January 31, 2014
Superstition in the 19th century typically would have prevented a furniture maker from building and displaying a coffin specifically for his showroom. It seems that folks back then thought if you build one, someone would surely wind up in it. But when Robby Pederesen, the Jefferson furniture maker who adheres to the techniques, tools and finishes of the 1870s, waned a coffin for his own showroom, he did something presumably would have freaked the muttonchops right off even the most hardened veteran of Antietam. He measured himself. And you know what? Working daily in the shadow of his own coffin, Pedersen's RVP~1875 historical furniture shop is thriving.
Pedersen, 43, recently signed off on his 820th career piece. "Lots of dining room tables come out of here," he explained one recent morning as a fire crackled and popped inside his hearth's shop.
The shop is coming off a banner year- having produced 82 pieces and nabbing the state of Iowa's 2013 outstanding tourism business award in October- but it looks like history will repeat itself in 2014.
Just 30 days into the new year, Pedersen already is only four orders away from being booked with work through Christmas. "This is the farthest out we've been," Pedersen said.
That's also merely keeping with historical accuracy. In 1875, he said, the average furniture maker had a waiting list of at least six months.
The first weekend in February RVP~1875 will host the first in a series of three-day workshops this years at a cost of $250 for beginners to learn about the trade. By Sunday, students will have built their own piece of furniture. Additional workshops are scheduled for March 7-9 and September 26-28.
When Pedersen set up shop nearly six years ago in the old Milligan Lumber, Grain and Coal building just off the Square, conventional wisdom suggested that his business model had about as much of a chance at succeeding as an infant born on the prairie during a cholera outbreak.
"Everybody said "If you're going to make a living t it you're going to have to use power tools,'" he said. Instead, he is now arguably the only shop in the nations- possibly the world- that turns out period furniture the way it would have been done in the 1800s, and produces enough of it to be self-sustaining. "We've got a business model that proves it can be done," he said.
The more than 400 hand planes lining Pedersen's shelves is a good indicator that RVP~1875 is a cut above similar-minded shops. The 19th century woodworking tools in his shop- including the Barnes Velocipede saw, a 140 year old, leg-powered, bicycle-like contraption- aren't just for show, despite their advanced age. The finishes also are a recipe of his own. He boils walnut husks for the dye, adding tints of raspberries, onion skins, and other goodies, but how much he uses remains a fiercely guarded secret.
His wife and business partner, Angie Pedersen, doesn't even know.
The whole endeavor makes for something totally unique to Jefferson- hence the Iowa Tourism Office's recognition last fall of RVP~1875 and the adjoining History Boy Theatre Company as a top draw for visitors to the Hawkeye State.
A 1989 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, Pedersen spent ten years as a historical interpreter at Living History Farms near Des Moines before setting out on his own with RVP~1875, which was initially located in Story City. "We needed to pick our permanent home," he explained. "We did a national search and got offers from all over the country." The list was whittled down to three well-established tourist destinations, including Galena, IL., all of which were offering lifetime lease incentive. "I came home to talk to my parents about my options," Pedersen recalls. "I don't even know why, but I came up and looked at this building. I just fell in love with it. It had everything I would ever need. Jefferson wasn't even on my radar. Now it feels right. It made sense to come home."
His hometown of Jefferson makes it possible, he believes, to be a true production shop.
Today Pedersen has shipped his furniture to places as far away as Finland and Australia.
Like Iowa's settlers, Pedersen has staked one of the first claims of its kind in Greene County. But whether his settlement now goes the way of Jefferson or Angus remains to be seen. "we're here to start the tourism anchor. Hopefully, they utilize us," he says. - adapted from The Jefferson Herald