Chest of drawers
CONSTRUCTION: Two construction techniques found on almost all chests of drawers from the Swisegood School of Cabinetmaking, including this piece signed by cabinetmaker Mordecai Collins, are 1) a top of two solid layers screwed together from the bottom up and 2) French feet formed by the insertion of two wedges on the front feet (only one on the back feet) that cause the feet to have a slight kick, especially noticeable because of the square pads applied underneath them.
SIGNATURE: “M. Collins” on back of the third drawer in red crayon
GROUP: A large group of over 100 pieces make up what is commonly known as the Swisegood School of Cabinetmaking. Makers involved in the production of these pieces included Jacob Clodfelter (1770-1837), Mordecai Collins (1785-1864), John Swisegood (1796-1874), Jonathan Long (1803-1858), and Jesse Clodfelter (1804-1870). Other family members were likely part of the larger group as well. Related pieces were made between approximately 1790 and 1858 in various shops in northern Davidson County, NC.
MAKER: Mordecai Collins was born in Shenandoah County, VA, but nothing of his parentage or early life is known. In October of 1802 he accompanied Henry Rupert, the son-in-law of Reverend Paul Henkel (1754-1825), the well known Lutheran minister from New Market, Virginia, to Davidson County, North Carolina. Collins presumably came to work as an apprentice in Rupert’s carpentry/cabinetmaking shop. (Reverend Henkel, his wife, and the youngest members of their family lived in Davidson County from 1800 to 1805 while Reverend Henkel acted as a Lutheran missionary.) The master craftsman Collins trained with prior to this move is uncertain. He may have trained with Rupert, or he may have trained with another woodworker in Shenandoah County. An 1803 letter (Acc. 5040) written by Collins, then in Davidson County, to Solomon Henkel, Rev. Henkel’s son living in New Market, suggests that Collins was very friendly with the entire Henkel family.
When Rupert and the Henkel family returned to New Market in 1805, Mordecai Collins remained in Davidson County. Collins was barely 20 years old at the time and probably worked with another cabinetmaker, most likely Jacob Clodfeter (1770-1837). (For an example of Jacob Clodfelter’s work see Acc. 3576.) Collins married Christina Byerley (1788-1860) around 1807 and purchased his only piece of Davidson County property in December 1809. On November 6, 1810, “John Swisegood Orphan of Philip Swiseood [was] bound to Mordica [sic] Collins to learn the cabinet and joiners trade.” (For an example of John Swisegood’s work, see Acc. 2127.) In the 1810 census Mordecai Collins was listed as owning one enslaved individual. That the Henkel family retained warm feelings for Collins is suggested by a visit they made in 1811. Reverend Henkel, along with two of his sons, Andrew, age 21, and Charles, age 13, returned to North Carolina to preach and distribute German hymn books printed by the family-owned Henkel Press. On June 22 Rev. Henkel recorded in his journal: “Today I preached in the first congregation on Ebert’s Creek [Pilgrim Church]. . . . From here we drove home with Mordecai Collens. There I left my sons and drove to Mr. Rippel’s.” In February of 1814 Collins was listed as one of five commissioners tasked with dividing the real estate of neighbor William Wear, deceased. In May of that year he was recorded as purchasing the following items from the Salem Community Store: locks, handles, copperass, glass, Spanish Brown, and white lead, all of which would have been used in his shop. Later that year he gave bond in a bastardy case involving Charles Tise, who had “begot on the body of Sarah Gillom,” a child. Then in 1815 he visited the Salem Community store again to purchase “2 sett Locks . . . 16 Commodes handles.”
He heeded the Siren call of the West in the summer of 1816 when he left North Carolina after calling it home for 13 ½ years. On May 9 he purchased 170 acres in New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana. In August of that year he sold his land on the Brushy Fork of Abbotts Creek to William Ledford and apparently never returned to the state again.
In his new home he was one of the earliest settlers in the area of Galena, Indiana, was a founder of St. John’s Lutheran Church, was involved in the planning of the New Albany and Vincennes Turnpike, and by 1860 owned $5000 worth of real estate. A corner cupboard from his estate suggests that he crafted some furniture while in Indiana, but in the 1850 and 1860 census records he was identified as a farmer. He died on July 25, 1864, and a week later his obituary appeared in the New Albany Daily Ledger, where he was described thus: “Capt. Collins was one among the few early settlers yet remaining, and his death will be lamented by a large circle of relatives and friends. His descendants are numerous and all occupy respectable positions in society. During his long residence in Floyd county he enjoyed in an eminent degree the confidence of his fellow citizens, and was the recipient of many important offices at their hands.” His appears to have been a life well lived, and his impressive grave marker at St. John’s Pentecostal Cemetery near New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana, reflects the respect his family and community had for him.
MESDA’s side cupboard, Acc. 2127, also descended in the John Sink family, through John and Margaret’s daughter Susanna Sink Leonard (1815-1901), a sister of Adam Sink (1803-1887).