Made in Eastern Iowa: Crafting one rocking chair and barstool at a time in Marengo

Rance Hilton works inside of his shop for Hilton's Custom Made Furniture, east of Marengo, where the technology in the shop consists of a calculator.
Rance Hilton works inside of his shop for Hilton's Custom Made Furniture, east of Marengo, where the technology in the shop consists of a calculator.(KCRG)
Published: Nov. 14, 2016 at 4:13 AM CST
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Rance Hilton seems on the borderline of boastful that his workshop doesn’t have much technology, beyond electricity and light bulbs.

“The only thing computerized here is my calculator,” he says on a tour of his shop. “Nothing is computer-programmed. It’s all done by hand.”

Years ago, Hilton was working construction and those long, unforgiving days in the elements led to an idea for something better both for working conditions and the end result.

“Cold days, rainy days, hot days, I’d come here and work while other guys would watch Oprah,” Hilton says with a smile. “One miserably hot day I was roofing and I was thinking ‘I could be working in my shop and listening to my music’ so I just quit construction.”

The end result is Hilton’s Custom Made Furniture on Highway 6 just east of Marengo, where Hilton uses his 1919 band saw to create high-end and customized rocking chairs and barstools.

For anyone who ever had a father or a grandpa with a shop solely dedicated to tinkering, Hilton’s shop takes this to a much deeper and more productive place. Slats for the rocking chairs fill tabletops throughout the shop. Pieces of walnut, oak, cherry, ash, hickory and sycamore fill his stock where Rance can pull out the perfect piece to create the end result.

Hilton has been featured in the region for his specialized and custom products and also takes his products on the road to let more people know about them.

“I do shows, the Iowa City and Ames Art Shows and I get a lot of people who check me out there and show up here,” said Hilton.

Yet his years in construction also opened his eyes to a budding market for a customized piece of furniture for someone to sit on.

“I noticed every house had an island or for a ritzy house it had a bar in the basement and I thought ‘I should start making barstools’.” He said that, at any one time, he has plenty of barstools to craft from his showroom that offers a robust display of rocking chairs and barstools to demonstrate exactly what he can offer.

“I like it when the people are just thrilled with what they get,” says Hilton. “They gush over it and go on and on and I get a hug every once in a while. That’s the fun part. Making something for somebody that they’re going to appreciate. A rocker – they’ll give it to their kids and their kids will give it to their kids. Knowing that it won’t get thrown away in a couple of years.”

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