NO ONE SAID IT WOULD BE EASY
In the 1940s and 1950s, Athens saw a growing number of successful manufacturing plants—Athens Table Company, Athens Stove Works, Athens Plow Company, and later the Athens Bed Company and others. Arley worked for the Athens Table Company for some years and as the business declined after the Depression he left briefly to work for the Cleveland Chair Company. In 1942 new ownership took over at the Athens Table Company. The buyer was Fielding P. Sizer, Jr. from Monett, Missouri. He hoped to turn the business around and needed someone on site who knew the operations thoroughly to run things for him. He persuaded Arley to come back as plant manager in 1942.
By 1946, the company was in a much stronger position. Mr. Sizer wrote to the employees that “through your efforts and those of the management, the future looks considerably brighter.” He recalled the dark decade from 1932 to 1942 with “company debts…payroll difficulties, loss of good will from customers, and a run-down plant.”
There were several additions to the plant over the years—a rambling wooden structure painted red with lumber yards and a small separate office building. This photo shows Arley (with his characteristic suspenders) sitting with an employee looking across the street at the factory. The other photo shows him standing outside the office with another employee (note his hat on the ground beside him).
I loved “going to work” with him! Sometimes he’d take me along as he made his way through the plant to check on the daily production. The noise of the machinery was deafening and there was a strong scent of varnish. Sawdust was everywhere. Employees would wave at me and sometimes he would stop to answer questions or make suggestions along the assembly line.
But my greatest delight was spending time in the office—with the two secretaries, Jessie Melton and Oneida Perry. They patiently gave me “work” to do and I pounded away on a manual typewriter (often jamming the keys) and “wrote letters” on some discarded stationery. I was also fascinated with the paper cutter with its deadly sharp blade—and they tried to keep me away from that altogether.
In the summer of 1946, CIO union organizers came to the plant. Arley responded with a letter to all the employees (probably drafted by a company lawyer). In it he explained that they had a right to join a union or not but that they should not be forced to do either. “Our mill is small and it has never been difficult for employees to come to me with requests or complaints,” he wrote, as he assured them the company was getting back on its feet, paying comparable wages and giving a week’s pay at Christmas. He pledged to continue modernizing the plant and improving working conditions. The union left.
Over the years he mentored several younger Athens businessmen like Joe Frye, who started the Athens Bed Company. After he suffered a stroke in the early 1950s and could no longer work, Joe Frye was one friend who came to visit.
Eventually the factory closed, along with so many of the manufacturing plants in Athens. Arley was long remembered for doing all he could to bring back tables you could be proud of—like the dropleaf dining table. Always generous, he made sure everyone in the family had some Athens tables in their home! I still have two end tables, one coffee table and a dropleaf dining table from his time at the helm.