notables.
From a living, breathing tree to a finished piece of furniture, each step of the process is done by hand. Greg uses a shrink-fitting technique, marrying green wood with aged wood so that it will shrink to a tight fit when the green wood dries. The chair is pegged together, with no nails used, just as they were made more than a century ago. The seats and backs are woven with either cane or hickory bark and finished with a beeswax paste mixture.
“It’s a dying art,” Greg said. “I’ve had apprentices off and on over the years, and I’m still looking for people who are interested in doing this kind of work.”
While there’s been an upsurge in orders lately as people have come to appreciate the craft, Greg is resigned to the fact that for him, it will someday come to an end. “I describe myself as a bare-knuckle boxer. There will be an end to this one day. I’ve learned that if you live a good life, good things will happen. If you live like a dog, you get fleas! I’ve been good to people throughout my life, and people have been very good to me. I’ve been blessed over and over all my life.”
Greg has recently started teaching workshops, including the barstool workshop he taught just last weekend. Men and women start with raw materials and leave with a finished barstool.
For more information on Greg Harkins Chairs, visit his website at www.harkinschairs.com.