Garland County chair maker honored as state’s Living Treasure

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published May 23, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated May 22, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Dallas Bump cuts the curved rockers for a rocking chair at his workshop in Bear near Lake Ouachita. At 95, Bump is passing on his techniques of chair making, which have been used by his family for five generations. Last week, he was named the 2013 Arkansas Living Treasure.

“This Bump keeps Arkansans rocking.”

That way-too-obvious pun was heard several times among audience members of a barbecue dinner with family and friends that was also an official state ceremony.

The guest of honor was Dallas Bump, who was named the 2013 Arkansas Living Treasure at the event on May 16 in Hot Springs. Bump builds chairs, including rockers, in Bear, between Lake Ouachita and Royal.

The 95-year-old artisan builds the chairs in the same designs, using the same methods and often the same tools as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had done for more than 133 years. Bump is now passing on those techniques to a nephew who plans to carry on the work well into the 21st century.

“Making chairs is just something the family has always done,” Bump said. “I still enjoy working at it. There is always something different and always something new to learn.”

The Bump way of making chairs originated with Philander Bump, who came to America from France, where he was apprenticed as a furniture maker. Philander came to the hardwood forests of the Ouachita Mountains, where he married Julia, the daughter of Wiley Rouse, another furniture maker, and together, they developed the Bump Rocker.

It is still being made today in Bear in the same workshop, which was converted from an old stable by Dallas’ father, Fred O. Bump, in 1920. Much of the original machinery is still in use.

Six years ago, Dallas Bump was joined in his workshop by his nephew Leon Sutton, who was raised by Bump after Sutton’s mother died.

Sutton worked in a sawmill in the region until it closed, and he asked his uncle if he could make chairs.

“I wanted to get Leon into making them while I can still go,” Bump said. “So he said we would give it a shot.”

After six years, Sutton said, he has taken over much of the operation, but he is still learning.

“Dallas does the turning, and I do everything else,” Sutton said in a video made by the arts council.

Sutton selects and cuts the trees — red and white oak from the woods nearby — cuts the basic shapes and dries the wood.

Then each piece is turned in a hand lathe, most of which is done by Bump.

“Dallas is the best at turning I’ve seen, except for maybe Grandpa (Fred Bump),” Sutton said. “I think it limbers him up and keeps him going.”

One of the special qualities of the Bump Rocker is how it is put together.

“The side runs are kiln dried,” Bump said. “The posts are half dried so they won’t crack. We half dry the frame, then we drive them together, and they shrink down to make the lock. After about two days, you can barely take them apart.”

Sutton said the pieces are hammered together using axes with their sharp blade tips removed.

The backs and seats of the chairs are woven from white oak strips by Sutton’s wife, Donna.

Donna was taught to weave by Bump’s wife, Amelia.

I just want to carry [the chair-weaving craft] on,” she said.

Customers for the handmade chairs come from all over the United States. The chairs have been exhibited at fairs and festivals throughout Arkansas and at the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Heritage in Washington, D.C.

Bump’s craftsmanship and his desire to pass along the chair-making skills to the next generation were praised during the award ceremony in Hot Springs.

“I’m glad I got Dallas to show me what to do. It is a heritage thing,” Sutton said.

Martha Miller, director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, agreed.

“Your work is a heritage thing,” she told Bump during the presentation of the award. “We are so glad you have so many of your family here to share this night with you.”

Joy Pennington, executive director of the Arkansas Arts Council, who presented a plaque to Bump during the evening, said Caroline Miller and Courtney Potts, field research historians for the council, nominated Bump as one of the state’s living treasures.

“We were in Garland County asking some residents to share their heirloom of things made in Arkansas, and Leon came out, and everything went from there,” Caroline Miller said. “With one visit to the shop, we knew we needed to document these skills and these people.”

That led to making the video about Bump and his workshop, and to his recognition as the 2013 Arkansas Living Treasure.

For more information about the Bear Chair Shop and when Bump and the Suttons make the chairs, call (501) 767-1700. For more information about the Living Treasure program, contact the Arkansas Arts Council at (501) 324-9349.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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