Charles A. Birnie Jr.

Charles A. Birnie Jr. was born on a packet steamer on the Arkansas River, January 17, 1834. His father, Charles A. Birnie Sr., was an early settler and business man out of the Fort Smith area. His mother, Margaret, was the daughter of Episcopal Bishop Strebeck of North Carolina. At the time of Charles Jr.'s birth, they were en route to Fort Smith from Pittsburg, Penn.

Charles A. Birnie Jr. began his working life as a tinner, a trade he had learned in an establishment operated by his father, and he kept to this trade until the Civil War, except for a brief interruption when he joined a wagon train and ventured west to the California gold fields in 1864. However, California did not prove to his liking, and he soon returned to Fort Smith. His return trip was made by way of the Isthmus of Panama.

During the Civil War, he served with the Arkansas infantry, Confederate States of America, first in the quartermaster department then in ordinance. After the war, he returned to Fort Smith and worked, briefly, for the U.S. government painting fort buildings which had been neglected during the war.

In the late 1860s, Birnie went into the furniture business in partnership with his uncle, George S. Birnie. The firm was involved in the retail sale and manufacture of furniture, their own production supplementing inventory from St. Louis, Cincinnati, New York and other manufacturing centers. In 1869, the firm fought out a rival, Ehrhardt & Meier, and as well as receiving its stock and interests, gained the services of one of its partners, Fred Meier. Meier took charge of their manufacturing and repair department, and continued in this capacity until opening his own store and shop circa 1875.

It was while Meier was working for Birnie that some of the earliest woodworking machinery to be used in Fort Smith was installed. This first machinery was mule powered, but in 1876 steam powered machinery was introduced by Charles A. Birnie Jr. in the form of a Buckeye engine.

By 1876, Charles was in business himself, his Uncel George having dissolved their partnership in 1875. Charles continued in the furniture business throughout the 1870s, but eventually he went into the undertaking trade along with his brother, H.C. Birnie. This occured in 1882, but ever after this time, Charles along with his brother built furniture for their family and friends. The brothers remained partners until March 1901, when, after a disagreement, they dissolved their partnership. However, both remained in the funeral business, each one keeping his own establishment.

In 1903, Charles retired, and on July 13, 1909, at the age of 76, he died. His death being the result of a stroke. He was survived by his wife, Margaret (Minmere) and two daughters, Catherine Annie (Mrs. William H. Witlow) and Lillie (Mrs. N.K. Pryor).

Source: Johnson III, Bernard, "Fort Smtih Furniture Manufacturers of the Late 19th Century," an unpublished typescript from the archives of the Fort Smith Museum of History.