Dick Poynor: A Williamson County Chairmaker Who Broke the Bonds of Slavery

Poyner Rocking Chairs Franklin TN Beechwood Hall
Leonora Green Clifford’s Poynor chair collection from Beechwood Hall

Note: The spelling of Dick’s surname varies depending on the source, but in this article, we will use the most common version “Poynor” unless quoting verbatim from elsewhere. In those cases, we will repeat whatever spelling was used in that context.

“ON MY OWN BOOK”

On November 16, 1849, an unusual advertisement ran in one of Franklin’s newspapers. At first glance, it appears normal enough. A hard-to-miss headline in The Western Weekly Review exclaims, “CHAIRS! CHAIRS!!” The copy goes on to announce the sale of “the celebrated Poyner Chairs” at William Park’s store in town. However, the final lines make this ad quite significant. It closes with a note from the chairmaker: “Grateful for past favors, I respectfully ask for continuance of the same; and being now on ‘my own book,’ I am determined to deserve all the patronage the public may favor me with.” The notice is signed “Dick Poyner.”

Dick Poynor Chair Newspaper Ad | Lovely Franklin
Courtesy of Rick Warwick

On my own book. This simple phrase was imbued with meaning for Richard “Dick” Poynor, who had been enslaved since birth. Now, he was working for himself. Incredibly, this freedman would go on to build chairs that would end up in the Smithsonian, the Tennessee State Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in North Carolina, and many private collections. During the Tennessee Bicentennial in 1996, Sparta Spoke Factory reproduced the Poynor rocker as a shining example of the state’s craftsmanship. His name would be mentioned in countless articles, books, and on television shows. One of his creations would even land on the cover of a Dolly Parton album.

Poynor chair from Yale’s collection, courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

BORN INTO BONDAGE

However, all these accolades came long after Dick’s death; his life was much more humble. Born in Halifax County, Virginia on June 22, 1802, Dick Poynor came to Williamson County in 1816 as an enslaved teenager with the Robert Poynor family. They settled on the Little Harpeth River near what is now the intersection of Moore’s Lane and Wilson Pike in Brentwood.

The picture below shows a neighboring property, Pratt Farm, which was located near the current site of CoolSprings Galleria. Though this isn’t the Poynors’ land, the photograph gives you an idea of how that area looked before it was developed.

Pratt Farm before CoolSprings Galleria was built | Lovely Franklin
Pratt Farm before CoolSprings Galleria was built, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Robert went on to accumulate more than 1,000 acres in the area, which included a plantation where enslaved workers grew cotton and tobacco. He also became an established craftsman in the county, operating, among other things, a chairmaking business on the grounds. It is believed that Robert taught Dick his turning and joinery skills.

In those days, it was common for enslaved craftsmen to produce items for their owners’ personal needs. They also made goods that were sold to the public, and those profits further cushioned the coffers of the slaveholders. Often, enslaved craftsmen weren’t allowed to sign their work or accept any recognition. Instead, their creations would be credited to their owners. But in an ironic twist of fate, Dick’s reputation as a chairmaker would ultimately far surpass that of Robert’s.

Inventory of Robert Poynor’s estate | Lovely Franklin
Inventory of Robert Poynor’s estate, courtesy of Tina Cahalan Jones

Robert died in 1848 without writing a will or potentially freeing Dick. His estate inventory included the enslaved Poynor family. Dick’s wife, Loucinda, had died in 1840, several months after the birth of their seventh baby, and the couple’s oldest child, Martha Ann, had passed away in 1835 at age eight. But Dick and his six surviving children were listed as follows: Dick, age 46, valued at $450; Catharine, age 20, valued at $600; Thomas, age 19, valued at $650; James, age 16, valued at $600; Phillip, age 13, valued at $100; Mary, age 11, valued at $425; and Jane, age nine, valued at $425. Dick became the property of Robert’s son, Dr. Ashley Banks Poynor, while Dick’s children were divided among Robert’s other heirs.

According to Williamson County historian Rick Warwick, court records are silent about the eventual emancipation of Dick. Though it’s a mystery whether he purchased his freedom, or it was granted to him by Dr. A.B. Poynor, the advertisement in The Western Weekly makes it apparent Dick was a free man by 1849. Not only that, but the notice also offers a glimpse at the mettle Dick must have possessed: Instead of giving his former owner the credit, Dick boldly bills himself as the original maker of Poynor chairs. Here’s another look at that ad:

Dick Poynor Chair Newspaper Ad | Lovely Franklin
Courtesy of Rick Warwick

Also missing from county records are any mentions of Dick’s marriage to his second wife, Millie (1798-1878), and her subsequent emancipation. However, thanks to the 1860 census, we do know they were wed by that time. Oral tradition tells us Dick bought her freedom in the mid-1850s.

