Into the Woods

An eye for design, a knack for carpentry, a longtime knowledge of antiques, and a family focus keep this company going

mcgurie_lead_DSF0004Linda and Jack McGuire are the founders of McGuire Family Furniture Makers in Isle La Motte. They make high-end reproductions antique furniture styles and design custom interiors, including cupboards, shelves, paneling, and entertainment centers. Their other enterprise, Vermont Clock Co., crafts a line of clocks in all sizes.

The striking pieces made at McGuire Family Furniture Makers in Isle La Motte are built to withstand the test of time, not unlike Jack and Linda McGuire, who have worked together for 42 years. The roots of their business took hold years ago when they were a young couple, but their route to Vermont required some turns here and there.

Situated at the northern end of this Lake Champlain island, the McGuire showroom, workshop, and home share one large building. On the bottom floor is the workshop, with hand tools hanging from the walls and slabs of lumber standing in every corner. Power woodworking tools fill the open space. Upstairs are the living area and the showroom.

Jack was born to a Navy family at Oak Harbor Naval Base on Whidbey Island, Wash. His father’s work as a salesman of beauty salon products moved the family to Illinois, then Indiana. Following high school, Jack worked for a year, bought a car, and left to attend Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colo. A business major, he was still in his freshman year when he met Linda Appino, a La Junta native who was in her senior year of high school.

By the end of Jack’s first year — in 1965 — he and Linda were married and moved to Dayton, Ohio. “It was a large Midwestern city,” says Jack, laughing. “My father was president of a soap company there, and I figured if worse came to worst, I could get a job with him.” Jack enrolled at Wright State University and found a full-time job working in assembly at General Motors.

“He had a hectic schedule — carried pretty much a full load,” says Linda.

In 1967, their daughter Meghan was born, followed in 1969 by twins Michael and Shanin. Their need for furniture steered Jack into woodworking. “I went out on a limb,” he admits. “I wanted to do something that I could do from home. I’ve always had the confidence to do most things for myself. Eventually, we realized I was quite good at it.”

In 1971, they opened a small shop, Old Town Craftsman, with a 900-square-foot showroom. “We were right on the edge of the ‘do-it-yourself, back-to-the-land’ years when handmade items were popular.”

Making antique reproductions brought them to New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine every summer for a couple of weeks, vacationing with the kids and doing research. They liked New England, and when they decided they wanted their children to have a more rural upbringing, they chose Vermont.

In 1977, they packed up and left Dayton in a Ford van — converted by Jack into a motor home for the family of five, a cat, and an Irish wolfhound. They purchased land in Weathersfield and found themselves under pressure to “build a house in two weeks,” says Jack, as the children were starting school in September.

“That August, we had to get something built,” says Linda, “so we built a small, 16-by-16-foot house to start with, then later built a bigger house on that property. We also had to run back to Ohio before school started to pick up our furniture.”

Between 1977 and 1987, Jack and Linda fostered their talent for buying, selling, and restoring antique furniture. They had no storefront, working primarily through dealers and at auctions. “It was here that we really learned the most about how to make good quality furniture,” says Linda. “We were constantly surrounded by pieces, and we saw how they were put together. We learned what lines were the most attractive.”

“Knowing the proper scale that will look good to the eye is something we are good at,” adds Jack. “Our most popular items are the clocks, beds, tables, and chairs. Although we will work in other materials, our products are generally made in cherry, mahogany, tiger maple, and bird’s-eye maple, much of which we obtain from Vermont.”

In 1987, the McGuires decided to move closer to Burlington and bought property in Isle La Motte village, with the idea of building and selling spec houses in the area. It was also a way to be closer to their children during their college years at the University of Vermont.

The spec-house idea was short-lived, as the housing market was prohibitively risky, and the McGuires decided to put their money into reviving their furniture business. It was 1989, and Meghan, graduating from college with a degree in art history, expressed an interest in having her own retail shop. She opened Meghan’s Interiors in South Hero, supplied with furniture from the workshop — “the first furniture we’d built up here in Vermont,” says Linda.

