Our History

“Since its inception in 1926, Smith Brothers of Berne Inc. has forged a remarkable heritage as a first-rate furniture company. In the process, the company has helped to propel Berne itself to the forefront of the Midwest's burgeoning furniture scene.”

Business People magazine, March 2003

In 1926, America was enjoying a decade of innovation and prosperity that history would remember as the Roaring Twenties. It was the wake of World War I, in the era of silent movies, The Great Gatsby, and Babe Ruth. Henry Ford had perfected his assembly line, skyscrapers had begun to peek out over city skylines, and the world was first introduced to a cartoon mouse named Mickey.

In short, industry was exploding, ingenuity was thriving, and the American spirit was flying higher than it ever had.

It was against this backdrop that a man named Homer Niederhauser decided to try his hand at launching a new furniture company. The date was October 18, 1926.

October 18, 1926

A Man Named Homer Niederhauser

Homer was no stranger to the furniture business. In fact, he had already been instrumental in the founding of another furniture manufacturer along with a close friend, a man by the name of L. L. Dunbar.

In the early 1900s, in the small town of Linn Grove, Indiana, Dunbar was already the owner of a successful business manufacturing buggies and wagons. When Henry Ford's assembly line started to make the automobile affordable for more families, Dunbar recognized that his own product was soon to become extinct.

Ever the forward-thinking businessman, Dunbar switched his focus away from buggies... to the seats inside them. The local talk was that his wife challenged him to build a rocking chair as comfortable as the seats in his buggy. Little did she know that this challenge would launch an empire!

Dunbar succeeded in building a comfortable rocking chair; in fact he was one of the first in the world to use leather upholstery in doing so. Recognizing the potential for a new business, Dunbar partnered with Homer Niederhauser and opened the company in 1916, at the former buggy shop in Linn Grove.

Dunbar Furniture Company was an immediate success, and grew at an astonishing rate. Within just a few years, the company had already outgrown Linn Grove. The town had no major highway nor rail service access, so the two men were forced to look for a new home for their business.

They considered some of the larger cities in the area—Bluffton, Decatur, Huntington, or Marion—but ultimately decided against all of them. Instead they settled on the small town of Berne, Indiana.

At the time, Berne was little more than a farming community, and had only been established a couple of generations before, but its people had earned a reputation in the region as hardworking, devout craftsmen with a rich Swiss-Amish heritage. Niederhauser and Dunbar knew that it was the people of Berne that would spell success for their company, not the size of a larger city or the availability of a cheaper workforce.

"There has been a willingness of the people of the community to adapt themselves to the high requirements for the most expert craftsmanship."

Homer Niederhauser, in an interview for The Berne Witness on October 13, 1939

And since Berne, unlike Linn Grove, was served by a railway and a federal highway, their company would be much better poised to do business.

Dunbar Furniture Company closed down the shop in Linn Grove and opened the doors of its new facility in Berne on October 17, 1919. At first they were working out of a rented room on the second floor of a stone factory; within five years they had already outgrown that space and opened their own factory in town.

Business was booming. By the 1950s, Dunbar would gain international renown selling high-end, handcrafted furniture as far away as the queen's palace in Jordan, and the United States federal government's offices in Washington, D.C.

"I have said it many times as I have marveled at our skilled labor force at work: Dunbar would not be half the company it is were it not located in the community of Berne."

Michael Parrott, President, Dunbar Furniture Company, in a speech in October 1976

Being 30 years Homer's senior, L. L. Dunbar retired shortly after the move to Berne, so it was the younger Homer who took over as CEO of the business, and would go on to steer it to its glory days at the middle of the century, until he in turn would retire in the 1950s.

But it was a short ten years after his role in starting the company back in 1916 that the man named Homer Niederhauser already had the itch to do it again.

When Opportunity Knocks, Open a Furniture Company

The 1920s were an exciting time for furniture-making in the town of Berne, Indiana. Dunbar Furniture had discovered the town's potential in 1919, and already by 1925 another company had moved in under the name of Berne Furniture. Directly following Dunbar's example, Berne Furniture had relocated to Berne from its parent company, Supreme Furniture Company, which oddly enough had also been located in Linn Grove as Dunbar's former buggy business once was.

Despite the crowded conditions, Homer Niederhauser saw an opportunity.

Dunbar and Berne Furniture weren't exactly competing directly. Even though both made furniture, they were targeting different markets and focusing on different styles. Dunbar was making very high-end, highly detailed wood furniture for a very exclusive, upscale clientele, whereas Berne Furniture was doing upholstered furniture at a slightly lower (though still fairly upscale) price point.

Homer and the board at Dunbar wisely knew better than to compromise the Dunbar name with a lower-cost line of furniture, so they chose not to expand Dunbar itself.

Instead, they decided to launch an entirely new company to go where Dunbar could not. Mere months after Berne Furniture opened its doors, the board of directors purchased some property in town for their own new endeavor. It was a few acres of land and an old 300-foot by 40-foot sawmill that had recently burned and closed down... and it was right across the street from Berne Furniture.

At first the focus of this new site was to be exclusively on building chairs at a lower price than Dunbar's main line. All they needed was a manager to run the operation, and they found one in Orv Smith, a successful grocery store owner in town and brother to another Dunbar employee, Les Smith. Orv accepted the board's offer and sold his store.

Adams Manufacturing Company opened for business on October 18, 1926. It was almost seven years to the day after Dunbar Furniture had moved to Berne.

Despite its official name, everyone in town knew the story, and folks just referred to the new company as the "Homer Chair Factory." It took a month before the board went ahead and made the name official, rechristening the business Homer Manufacturing Company.

