The Family Table
Generations of the Jarvis family have gathered round a Depression-era masterpiece
By Noah Salt • Photographs by Mark Phelps and Pete Williams
In 1935, Eugene Jackson Jarvis, a cabinetmaker employed by Oettinger Lumber Company of Greensboro, decided to make his wife, Blanche a special gift for her birthday — a beautiful dining room table.
But not just any table.
“He wanted his table to be unlike anything anyone had ever seen,” says his grandson, Eugene Payne. “Something that would last.”
E.J., as he was called by friends and family, certainly accomplished this task.
Working in his company woodshop in secret over the course of a full year — one of the worst of the Great Depression, according to historians, when almost a quarter of working Americans were jobless — Jarvis built a table that qualifies spectacularly as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece of hardwood craftsmanship.
It’s stunning tabletop features 3,328 inlaid wooden shapes, each piece measuring 3/4-inch thickness, made from 37 different kinds of wood — a constellation of circles, squares, ovals, diamonds, stars and hearts that form repeated patterns. The centerpiece design of the table features a potted flower comprised of the same geometric shapes. As a companion to his incomparable table, Jarvis created eight matching chairs, each one with 325 inlaid pieces.
Eugene Payne remembers the table as a boy, covered with a white tablecloth at his grandparents’ home on Hill Street in Greensboro. “Every family occasion — especially the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas — that table was where we all gathered . . . and still do.”
Payne notes that it’s fortunate that the Jarvis table had strong double pedestal legs made of solid oak — for it was destined to travel in its long life.
To date, five different related families have owned and gathered round the table, including one cousin in Nebraska and another in Asheboro, followed by an uncle in Rural Hall. Twenty years ago, the magnificent table found its way to Eugene and Sylvia Payne’s home in rural Randolph County, where it will be loyally in service when the 10 members of the family gather round to give thanks and break bread at the holidays. The gathering may even include Esther Heiling, 99, the sole remaining among E.J’s eight children.
Not surprisingly, for the immediate future, the beloved gem of Piedmont craftsmanship is firmly spoken for. “Our daughter Kelly and son Dennis have asked to have it when we’re ready to pass it along,” Payne explains. “And so has a nephew named Dean.”
Someday, he muses, when the table has completed its generations of loyal service to the family, Payne hopes a local museum might be interested in giving the table a permanent home.
Any museum of art, we believe, would be fortunate to
Editor’s Note: Does your family have an object of affection? We’d love to hear about it.