1860 census of the First District in Williamson County | Lovely Franklin
1860 census of the First District in Williamson County

You might be wondering how an enslaved person would have the money to buy his or her freedom. It’s likely that Dick was allowed to keep a small portion of the cash earned from the sale of each chair. This was a fairly common practice among owners who “hired out” their enslaved people. By letting the enslaved person retain some of the wages, the slaveholder provided an incentive they hoped would prevent runaways and other forms of rebellion. Though still terribly unfair, this system gave enslaved people a chance to accumulate their own private savings.

Formerly enslaved woman at spinning wheel, courtesy of the Library of Congress | Lovely Franklin
Formerly enslaved woman at spinning wheel, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Even so, opportunities for enslaved people to attain freedom–either through self-purchase or granted by their owner–were exceedingly rare in those pre-Civil War days. The fact that Dick was emancipated and later allowed to buy Millie’s freedom is perhaps a reflection of the high regard he had from the white community. There’s also a strong possibility that Dick was Robert Poynor’s illegitimate son, and therefore, the half-brother of Dr. A.B. Poynor, who ultimately freed him. A clue that backs up this supposition can be found in the 1860 census: Dick was listed as “mulatto,” meaning he was of mixed Black and white ancestry. He may have been given more consideration and privileges than most other enslaved persons.

The fact that he could read and write also supports the theory that Dick had a special status as Robert’s son. In the antebellum South, only about ten percent of enslaved people were literate. Many elite whites considered it dangerous for an enslaved person to be educated. They feared literacy would empower enslaved people to organize a revolt or forge the documents required to escape to a free state. Anti-literacy laws were actually enacted in many slave states (Tennessee not included) that made it illegal for anyone of color, enslaved or freed, to read or write.

Painting of man reading the Emancipation Proclamation, circa 1863 by Henry Louis Stephens, courtesy of the Library of Congress | Lovely Franklin
Painting of man reading the Emancipation Proclamation, circa 1863 by Henry Louis Stephens, courtesy of the Library of Congress

STRIKING OUT ON HIS OWN

By 1851, Dick had moved off the Poynors’ plantation to a 150-acre farm on Pinewood Road near what is now called Leiper’s Fork. At that time, the property was owned by Dr. A.B. Poynor, who had inherited the land from his father. However, he and Dick must have worked out an agreement because the deed was much later transferred to Dick.

It was here that Dick operated a chair factory with his son, James (1833-1893), whom Dick had taught the craft. Their setup included a horse-powered lathe, which rotated a piece of wood around a stationary cutting tool to create the turned posts and rungs of the chairs. This lathe was yet another instance of Dick being an anomaly. Historian Rick Warwick later conducted a survey of 22 chairmakers who had worked in Williamson, Hickman, and Maury counties from 1850 to 1950. Only Dick and one other craftsman used a horse-powered lathe. The rest ran their lathes by a gasoline engine or foot treadle with a spring pole. Those without the advantage of a lathe used only a drawknife to shape their wood.

Despite such primitive methods, these chairmakers created an array of designs, sizes, and finishes. Most Poynor chairs were a standard, straight-back style that varied between three sizes, but he did offer other options, such as rockers, highchairs for infants, and youth chairs.

Highchair made by Dick Poynor | Lovely Franklin
Poynor highchair, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Dick also built lots of “working chairs” that were low to the ground to accommodate certain chores like cooking on a hearth. Many Poynor chairs are worn on the tops because people would balance a wood plank between two chairs for a makeshift ironing board.

As for the finishes, wealthier patrons could spring for a rosewood-grain while those on tighter budgets could buy chairs painted either red, blue, black, brown, and green. Dick sometimes added yellow stenciling as an accent.

A grained Poynor chair, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Based on Rick’s research, it seems local craftsmen built the majority of their chairs on a made-to-order basis. Prices generally ranged from $1 for a basic, straight chair to $3 for an armed rocker. Customers could choose the style, and the final products could be delivered via wagon or even horseback.

Below, you can see an 1858 order for Poynor chairs made out to Dr. A.B. Poynor from Frank Lavender for Mr. Dudley. It’s unknown if this is for Dick’s work or Dr. Poynor’s (he also made chairs, according to his relatives), but it’s an incredible piece of history.

