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Free knowledge; the chairs will cost you

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Neal Genrich works on a spindle for a Windsor chair at his booth Saturday, July 15, 2017, at the Stockholm Art Fair in Stockholm, Wis.. Anne Jacobson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
A little sliver of hickory helps keep a chair leg tight in a Windsor chair, craftsman Neal Genrich said. Anne Jacobson / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

STOCKHOLM, Wis. — Village Park offered plenty of seats for the thousands who descended upon this small community Saturday, July 15. If you picked the right one, you got a history lesson with Stockholm Art Fair's music, munchies and merchandise.

Neal Genrich of Tomah, Wis., was showing his Windsor chairs — armchairs, side chairs, rockers — and working on one and chatting with people. The retired woodshop teacher visited friends and the fair two years ago. He figured it would be a good place to show his wares, and he is one of the few new artisans the jurors selected for 2017.

"If you're going to make chairs, you need to give them away or sell them; your house can only hold so much," he said with a laugh, explaining how his hobby became a cottage industry.

The educator in him came out as people stopped at his booth, sat down and started running their hands over the satin-smooth rails and armrests. Windsor chairs date back to before colonial times. Each has multiple spindles attached to a solid, sculpted seat and bent back rim. The arms also are made of a single, bent piece of wood.

The legs typically are birch, he said. The seats are pine or poplar while the back rim and arms are oak, ash or hickory — woods that bend well.

Because the wood colors and grains don't match, craftsmen painted their chairs, he said, and owners repaint them over time. For chairs dating back to Revolutionary War or Civil War days, the layers of paint show through, which is all part of a chair's charm, Genrich said.

Occasionally, people ask him to "distress" or age a chair.

"Most people like to do the damage themselves," he said with a smile, pointing to an imaginary ding in a seat. "They can say, that's where Uncle John scratched it with keys in his pocket."

The Windsor may have originated in Windsor, England, 60-plus years before colonists broke away, but the colonists arguably perfected the chair's assembly and they didn't hesitate to tout their skills.

As Genrich shared knowledge of tools, woodworking books and techniques, he talked about how colonists improved the chairs for comfort and incorporated hickory "keys" for durability. Simply by sitting in a chair, a person keeps the chair tight. The quality of the craftsmanship means the chairs last and last.

History says that George Washington ordered a set of Windsors from England but quickly canceled it when the newly freed U.S. citizens took him to task.

"Hey, we just beat those guys!" Genrich said.

So instead, Washington had his set made closer to home.

"That's a prize possession somewhere," Genrich said.

People can contact him at southforkwindsorts@hotmail.com.

Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 

(651) 301-7870
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