Thomas Molesworth and the Origins of Modern Western Style

Though Thomas Molesworth is, for many people, the craftsmen most identified with western studio furniture, one of the first names to become associated with western decorative arts was Edward Bohlin. Swedish born, Bohlin came to America in 1900 and moved to Cody in 1917 after working in Montana and on several ranches in the area. Established in Cody, he opened his first saddle shop, and after honing his craft there for several years, moved to Hollywood where his skills in leather and silver led him to become the “saddle maker to the stars.” 5 Over the years, Bohlin’s pieces have inspired countless artisans. His pieces are still collected, and being used and worn today.

Counter to the popularity of Edward Bohlin’s saddles and tack, western furniture did not gain immediate and early recognition. Towns with train service ordered furniture from back East or through catalogs. Those towns and ranches, whose isolation made ordering furniture impractical, had it build by local log builders and ranch hands. Early “pole” furniture came from the use of lodgepole pines and was first and foremost functional, with little to no emphasis on artistic integrity. As western furniture started to gain popularity and skilled artisans garnered recognition, they added aesthetic elements to their designs. Many early makers of western furniture – Eagle Rathe Furniture of Dean, Montana, John Stark in Seeley Lake, Montana, Kranenbergs of Jackson, Wyoming, Uptown Furniture in Sheridan, Wyoming, and Thomas Molesworth’s Shoshone Furniture Company in Cody, Wyoming – all had distinct construction techniques and decorative elements, but they were also influenced by and imitated one another. 6 It was this confluence of style and timing that would ultimately lead to the success and recognition of Thomas Molesworth and the Shoshone Furniture Company.

The son of a wealthy Methodist minister, Thomas Molesworth, was born in Kansas in 1890. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to South Dakota, and then again to Forsyth, Montana. In his youth, he became an avid horseman and developed a strong connection to the West, so much so that he wanted to become a painter and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908. This was the time of the Arts and Craft movement. Arts and Crafts stood for traditional craftsmanship, using simple forms made in a factory setting using a hands-on approach. Molesworth’s arrival in 1908 Chicago was deeply rooted in the Craftsman style – most notably expressed in the Prairie School architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries.

Molesworth would return to Montana after only one year at the Art Institute after his family finances took a downturn. However, that single year in Chicago would leave a lasting impact. Molesworth would later integrate into his own furnishings a style reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement, using simple forms, and a clean, solid style that would come to define his furniture.

After returning to Montana and working on his family’s ranch, Molesworth served in the Marine Corps in World War I. His tour completed, Molesworth returned to Montana where he worked, as a banker for five years then as the manager of the Rowe Furniture Company in Billings for seven years. In 1931, Molesworth, who now had a wife and two children, moved to Cody to open the Shoshone Furniture Company. Originally Shoshone Furniture Company was a retail furniture store; it sold products of various manufacturers and Molesworth’s previous jobs provided him with an excellent background to run the budding business. However, it is clear that Shoshone Furniture Company did not start as a furniture manufacturer. According to noted Molesworth historian, Terry Winchell, the first documentation of Molesworth, as a furniture maker, was in a 1933 Cody Stampede Rodeo program. The ad presented Shoshone Furniture Company, as a “maker of distinctive furniture for western homes.”

Like the western furniture makers before him, some of Molesworth’s earliest customers were area ranchers. Anthony Huber, who owned the Indian Head Ranch on the South Fork of the

Shoshone River, commissioned Molesworth to build a bedroom suite. E. V. Robertson, owner of the Hoodoo Ranch, also commissioned the Shoshone Furniture Company. Though these commissions were good for the growing business, the turning point for the Shoshone River Company was the commission to furnish Ranch A in Crook County, Wyoming.

Ranch A was owned by Moses Annenberg, a Russian immigrant who worked under William Randolph Hearst, had great success, and later purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer . Annenberg amassed tremendous wealth, and his retreat in Crook County was one of the finest log structures in America.1 2 The commission was an enormous opportunity for the Shoshone Furniture Company. Upon its completion, Molesworth had gained recognition in the elite circles that would become his future client list, the capital to grow his business, and the confidence to continue to develop and refine his style.

By 1936 Molesworth, who had a relationship with the Abercrombies, put Shoshone Furniture Company on a national market with representation by Abercrombie & Fitch of New York. This led to commissions with eastern clients looking to build second and third homes in the West. The Shoshone Furniture Company likely received its commission to furnish The Old Lodge, George Sumers’ ranch near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, from this exposure. 13 From that point going forward, the Shoshone Furniture Company would go on to be the premier furniture maker of western studio furniture.

As the Shoshone Furniture Company grew, it faced challenges from changes in clients’ tastes, shifts in the economic climate, and competition in the emerging western-inspired furniture market. One of Molesworth’s competitors came from another Cody-based furniture company.

Paul Hindman had worked for the Shoshone Furniture Company since its inception, along with his brother Don, who was one of Molesworth’s finest woodworkers. Paul then left Molesworth in 1939 and started the Wyoming Furniture Company, based off a commission to furnish the lobby of the Noble Hotel in Lander, Wyoming. In addition to the sting of his departure, Hindman’s Wyoming Furniture copied Molesworth’s unique style, a trespass that Molesworth would never forgive.

Despite the bad blood between the two local companies, Wyoming Furniture Company operated for many years. It was sold on several occasions, once to Pete Fritjofson, who had worked under Molesworth in the early 1950’s. Fritjofson, who mentored future craftsmen Ken Siggins for a short time, worked in Cody until his death in 1964. Hindman would eventually come to own Wyoming Furniture once more, but by the 1980s Hindman’s health was in decline and Wyoming Furniture Company closed its doors.

In addition to the Wyoming Furniture Company, Molesworth was also competing against craftsmen who had developed their local followings, but now had new opportunities to advertise in magazines, such as the Dude Rancher .1 6 However, despite increasing competition, Molesworth was able to remain not only one of the most influential western designers, but one of the most sought after. Molesworth adapted his designs to reflect the more modern tastes of a post-World War II America, and Shoshone Furniture Company remained popular until Molesworth retired, and the company closed its doors in 1958.

Molesworth’s legacy and unique design were recognized in 1989 in the exhibition, Interior West: The Craft and Style of Thomas Molesworth, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody and in 1990 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. 18 These shows, along with several articles in the New York Times, helped spark a revival of interest in western studio furniture that had not been seen since the 1930s. This wave of enthusiasm would last for nearly two decades, and Cody would be at its epicenter.

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