by Elizabeth Wehman, editor

THE GREAT-GREAT GRANDDAUGHTER of Sadie Woodard, granddaughter of Joe Woodard, daughter of Bunnie Woodard, Josey Woodard-Ballenger, is shown here with Woodard Company officials at the recent reception held at the Shiawassee Arts Center on Friday, July 29. She is standing between Vice President/General Manager Louie Zelenka, left, and President of Woodard Company John Mares, at right. (Independent Photo/Elizabeth Wehman)

In 1866, Lyman Elnathan Woodward, a 32-year-old builder from Dansville, NY, put $10,000 in his pocket and traveled to Michigan. He earned the money by building frame houses. Soon he boarded a train and headed to the state to explore the Michigan hardwood forests as well as major rivers in the state. At the same time, the White brothers, who owned a planing mill on the banks of the Shiawassee River were selling their business. Woodward saw the benefits of the nearby trees as well as the way the initial owners had used the river for their own use, and bought the business for $3,500 with his brother, Warren, as his partner.

Soon after 1866, Lyman dropped the “w” in his name and the Woodard name became one of the most well known names in Shiawassee County. The Woodard Company is now celebrating that purchase of 150 years ago. On Friday, July 29, company officials and dignitaries gathered at the Shiawassee Arts Center to commemorate the event as well as at a picnic on Woodard Company grounds off Delaney Rd., in Owosso on Saturday, July 30.

At the Friday reception, a representative from U.S. Congressman John Moolenaar’s office presented the Woodard Company a proclamation to commemorate their 150th anniversary. The certificate of Special Congressional Recognition was presented to President John Mares as well as the current owner of Woodard, Jean Liu. Also on hand was Lyman’s great-great granddaughter Josey Woodard-Ballenger.

Since its inception, the company underwent many changes in operations. What began as a furniture company, manufacturing wood products made from the local ash and walnut trees, soon turned into the manufacturing of pine caskets by 1882. By the 1920’s, the Owosso Casket Company was producing 150 caskets a day and soon became the world’s largest casket maker barely keeping up with the demand during the flu epidemic around 1918.

Mishaps and weather contributed to disasters for the company throughout its hundred and fifty year history. In 1888, the casket company was destroyed by fire, but was quickly rebuilt. A cyclone hit the Woodard factory on Nov. 11, 1911 at 11:11 p.m. Both Woodard buildings suffered damage and again the Woodard family persevered. They rebuilt bigger and better and soon the factory covered two city blocks in Owosso.

In 1934, the company announced the venture into metal furniture. In 1938, Lee Woodard and his three sons purchased a portion of the land and buildings of the Woodard Furniture Company and focused mainly on the manufacturing of metal furniture. This proved to be innovative at the time. The Woodard Furniture Company and the Owosso Casket Company both discontinued production and liquidated their assets from 1938 to 1942. In 1942, Lee Woodard and Sons converted the factory to make component parts for U.S. government trucks, tanks, naval and aircraft equipment. Also included in production was angle iron brackets for Army vehicles, grills for jeeps, and pressure tanks and “booms” for the Navy. Following the war, furniture production was resumed.

Growth continued for the company and in 1959 the company started a new factory in North Carolina. By 1960, the company generated 100,000 pieces of furniture and $2.5 million dollars in sales each year. In 1959-60, a bitter employee strike took its toll on the company and in 1960, the union was voted down by the Woodard employees. In 1967, another Woodard plant sprung up in Maxton, NC. In 1980, it was again positioned as the leading manufacturer of wrought iron casual furniture. Well-known, popular magazines carried the company’s advertisements.

In 1995, Crown Consolidated, Inc. (CCI) moved Woodard’s offices and factory from its Elms St. location to a brand new state-of-the-art facility on Delaney Rd. in Owosso Township. A new name tried to replace the Woodard name in the 1990’s to Crown Leisure, but in 1996, the CCI announced the company would officially become known as Woodard Furniture. A new Woodard facility was open in Ontario, CA, but closed in 2005. In 2008, Craftmade purchased Woodard from Crown Leisure with the manufacturing plant continuing in Owosso Township.

In December of 2011 Litex, a Texas based importer of ceiling fans and lighting fixtures, acquired Craftmade and its subsidiary, Woodard. Litex President and CEO Jean Liu journeyed to Owosso and affirmed her company’s commitment to Woodard’s ongoing success. Much of the executive offices are now located in Austin, TX.

The company currently employs up to 170 employees and many are multi-generational with the average length of tenure at approximately 16 years. The Shiawassee Arts Center highlights much of the history of this original Owosso company and also a portrait of Sadie Woodard in its “Made in Owosso” show.

Woodard Celebrates 150 Years was last modified: August 8th, 2016 by Karen Elford