Greg Harkins began learning the art of chairmaking in 1975 under the direction of longtime chairmaker Tom Bell, he had no idea the craft would one day allow him to shake hands with presidents and celebrities. But as luck would have it, the chairmaker in Vaughan became a legend in his trade, and over the years, he has delivered his chairs to clients including former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Pope John Paul II, George Burns, Bob Hope, John Glenn and many governors are also customers. “I’ve had some great strokes of luck in my life, thinking back over the number of times I’ve gone to the White House,” Harkins says. “But you have to make your own luck, too. I’m not afraid to be told ‘No.’ I’ve been to the Oval Office twice, the Executive Office twice, and made chairs for more than 100 senators and congressmen. It’s a story too good to make up.” Jimmy Carter was the first president to own one of Harkins’ chairs. “My banker was a personal friend of Carter, and he gave him one of my chairs as a gift,” Harkins says. “Later, Ronald Reagan got his first chair at the Neshoba County Fair. Soon after, Nancy Reagan called my mother and said she didn’t want the President sitting in her chair all the time. So she ordered another one.”When
A photo of the couple sitting together in one of Harkins’ chairs – with Mrs. Reagan sitting on her husband’s lap – was seen around the world when Reagan was the Republican presidential nominee. Today, Harkins’ handmade rocking chairs have been delivered to clients in 38 different countries. What’s so special about a Harkins chair, you ask? They start with timber Harkins cuts from his property or logs from a client’s land. Then he mills the lumber, turns all parts by hand and assembles the chairs using wood pegs – no nails. He compares his intensive labor to bare-knuckle boxing. His technique is considered a “lost art” that has been passed down for centuries and results in a high- quality, durable chair. Each chair takes 25 hours to make. “I don’t cut corners; I add corners. And I use no duplicating,” he says. “I peg all my chairs, sign and date them. Each one is an authentic piece of Mississippi history.” Harkins is quick to credit his now deceased mentor, Tom Bell, for his success.
“Mr. Bell was 79 when he taught me, and he was quite a character,” Harkins says. “He taught me there are things in life you don’t let anyone borrow – your wife, your ax and your chainsaw.” Harkins worked with several “old men” as he learned the craft. “Two of them didn’t even have electricity, and most of them grew the majority of their food, cured their own bacon and made their own sausage. Chairmaking was a part of them, like milking cows,” he says. “It was an education you can’t even buy.” At one point in his career, Harkins was making 1,700 to 1,800 chairs per year to keep up with demand. He has slowed down over the last year after being hit in the head by a limb that left him with 17 staples. But don’t expect him to abandon his craft any time soon. With the help of Harry Day, Harkins’ goal is to work hard and get his “swagger back.” “I’m on the mend,” he says. “And I plan on building chairs until the day I die.”