An order for Poynor chairs | Lovely Franklin
Courtesy of Rick Warwick

EXQUISITE WORKMANSHIP THAT STOOD THE TEST OF TIME

Needless to say, the chairs produced at Dick’s factory were of the utmost quality and design. Though simple in form, their durability was–and still is–astounding. They don’t wear out and are impossible to disassemble without breaking, which is why so many are still in existence today. In the book A History of Tennessee Arts, Rick Warwick explains what made Dick’s chairs so sturdy: “With the knowledge that green wood shrinks as it dries, Poynor was able to drive dry rungs into green posts and be assured the joint would remain tight without nails or glue.”

A trademark of Dick’s work are the two mule-eared back posts (so named for the curve in the wood that resembles the long ears of a mule), which are secured with wooden pegs in the top maple slat. Also distinctive is the turning on the front posts.

Art of Tennessee book showing Dick Poynor's chairs | Lovely Franklin
Note the mule-eared back posts, from Art of Tennessee book

The slats, posts, and rocker arms were usually made from sugar maple; Dick often used hickory for the rungs and walnut for the rockers. The seats were all finely woven patterns of white-oak splits.

Dick Poynor chair | Lovely Franklin
A Poynor chair retaining its original split-oak bottom, courtesy of Rick Warwick

The Poynor chair shown above retains its original split-oak bottom. It was discovered among a dozen others at Leiper’s Fork Church of Christ. Until 1870, the building had been used by the Leiper’s Fork Primitive Baptist Church, which Dick and his wife, Millie, had joined by letter in April 1865.

Leiper's Fork Church of Christ | Lovely Franklin
Leiper’s Fork Church of Christ in 1913, courtesy of Rick Warwick

For a closer look at Dick’s techniques, check out this episode of The Highland Woodworker.

POYNOR CHAIRS BECOME A MUST-HAVE

Dick’s reputation as a master chairmaker grew, and his creations were in high demand. This is demonstrated by an 1861 newspaper advertisement where Franklin merchant John D. Miller announces he had “Poynor’s chairs–kept constantly on hand for sale.” Dick’s chairs eventually graced the rooms of the area’s finest homes, including Beechwood Hall, Carnton, the Carter House, Mooreland, and the Bennett House. It was once said all a person needed to start out married life was a set of Poynor chairs. His pieces often became family heirlooms, cherished by generations of Williamson Countians.

The photo shown below is Robert A. Bailey, Sr. with his mother Louisa Ann Figuers Bailey Crump on the porch of Beechwood Hall. 

Beechwood Hall Franklin TN

The Beechwood Hall Poynor rocker (below) from Leonora Green Clifford’s collection is extremely rare. Notice a place for a thimble in the arm rest. Leonora is a descendant of the Mayberry family who built Beechwood Hall in 1856. Read our Beechwood Hall exclusive backstory here

Poyner Rocking Chair Franklin TN Beechwood Hall
Beechwood Hall rocker from Leonora Clifford’s private collection

The photo below shows a Poynor armchair (one of two known to still exist) in a room of the homestead on Devon Farm, which straddled both Williamson and Davidson counties.

A Poynor armchair in the homestead on Devon farm
A Poynor armchair in the homestead on Devon farm, courtesy of Rick Warwick

The Poynor youth chair below was originally owned by Mariah Reddick who was enslaved by the McGavocks, owners of Carnton. You can read more about Mariah here.

Poynor youth chair owned by Mariah Reddick | Lovely Franklin
A Poynor youth chair owned by Mariah Reddick, courtesy of Rick Warwick

BUSINESS WINDS DOWN

During and after the Civil War, the economy took a major hit, and craftsmen suffered a decreased market for their products. To support themselves through these lean times, many chairmakers shifted from making new furniture to repairing used pieces. Others turned to farming. Dick probably did the same, perhaps reseating chairs and replacing broken posts or cultivating some of the acreage he lived on for profit.

Dick continued to produce chairs until at least the age of 71. On January 12, 1882, when he was 79, a notice from Leiper’s Fork was published in The Hickman Pioneer, a newspaper in Centerville, Tennessee. The first line reads, “Uncle Dick Poyner, colored, than whom, a more honest, or clever man, does not live, is quite frail.” Centerville is located about 37.5 miles from Leiper’s Fork, a significant distance in the time of horse and buggy. It would have taken about a day to travel there. The fact that Dick’s illness was relevant news in Centerville is another example of his far-reaching reputation.

