Words by M. C. Smith
For forty-eight years, Greg Harkins has been making rocking chairs in his hometown of Vaughan, Mississippi and in nearby Canton.
Chances are you’ve seen his work, that you’ve heard of the man who shook hands with Ronald Reagan at the Neshoba County Fair and presented him with a rocking chair. If you’re lucky, you’ve even been cradled by one. I myself became familiar with his work before I could even talk. In the one photo I have of myself with my grandfather when I was a baby, he was holding me up proudly as he perched on a rocking chair on the porch of his farmhouse in Vaughan.
Greg talks at length about his love for my grandfather, Bill Lutz, and his identity as a hardworking, “Mississippi rancher.” He talks of my grandmother, Margaret Ann, and how she always treated him like one of her boys, of which she has five, with one girl, my mother, bringing up the tail end of the brood. When we sit down to talk in his workshop, it is like sitting down to talk with family because, as Greg says, “We kind of are family.” For Greg, connections like this are important. One could even say they are the backbone of his work. For Greg Harkins, in order to talk about the future, he first has to talk about the past.
Greg learned his craft as a young man at the feet of Tommy Bell, another famed Mississippi chairmaker. Greg’s first clients were his classmates at Mississippi State, and he slowly began to build a reputation as a craftsman, which led to publicity and magazines, which led to more work. Very quickly, Greg realized the work he was doing could be viable as a business. This of course was when the hard work began.
“I work brutally hard. And the reason I work brutally hard is because that’s what I was taught by my family.”
Greg’s grandfather, Jim Loris, owned a restaurant that he says “was open twenty-two hours a day, because they needed two hours to clean the grease.” Greg’s father, Glenn Harkins, a traveling salesman, he describes as a “type A personality. He had to be doing something.” His mother, June Loris Harkins, offered her own hard work by attending to every need of every member of the family. “If a ball needed to be thrown, if a car needed to be jumped, she did it.” Eventually, Greg’s mother would assist him with organizing the business’ bills to be sent to the bookkeeper and with accepting phone calls from customers. His father would help him carve wing chair bottoms. In every corner of Greg’s family line, hard work was the priority. And people took notice of that.
“One of the reasons I was able to start my business was because I was a Harkins. Everywhere I went, people said, ‘Are you Glenn Harkins’ people?’ And I would say yes. And they would tell me, ‘You get whatever you need and just pay me when you can.’ When I went to my banker to start my business, he wrote me a $2,000 check out of his pocket. And he said, ‘If you pay me back, I’ll get you whatever you need.’ And I paid him back, and it went on like that for years. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?”
It’s here that Greg laments the loss of the family gathering place, a hub that allows the family to stay close to each other and gather together. “It takes a village to raise a child, you know?” I think of my grandparents, sitting on their front porch in Vaughan with me on their laps in their Greg Harkins rocking chairs. I understand what he means. It makes sense to me that Greg, a man so devoted to his family and where he comes from, would make rocking chairs, a symbol of Southern gathering, of spending slow time with the people you love.
After talking about the past, we move on to the future. Greg currently has two extra sets of hands helping him in his workshop. The first is an assistant, Jim Thomas, an older gentleman from Alabama who found himself in Mississippi and heard through the grapevine that Greg needed help in the shop. Greg, always on the lookout for a true, hard worker, snapped him up immediately. During our interview, I run my hand across one of the chair legs Jim has sanded down, the wood silken and smooth, with an almost delicate touch that disguises its strength.
The second set of hands belongs to a young man named Hodges Boland, raised in Michigan with deep roots in Mississippi. That banker, the one who gave Greg his first loan? He was Hodges’ grandfather.
I know Hodges’ family too, the McMullans and the Bolands, all of us strange broods of large Catholic families floating around in Mississippi, just like the Harkins. I think of Hodges’ migration back home to Mississippi, of him finding himself here in Greg’s shop, of what Greg says about how sad it is to have family so spread out, of how his family defines his own work in a now seldom practiced craft. It’s funny that we’re all sitting here together, that we’ve all found each other again.
For years, Greg has been pestered about his search for an apprentice. Writers cite the billboards off of I-55, advertising that search. They want updates. They want news. They want evidence of a dying craft that will be preserved. During our entire interview, Hodges has been working, weaving together a chair bottom. He has been Greg’s apprentice for the past year and a half, having completed his first chair entirely on his own only recently. “That achievement, that’s just a crown,” Greg says.
And it is a crown. A crown on top of a long, wide-reaching lineage of blood and found family, of neighbor helping neighbor. A testament that hard work, eventually, can provide you a place to rest, a chair that will cradle you while you sit back and remember where it is you came from.