Reflections remembers the beginning of a dynamic Sumter industry begun by Chester F. Korn, noted entrepreneur. At the turn of the 20th century, the Sumter community underwent an industrial transformation under the leadership of such visionaries as B.L. Montague, O.L. Williams and Chester Korn.
This article will follow the life, career and industrial achievement of plant founder Chester Korn; an overview of the history of this operation will be presented at a later date. The research data and photos used in preparing this piece were taken from The Sumter Item archives.
Chester F. Korn, who gained a reputation as one of South Carolina's "Leading Industrialists," was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the son of John L. and Laura Chester Korn and the grandson of the Rev. Joseph Chester. He began a career in banking and served for several years as president of the Winton Savings Bank. Korn was active in the lumber business in Cincinnati and opened an operation in the Mississippi Valley before contemplating a move to South Carolina.
In 1920, he established the Hardwood Co. in Sumter on a tract of land purchased within the city limits; he had a band mill constructed on the property and began sawing hardwood logs into lumber. Korn in 1929 opened Sumter Cabinet Co. for the manufacture of furniture. The company began hiring many workers, markedly reducing local unemployment. His acumen for business allowed him to grow Korn Industries into one of the largest undertakings of its kind in the South. From the very beginning, he paid his workers above-average wages. Additional property was purchased allowing for expansion until 50 acres of land was covered with various buildings housing necessary equipment in the manufacture of furniture. "The company refused at all times to accept land or money from local or outside sources. The capital stock was owned wholly by the original stockholders and employees."
"The woodworking factories built in 1930 were known as the Sumter Wood Products and were designed to produce furniture parts and wood specialties, sold to assemblers throughout the country. Later Sumter Cabinet Co. was established to manufacture fine bedroom furniture.
"However, within a period of four years two disastrous fires destroyed the greater portion of the company's woodworking plants. On both occasions, it was questioned whether to rebuild. An organization too valuable to abandon had been built, so upon the ashes of the original wood buildings arose new buildings of permanent construction, equipped with every modern facility. In 1949, a new office building was completed which admittedly was the most convenient, comfortable and up to date in this part of the South."
The plant was involved in large-scale lumber operations, primarily in the Wateree River Swamp, using the lumber to expand the production of quality furniture. As the facility grew, Mr. Korn made the decision to remove himself as president of the enterprise and was succeeded by his son Matthew. However, he opted to remain as chairman of the board of directors and remained active in the management of the company until he suffered a stroke which limited his involvement in the business.
"Mr. Korn was a Mason for 60 years and was a member of the Sumter Rotary Club. He was a generous contributor to civic and church projects and traveled extensively to all points of the globe." He was survived by his wife, who before her marriage was Miss Huffaker of Louisville, Kentucky; one daughter, Mrs. H. L. Kemper of Glendale, Ohio; and a son, Matthew F. Korn of Sumter. Funeral services were conducted at First Baptist Church, and burial took place at Spring Grove Chapel in Cincinnati, Ohio.
According to Arthur Andersen & Co. in 1990 Sumter's B.L. Montague Co. and Korn Industries Inc. were among the state's top 100 privately held firms based on revenue. The business remained under the supervision of Matthew Korn following his death in 1954.
The life of Chester Frederick Korn can be summarized in the memorial written by his loyal employees. "'Tomorrow is another day,' and he will always be our inspiration, for we still have our beloved 'Boss.' Chester F. Korn was a great man, and his spirit and example will live forever with all who knew him and loved him."
Reach Sumter Item Archivist Sammy Way at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 774-1294.