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Steamboat shipments from New Orleans marked with the ace of spades began arriving in Jefferson around the time that Texas was becoming Texas. The freight traveled up the Mississippi to the Red River then through Big Cypress Bayou to the spot where a natural dam made the Northeast Texas town a natural port.
Ostensibly, the Louisiana dockworkers who prepared the shipments couldn’t read or write. “But they did know how to play cards,” Louis “Skip” Torrans, a fifth-generation Jefferson resident, will tell you. “So they would put a symbol of a card on a box.”
Torrans would know; his great-great-grandfather, W.P. Torrans, imported supplies of every sort, including lumber, jewelry and furniture, starting in 1850. “It was kind of a clearinghouse for everything that you needed to go into the frontier and make a life,” he says.
More than a century and a half later, Torrans and wife Kathy have revived the Torrans Manufacturing name and turned Jefferson back into a shipping hub of sorts. It’s no longer steamboats, of course, but giant shipping containers from China that arrive on trucks, and stacks of cardboard boxes bound for every corner of the world.
The Torranses have resurrected an American classic: metal lawn chairs—“just like mom ’n’ them had.” The furniture holds a special charm for Southerners, in-cluding Torrans, who lived through the 1950s and re-members the cantilever chairs for the color they brought to porches and patios. The Jefferson couple built a business on the chairs, and Torrans patched together their history in a book.
It started with an Adirondack chair. That’s what first got Torrans tinkering in his shop during afternoons in about 2000 while Kathy traveled for work. He envisioned an Adirondack chair with the seat and back of a metal lawn chair—an “East Texas Adirondack”—but at home shows, attendees were most interested in the metal parts of the amalgam.
“Every time I showed the chair, people would say, ‘Well, I remember those,’”
Torrans says. “Well, how do you remember those? I just made them. ‘No, no, no, we mean the ones that had the tube frame that kind of bounces. Do you have any of those?’ ”
After that, Torrans put his energy into making and selling metal lawn chairs. By 2003, the Torranses had sold their first shipment of chairs, mostly to wholesalers.
Nowadays, the Torranses and their four employees hawk four styles of chairs in about 30 colors, as well as picnic coolers, patio tables, gliders and love seats—all from their Jefferson warehouse, served by Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative. They sell online and to wholesalers and small retail outlets, including Made in the Shade in downtown Jefferson. As one of the only producers of the steel chairs, they stay busy.
“It’s more than full-time, because even in the off time, even when we’re not in our busy season when people are thinking about sitting out in the yard, then we’re working on next year,” Kathy Torrans says. “It never really stops for us.”
Steel lawn chairs came about just before World War II as part of the art deco movement and then saw a resurgence afterward when steel became available again. It’s unclear who first created the chairs that could gently bounce without sinking into the yard, but Ed Warmack was a pioneer in the industry who ramped up production in the late 1940s on his way to becoming one of Arkansas’ wealthiest businessmen. By the mid-1990s, the chairs weren’t being made by anyone.
Torrans searched for experts on the iconic American furniture, even talking to Warmack before his 2009 death, but found little information. A book collector, he had seen texts on Adirondack and ladderback chairs—but nothing about his beloved rusty cantilevers.
“I always thought, ‘I’ll meet somebody who knows about this stuff,’ ” Torrans says, “ ‘I’ll meet somebody who’ll fill in all the blanks.’ ”
Finally, he wrote A History of the Metal Lawn Chair ... What We Know Now, a 240-page tome with pages of photos, drawing on five years of his own notes, travels and photos. It was published in 2014 with help from longtime friend Mitchel Whitington, who runs 23 House Publishing in Jefferson. The book found its way onto The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, during the host’s occasional Do Not Read segment poking fun at oddball reads.
“Getting publicity is hard if not impossible these days,” Whitington said, “so when something like this falls in your lap, that’s a gift.”
The book, like the chairs, brings with it a generous helping of Southern charm.
“I was raised around these things,”
Torrans says. “These chairs were everywhere. It’s an iconic American chair. You don’t see it anywhere else in the world.”
Well, you might now.
Chris Burrows is a senior TEC communications specialist.