Newspaper clipping about Dick Poynor | Lovely Franklin
From The Hickman Pioneer, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Dick lingered on in poor health until his death on March 27, 1882. His obituary ran on April 7 and describes him as “one of the best-known citizens of old Williamson and was honored by all who knew him. Though a colored man, he enjoyed all the esteem and confidence of all parties of every race. He was honest, industrious and was a living monument of what any man of any race can do who thus demeans himself.”

Dick’s obit from The Hickman Pioneer on April 7, 1882, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Dick was buried alongside Millie, who had died in 1878, and his white neighbors in the Garrison United Methodist Church cemetery.

Dick Poynor's Grave | Lovely Franklin
Dick Poynor’s grave, courtesy of Rick Warwick

On February 5, 1884, Dick’s shop tools and household furnishings were sold at auction, bringing in a total of $294.70.

A page from Dick Poynor's estate sale | Lovely Franklin
A page from Dick’s estate sale, courtesy of Rick Warwick

However, as Rick Warwick notes in his survey of local chairmakers, Dick’s horse-powered lathe wasn’t included in the inventory. Rick speculates it was sold to Perry Southern, a chairmaker in nearby Craigfield, during Dick’s illness. Rick’s reason? Perry was the only other craftsman in the survey who used a horse-powered lathe.

Perry and Jane Southern | Lovely Franklin
Perry and Jane Southern, courtesy of Rick Warwick

POYNOR CHAIRS ARE INTRODUCED TO A NEW GENERATION

As beloved as Dick Poynor was during his lifetime, his name faded from the forefront of people’s memories over the decades. No known photos of him survived the years, and for the most part, only the old-timers were aware of the once celebrated chairmaker. Even then, their knowledge was limited. However, thanks to Rick Warwick, Dick Poynor was brought back into the spotlight during the late 20th century.

Rick Warwick Williamson County Historian | Lovely Franklin
Rick Warwick, courtesy of Misty Westebbe Photography

In 1971, Rick began teaching high-school civics and history at Hillsboro School on Pinewood Road, the same street where Dick once operated his chair factory. (You can read more about Rick’s background here and how he became the Williamson County historian.) In an effort to localize his lessons about the Civil War, Rick asked students to interview their oldest relative to see if they had any war stories, particularly those pertaining to slavery. One teen returned with a report about a formerly enslaved man who had built his grandmother’s kitchen chairs.

Poynor chair collection owned by Robert Hicks

This bit of information piqued Rick’s curiosity, and his subsequent research led him to Dick Poynor. He soon learned Dick’s chairs were treasured heirlooms in many Williamson County households. Eventually, Rick’s initial interest morphed into an in-depth study of this local craftsman. He also began collecting Poynor chairs, acquiring his first one from Nan Rodgers Chapman, who had grown up in the area. In exchange for the chair, he raked her leaves for a week.

During the course of his investigation, Rick visited one of Dick’s relatives and happened upon the Poynor family Bible. Inside, Dick had written that he bought the book on May 27, 1835. Also recorded in the Bible were the births, deaths, and marriages of Dick’s children and grandchildren. The births and deaths of his two wives were listed as well.

Dick Poynor’s Bible, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Rick continued to grow his Poynor chair collection, finding the bulk of his pieces at Colonel Fulton Beasley’s auction barn (which used to operate on Third Avenue South in Franklin across from the Williamson County Courthouse), yard sales, and friends in the area. Over the decades, his focus expanded to include other local chairmakers, and he amassed more than 200 chairs built in Williamson County during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Rick Warwick shows how to bottom a chair | Lovely Franklin
Rick shows how to bottom a chair at Carnton’s Pioneer Days. Courtesy of Rick Warwick.

Rick also began to research additional forms of craftsmanship in the area. In January 1990, he organized his first exhibit of chairs at the Williamson County Library.

Rick Warwick at the Poynor Exhibit | Lovely Franklin
Rick at the Poynor exhibit in 1990, courtesy of Rick Warwick

That same year, the Tennessee Historical Commission placed a marker near the former site of Poynor’s home and chair factory.

Historical marker honoring Dick Poyner | Lovely Franklin
Richard “Dick” Poynor Marker

In the years that followed, Rick curated many more exhibits, highlighting not only the county’s chairs, but antique sugar chests, samplers, and coverlets as well.

