Who made that?
It is not often that the paths of furniture making and motorcycling cross, but they did for me this week.
In hunting for some new (“old”) furniture pieces for our bedroom…we found a spectacular pair of dressers – actually a dresser and a “chest on chest” – from a company called Joerns Brothers in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. A slip of paper inside said they were purchased in 1938.
These were marvelous art deco pieces with glorious inlaid and book-matched woods that glowed with a three-dimensional depth. The drawer pulls were brass and the knobs were tiger-eye. We did some research online to see what kinds of woods were used. But, initially, we only found information about a Joerns Cyclone motorcycle. We adjusted our search.
Finally, we found a furniture expert, who said the veneers were principally tulipwood. Another said selano wood, with burl walnut, sweet gum and tulip poplar. But there was more to the story. Much more.
Here is the expert’s explanation:
“These are beautiful pieces made of tulipwood (with) beautiful carved feet and capitals,” he said. “What makes these pieces truly magnificent is the inlaid book-matched tulipwood veneered surface – beautifully crafted. The drawers are dove-tailed front and back and slide easily. The carvings are exquisite. In fact, they are so well made that the secondary woods are bird’s eye maple — that’s virtually unheard of!”
He added, “If you pull the drawers out, you’ll see bird’s eye maple underneath the tulipwood – usually bird’s eye maple is so precious that it’s used as veneer itself … but rarely as a base for veneer” – and, in the case of the pieces we found, the drawer bottoms too.
As we had believed from the labels inside the drawers, they were made by Joerns Bros. Furniture of Stevens Point.
More Joerns masterpieces
“This company was in business from 1889 until the 1950s, making high quality bedroom and dining room furniture,” he said. “Joerns furniture is considered to be of the quality of the Grand Rapids furniture of this era and is highly sought after and heavily collected. The value of Joerns furniture is accelerating rapidly.”
I wanted to find out more about the company, which was started by three brothers – Fred, Paul and Charles – of German descent, from St. Paul, Minnesota (by way of Sheboygan, Wisconsin). Their high-end furniture featured German marquetry styles, Louis XV (and XVI), art deco and more.
Their pieces sold well – at one time they claimed their four plants were turning out more furniture than any other company in America. Even during the Depression, sets like our bedroom combo were selling well – for over $1,000.
The company is still in business today, but its focus has shifted more to making school furniture, hospital beds and medical equipment (more on that later).
The company history seemed a bit incomplete, and in digging a little more, I kept coming across references to the Cyclone motorcycle made 1913-1916 by the “Joerns Motor Manufacturing Co.” of St. Paul.
These motorcycles were recently in the news, particularly around a Mecum sale here in Las Vegas (in March) of a 1915 Cyclone board track racer once owned by Steve McQueen (most recently a part of the E.J. Cole collection). It was auctioned for a record $775,000!
Neat bike – it should have sold for more than a million, but it was presented in rather shabby condition.
A marvel of its age
The auction house provided rich details about the technical aspects of the bike – it had a one-liter engine, making a stout 45 horsepower, and capable of a 115 mph top speed – but scant details about the company that made it.
But a little more digging, I was finally able to establish the connection – the president of the furniture company, Fred Joerns, was apparently a little bored and decided to get together with a Minnesota motorcycle mechanic/racer named Andrew Strand who had designed a powerful new overhead camshaft V-twin racing engine, and an engineer named Edward Thiems who had come up with a revolutionary two-speed transmission. They decided to make bikes, with plans to later expand into passenger cars and commercial trucks. (A grainy B&W photo exists of a mysterious “Joerns” truck driving around, but there is no record of any such truck being made.)
The motorcycle was a sensation and broke all kinds of speed records. For a time it was considered the world’s fastest vehicle. It even beat an airplane and the legendary Barney Oldfield, driving an Indy car, in an exhibition. One effort at a speed record was disallowed after timing officials questioned the accuracy of their clocks – because they said there was no way the bike could go that fast.
The company set up a dealer network that stretched from L.A. to N.Y.
Then the whole thing kind of fizzled. Development stopped, and after no more than 300 bikes were made (and possibly much less), production ceased.
Fred apparently went on to something else and faded from the public eye; his brother Charles took over the reigns of the furniture company.
The bikes were maintenance-intensive, and with no parts available, many were junked.
Also, as many of the bikes were board track racers, they had no brakes; when board track racing died, so did any real use for the Cyclone. Some standard, road-going versions were made also.
This 1915 Cyclone set a world motorcycle auction record of $550,000 when it sold in 2008. (Mecum)
Now they are as rare as unicorns. McQueen’s is one of six known to exist today. The only other one anyone remembers (in recent memory) selling was one in 2008 that went for a record sum of $550,000. I believe I took a picture of it at the last Ritz-Carlton motorcycle concours in Half Moon Bay, California.
As promised, some further news about the furniture company: It was announced last month that after 126 years, the investors who now own the company are getting out of the business entirely, and shifting its furniture products to a company named Akin. The money guys, who as you might imagine aren’t very popular with the locals of Stevens Point, ticked off the whole town a couple of years back by closing the plant there and putting 200 people out of work – including some folks named Joerns.
Oddly, folks expert in Joerns Brothers furniture lore seem to know nothing about a motorcycling connection; those well versed in the Joerns Cyclone are clueless about the high-end furniture tie-in.
Anyway, what this all adds up to, I don’t know. But I now look at my furniture with greater appreciation. And I’ve added a vintage tin sign advertising the Joerns Cyclone to my bedroom motif. Somehow it all seems to match.
(Editor’s Note: If anyone can fill in the blanks about what happened to the Joerns brothers, please use the comment section.)
April 29, 2015