Long known as a center of chair making in the state, Thomastown lies south of Kosciusko in Leake County, Mississippi. Thirty years ago there were up to a dozen builders in and around Thomastown, but Jett “Bubba” Biggart may be the last active chair maker in the area. Born in 1975, Biggart is the third generation of his family involved in the business. His grandfather began as a chairmaker in Isola, Mississipi, but later moved to Thomastown. Biggart helped his father from an early age and learned directly from him the furniture patterns that have changed little over the years. After serving in the National Guard, he has come home to the chair making business and plans to begin working at it full time in the near future.
I found Biggart in his shop one afternoon sawing out the gently curving slats of oak that he puts into the bottoms and backs of his chairs. Working with vintage tools, many of which actually belonged to his grandfather, he builds full size and children’s rockers, straight chairs, porch swings, and stools – although the rockers are his specialty. Biggart sometimes uses white or water oak but he prefers red oak that he either cuts himself or purchases from loggers. He saws the logs on his own mill and from these cuts out the flat or square parts on a lathe. Biggart notes that good red oak is getting more difficult to find. He attributes the scarcity to the popularity of pine plantations in the local area.
It is immediately apparent that Biggart possesses a great familiarity with and appreciation of the wood he uses. His chairs are extremely durable and meant for lifetimes of use, yet they are graceful and not as heavy as other traditional rockers. Biggart uses only a clear polyurethane finish preferring to let the grain of the oak show to its best advantage. His chairs need little care, requiring only a yearly coat of polyurethane if they stay outside on the porch. Most of the problems he sees result from the chairs staying out in the weather, and he had a few in the shop for some repairs.
Biggart will accommodate buyers who desire minor changes in his basic designs but for the most part he avoids custom work. The traditional Biggart designs have endured and have always sold extremely well. The chairmaker intends to keep his operation small and promote the handmade quality of his product. His family has never advertised their work, relying on word of mouth to keep sales steady. Biggart believes that there is one of his family’s chairs in every state in the U.S. He’s confident that an appreciation of authentic craftsmanship will keep his chairs in demand.