In 2005, Rick published Williamson County: More Than a Good Place to Live. This book, one of his many titles on local history, is a deep dive into the county’s material culture, including chairs, sugar chests, quilts, chicken rocks, and baskets.

A TALE OF A POYNOR CHAIR AND DOLLY PARTON

New York Times best-selling author Robert Hicks first met Rick Warwick on a chance encounter in 1977.

Robert Hicks | Lovely Franklin
Courtesy of Misty Westebbe Photography

During a country ride on his motorbike, Robert passed Rick who was reading a newspaper on the front porch of his log home. Since Robert was toying with the idea of reconstructing a log house himself, he stopped to pick Rick’s brain about what it involved. The pair chatted until after nightfall and struck up a friendship that lasted until Robert’s untimely death last year.

During that initial meeting, not only did Robert introduce himself to Rick, but Rick introduced Robert to Dick Poynor. Robert soon started his own collection of Poynor chairs, one of which became the subject of a hilarious story involving none other than Dolly Parton.

Robert Hicks’ Poynor chair collection at his home, Labor in Vain

By this time, Robert had realized his dream of reconstructing a log home. Two years after his chance meeting with Rick, Robert had bought two dilapidated, eighteenth-century log cabins and moved them to a plot of land in the Bingham community near Leiper’s Fork. Robert merged the two cabins together and dubbed the house “Labor in Vain.”

Labor in Vain, former home of Robert Hicks

Not only was Robert an avid art collector, he was a curator of people, and Labor in Vain was a revolving door of interesting folks. Incredibly, Dolly was one of those guests. She came to Labor in Vain for a photo shoot, and photographer Jim Herrington snapped several pictures of her posing in a Poynor chair. One of those photos was used for the cover of Dolly’s album Little Sparrow, released in January 2001.

Dolly Parton's Little Sparrow cover | Lovely Franklin
Dolly Parton in a Dick Poynor chair on her album cover for Little Sparrow

Since no one can spin a yarn quite like Robert could, I’ll let him take it from here. The following is a Facebook post he wrote on December 1, 2020:

“At one point during her time [at Labor in Vain], Dolly was straddling a Dick Poynor chair by the fire in my kitchen, leaning back, when all of a sudden, it seemed that she was about to fall backward, only to counter-balance herself with the weight of…well…from her chest-area. Just as everyone in the room seemed to collectively sound a sigh of relief, all hell broke loose as the chair, her mandolin, and Dolly’s legs flew through the air and she landed hard on her back and head on my wood floor, the sound of which I will never forget.

“There was a deep silence in the room as Dolly laid there with her legs in the air, somewhat splayed. Without lifting her head, she turned and looked around and said, ‘You’ve got a mental picture you’re gonna take to the grave.’ When she was being helped up, her head about two feet off the ground, she said, ‘You may have to milk me to get me up.’ At which, she was dropped. She looked up and said, ‘Don’t do that again!’

“I have never felt free to write about this until a mutual friend of ours was at Dolly’s house before this Thanksgiving and brought up my name, and before she could say another word, Dolly said, ‘Oh, Lordy, I busted my ass at his house. Twice!’ Since Dolly has now told the story, I feel I am free to write about how Our True National Treasure and one of the kindest folks I have ever known once busted her ass at my cabin. Twice.”

After Robert Hicks’ passing in 2022, he left his Poynor chair collection to Rick Warwick. He knew they would be in good hands.

A LEGACY AS ENDURING AS HIS CHAIRS

Rick Warwick with one of Dick Poynor's chairs | Lovely Franklin
Rick carries a Poynor chair, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Dick Poynor’s chairs continue to be the subject of great interest and admiration in Williamson County and beyond. Nowadays, people pay a significant price for his pieces–a Poynor rocker sold for $900 in January 2021. Museum exhibits pay homage to Dick’s work. Leiper’s Fork Market on Old Hillsboro Road maintains a display dedicated to him. Books and articles preserve his legacy for future generations to read about.

The stories of far too many Black craftsmen are forever lost to time. As mentioned before, these artisans rarely got the recognition they deserved and thus faded into obscurity. But in this rare case, a Tennessee chairmaker prevailed and made a name for himself.

Dick Poynor was a master craftsman, but more than that, he’s an inspiring example of achievement in the face of great adversity. As durable as his chairs were, Dick’s fortitude and character were even stronger. That’s a legacy you can stand on.

Thank you as always to Rick Warwick and the Williamson County Historical Society for allowing us access to their collection of historic photos. We also appreciate Trenton Lee Photography and his beautiful pictures.

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