One night in November of 1903, six men get together to start their own furniture company. They had the capital to do it right, but chose to build it in the along a lonely stretch of the railroad in the wilderness of eastern Burke County. Headed by Samuel Huffman, they would spark an enterprise that would leave its mark, well after they and their company left scene.
With an eye toward how the new enterprise would be regarded, Huffman looked for a designation to evoke success. He wasn’t content to name the company after the town in which it was located. Lenoir, Hickory and Morganton had all done that with varying degrees of success. He wanted something short, but impressive. He wanted it catchy, not ordinary and not something that tied his company to the region. As the investors discussed all facets of the new firm, its organization, its financing, its logistics, the name remained a lively, but unsettled topic.
This new company was, in many ways, going to be different. For one thing, the factory would not be built in any established town in the region. Instead, the new facility would be located along the railroad line between Morganton and Hickory. Like some other municipalities in the area, they expected a city to grow up around the factory, in much the same way a town like Granite Falls did around the textile mill there, in neighboring Caldwell County.
Searching for a designation, Sam Huffman hit upon an idea that the other investors liked. In looking for success, what if they named their furniture company after something already prosperous that had nothing to do with the region from where it came. In the years after the Civil War, a Philadelphia man rose to the top of global commerce to become one of the wealthiest financiers in the nation. In 1891, he bankrolled his own college, which later became a university. Though he died a decade before Huffman and company began their own climb up the economic ladder, they thought the example was perfect for their endeavor. The new company was named after Anthony J. Drexel.
Drexel Furniture Company prospered from the very beginning. They got a contract from a mail order firm known as Sears, Roebuck and Company (the Amazon of its day) to make bedroom suites and began churning them out. As Huffman recalled “the first furniture made by Drexel was a suite of native oak, comprising a bureau, wash-stand and double bed at $14.50.” Even though the factory suffered three major fires in its first decade of operation, the company prospered, expanded and became one of the region’s best known manufacturers.
And yes, a town did spring up around the factory. First a boarding house to provide rooms for employees, then everything else (restaurants, clothing stores, etc.) that folks needed eventually became a part of the town we know today as Drexel. Ironically, the factory is no longer there. Growth, which led to corporate takeover and offshoring closed the plant in 2014. The buildings which housed the company were torn down (same for a plant in Morganton) and though the company came and went, it is the town that remains.