A brick in the original building is printed with the name Homer Mfg Co. The brick was uncovered during a renovation of the Smith Brothers facility in the 1990s. It would have been set there sometime before 1936.

For the next ten years, Orv Smith managed Homer Manufacturing for Homer Niederhauser and the board of directors.

Business was good. Homer Manufacturing was still the number-three furniture company in Berne, but the Smiths were already laying the foundation that would propel the company to the top.

Mr. and Mr. Smith

With Orv running the home operation in Berne, his brother Les and their uncle Grant Smith took to the road as the company's first sales force, promoting the business and selling furniture to neighboring states Michigan, Ohio, and even Illinois (which is Indiana's neighbor but still nearly 200 miles from Berne—quite a distance to ship furniture in the 1930s).

Thanks to the Smiths' efforts, the Homer Manufacturing Company expanded quickly. Over the next ten years, the factory added more space and more employees, started shipping with its own fleet of trucks, and—most notably—went beyond the original charter of only building chairs and started to make upholstered furniture as well.

The Smiths knew the business had a lot of potential. No longer content to report to Homer Niederhauser and a board of directors with part ownership, Orv and Les approached them with an offer to buy a majority share of the company. Homer and the other owners, happy to keep their focus on the more lucrative and well-known Dunbar Furniture, agreed to the sale. Orv and Les Smith became majority owners of the company in 1936.

They renamed it Smith Brothers Furniture Manufacturing Company.

The newly rebranded Smith Bros. Furniture Mfg. Co. in the 1930s

The newly rebranded Smith Bros. Furniture Mfg. Co. The first factory expansion had already been done by this time—the original 300x40 foot building is the west (left) portion visible here. Berne Furniture is just barely visible in the top left corner.

Orv became the company president and Les vice president, and for the next 24 years the two brothers continued to steer the company to astonishing levels of success. As the country came to embrace new technologies and trends—the television, rock and roll, and commercial airliners—Smith Brothers Furniture Mfg. Co. maintained a strong grasp on the values and traditions that were core to its foundation. Through hard work, skilled craftsmanship, and a good old-fashioned commitment to quality, the company grew steadily and surely through the forties and fifties.

Employees of Smith Brothers Mfg. Co. in 1951

The employees outside the factory in 1951. Les and Orv are at the far right.

In 1960, the Smith brothers finally retired, and sold their shares in the company to Les' son-in-law, Carl Muselman, and Carl's brother Art.

The Muselman Brothers

Art and Carl Muselman bought the company and took over leadership in 1960, and changed its name yet again—not to Muselman Brothers as the trend would have suggested, but merely to Smith Brothers of Berne, Inc. The company had developed too much of a reputation to leave its name behind, but the Muselmans recognized the importance of stressing the Berne name.

By the 1960s, Berne's reputation for fine Swiss-Amish craftsmanship in home furniture manufacturing was solid and respected in the industry. With Dunbar making headlines thanks to its famous lead designer, the brilliant Edward Wormley, and with Berne Furniture earning renown for its own high levels of quality in upholstered furniture, the town of Berne was a force unto itself.

Still, times were hard for Berne's third and smallest furniture company. Smith Brothers' growth had started to level off, and the Muselman brothers knew they would need to do something drastic to stay competitive in this thriving market.

By the end of the 1960s, the two brothers had finally succeeded in tracking down and buying out all of the minor shareholders in the company, so when the time came to make a change, they were ready. All they needed was the right opportunity.

Not surprisingly, that opportunity came from the town of Berne itself.

Right across the street at Berne Furniture, a man by the name of Fred Lehman was just starting to make a name for himself in the industry. As Berne Furniture's plant manager—and committed member of the Berne community—Fred caught the attention of the Muselman brothers. Recognizing their chance, the Muselmans made Fred an offer Berne Furniture wouldn't be able to match: a 50% ownership share in their company.

Fred, blessed with a sharp nose for the furniture business, and an even sharper sense of adventure, saw potential for the languishing Smith Brothers of Berne to become truly great. He happily accepted the new challenge to revitalize the company.

Under New Management: The Lehman Brothers

Fred recognized that the small company was down but not out, and he knew that the ingredients for real success were already present thanks to the devotion of the people in the Berne community. All that was needed was leadership with that same level of commitment.

In fact, Fred was so sure of this opportunity that he invited his younger brother Steve to join him at the company.

Steve and Fred with the sales team in 1981

Steve (4th from the right) and Fred (2nd from right) with the sales team in 1981.

Right away, it was obvious Steve was the right fit. Fred recognized his potential immediately, and in 1985 Fred stepped down as president, swapping titles with Steve. It was a milestone moment for Smith Brothers, symbolizing the point at which the company had "turned the corner" and begun to move beyond its background as the town's upstart young company to become a legitimate presence in the furniture landscape.

Remembering the values that were so ingrained in the surrounding community of farmers and craftsmen, Steve and Fred simply focused the company's mission on one thing: integrity. They made sure that the quality of their furniture was top-notch, they refused to cut corners or resort to gimicks, and they conducted business with an honesty and passion that was refreshing.

Slowly but steadily, the company was building up the reputation for quality and commitment that it still enjoys to this day.

A Tradition of Excellence

Over 30 years later, Fred has retired and sold his ownership share to Steve, who is still president. The company has seen dramatic growth over the past two decades, expanding on the original 5000 square foot building in the heart of Berne to over 250,000 square feet in two buildings. It is home to nearly 250 employees and sells to retail stores in over 30 states and in Canada. It uses a balance of state-of-the-art equipment and traditional techniques, and since 1976, each year—with the exception of 2001—has been more successful than the year before.