McGuire Family Furniture Makers was officially launched as a Vermont business that year and, in 1990, when the McGuires formed Mill Pond Farm Inc., the furniture company was listed as a d/b/a. A second d/b/a, Vermont Clock Co., was formed in the mid ’90s.

The McGuires had produced their first clock — a reproduction of a Shaker Watervliet dwarf clock — in 1991, says Linda. “We added several more Shaker clocks, and decided to give them their own name.” They have made and sold clocks in all sizes, from tall grandfather clocks to wall hutches for pocket watches. The mechanical clockworks come from Hermle in Germany.

Michael, a co-owner of the company, lives nearby and is a designer, furniture maker, and CAD artist for custom orders. Jack oversees the entire operation, including lumber selection, lathe work, and the website. Meghan, who lives with her husband, Bob Luckett, in Champlain, N.Y., paints the clock dials and helps with wood finishing. Shanin does not work for the business, but lives in Jericho with her husband and two daughters. Linda does the faux finishes and numerous other tasks.

Together, they make furniture in Colonial, Shaker, Mission, Arts and Crafts, and contemporary styles. They also design custom furniture and interiors, including cupboards, shelves, paneling, and built-in entertainment centers. Pieces range in size from 9-foot-high built-ins to one-third-scale blanket chests a foot wide.

For several years the business was primarily wholesale, selling to retail outlets across the United States. Pieces were featured at furniture shows in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and at the New York Gift Show. Several prominent catalogs, such as Sugar Hill and Museum Collections, featured McGuire furniture and clocks. During these years, the McGuires hired up to 10 local employees to fill larger orders.

In 1997, Meghan wanted to try her wings away from Vermont. “She decided, after being up here so long from graduation, to go somewhere else,” says Linda. She did not, though, want to leave the business.

“We started looking south,” says Linda. They briefly considered Burlington, but realized that the city was too close to their existing operation to hold much promise, and turned their eyes to the Atlantic seaboard. “We’d never been to Charleston, S.C., but we visited, liked the area, and thought that even though we were building a New England product, it would fit in well there.”

Meghan opened the Charleston shop in 1997. It flourished, and the McGuires added high-end custom interiors to their list of services. They found a large workshop for their prospering business at the Charleston Naval Base — “a huge, 25,000-square-foot woodworking shop,” says Linda. Michael moved to Charleston to run it, and for seven years, family members were back and forth between Vermont and South Carolina, managing several employees.

By 2004, Meghan had met and married Bob, who was seeking a change from his job with the state of South Carolina. The lease with the Naval Base was ending, and the family, who had found a piece of land for a smaller workshop, decided to spend the summer in Vermont before deciding what to do. Mike had expressed a desire to stay in Charleston, says Linda. “Once he got up here, he decided to stay — because there’s nothing like Vermont.”

Jack developed a website, which is now the primary source of orders. The McGuires advertise once or twice a year in Early American Life. Summer traffic to the islands, including bike tours, keeps a steady flow of interested customers. Seeing the products in the showroom is often what makes the sale.

“Sometimes, people are willing to order online, sight-unseen,” says Jack. “When they go to our website they are able to put together the piece they are looking for. We deliver or ship all over the United States, and have sent orders to South America, Singapore, Germany, England, Hawaii, and Australia.”

Although they had never experienced a year as tough as 2009, Jack and Linda remain optimistic about their steady business and discerning clientele, such as Barry Dagan.

Dagan, a customer from South Hero, was searching online for a specialty piece. “I discovered the McGuires right around the corner. They were a pleasure to work with throughout the custom design process. The desk they created is a prized family possession.”

“Ours is a very personal business,” says Linda. “Customers are appreciative of the time and care you put into making them a particular piece of furniture for their home. When you know that it will be with them for years, and then passed on through the generations, you are inspired to make a beautiful, strong, functional piece.” •