OXFORD, Mississippi – Most people want to leave a lasting impression on others or even the world around them. They want their accomplishments to be remembered long after they’re gone, whether that memory lasts a year or a lifetime.
Greg Harkins seeks to make his legacy last for generations through his craft: wooden chairs.
Harkins made chairs for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George H. Bush and Bill Clinton and other notables like Pope John Paul II and Bob Hope. He is now looking to pass on this skill to apprentices interested in learning his trade.
One of the recruiting sites will be at the 25th annual Double Decker Festival in late April.
With just under 50 years of carpentry experience, it’s an understatement to say that Harkins is good and passionate about carpentry. Although Harkins graduated from high school and college, he won’t say he’s a smart guy, but he found the career he excels in and hasn’t looked back since.
“I couldn’t have made a better life choice than what I did,” he said. “It matched my temperament, it matched my physical size and all that kind of stuff.”
Harkins learned the valuable skills of carpentry from his mentor Tommy Bell, a master chairmaker who has been building chairs for over 60 years.
“I just started working because I needed some gas money,” Harkins said. “What I thought was I was going to go to graduate school and do something. I knew I had to do something. Then basically three years passed and then I started thinking – ‘Damn! I failed graduate school.
Although it started as a simple job to get his truck moving, he chose woodwork related to his family’s heritage.
“I have two chairs at my great-grandparents’ house that were made from a walnut tree that came out of a chicken coop,” he said. “When I was a little boy, I would go to the egg barn or the dairy and my grandmother would put the bucket on a stump.”
Her grandmother told her that the chairs that still sit in the back porch to this day were made from the tree of that stump and that she would review all the family members who sat on them. these chairs.
“Seven generations of Harkins have sat in this chair,” the carpenter said. “It’s Harkins. It is the inheritance.
Harkins’ love for his family’s heritage and his home in Canton, Mississippi, prompted him to help fund and renovate St. Anne’s Church.
Harkins’ ancestors, Peter and Anne Harkins, Irish immigrants, moved from New Orleans to Mississippi and helped found St. Anne’s Church in 1850. The church had since suffered a fire, renovations and the abandonment of her parishioners to be saved from demolition by Harkins and other protectors of the sacred building.
“I went to talk to the bishop (about the demolition) and the bishop said if there was anything I could do they would be willing to give it to me,” Harkins said.
Through the use of his retirement fund and raising $350,000 through his chair-making business, Harkins managed to keep another piece of his family alive and have it rebuilt.
“If I could do it all over again, I would do the same thing,” he said.
Today, Harkins continues his version of his family’s legacy of working 40-hour weeks crafting beautifully crafted chairs for his customers. The craftsman used to work intensely 80 to 100 hours but since he retired, he has cut his working hours in half. However, this does not prevent him from producing a large number of works.
“I worked the number of hours it took to pay for my health,” Harkins said.
As you get older, work becomes more difficult. But that doesn’t mean the work has to stop.
“If I get to where I can’t do it, I’m going to do it anyway,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Harkins comes by his work ethic honestly. His father taught him how to garden and make his own sausage, and his grandfather owned and ran a restaurant in Portsmouth, Arkansas with complete dedication. Not only was her family a source of support, but she was also her greatest example.
“(Grandpa) would work up to 22 hours a day if that was what it took to keep his restaurant running,” Harkins said. “How can you bankrupt someone who has that much determination? That all it takes is what you do? My dad was the same. He was driven. He had five children in Catholic schools – he was chased away.
Being motivated applies to everything Harkins does – from tending his own garden to creating chairs or teaching others. He gives everything.
“One thing I know about what this means to Greg is that he feels like he’s standing on the shoulders of Tommy Bell who taught him and the people who taught Tommy Bell,” said said Claire Henson, his partner. “We know this only continues their legacy as well as his.”
Harkins said what he owes to his father, grandfather, Bell and his upbringing or Catholic career, he owes twice as much to his mother – a true force of nature who “has kept its books” for 27 years.
“She’s probably the most underrated member of my task force,” Harkins said. “Claire is now but if I needed to push the car, (mum) would push her. She pushed me until my car started. Whatever it was and she did the same with my sisters. She was the mother who beat all mothers.
Continuous love, support and endowment of great skills are how Harkins got to where he is today. Harkins has made hundreds of chairs and may be making hundreds more. It shows no signs of stopping.
According to Harkins, he will never be the master Bell has been in his six-decade career. He won’t be able to tell what makes a good tree by smell or feel, he never wants to stop striving to make the best durable wooden chairs possible. Almost reaching 50 is not enough.
“Hopefully I’ll make it to 60 (years old),” Harkins said.
Harkins will be featured as one of the art vendors at the 25th Annual Two-Story Arts Festival on Friday, April 22 and Saturday, April 23. Harkins will showcase its handcrafted chairs and recruit potential apprentices to learn skills in carpentry and chair making.