On Location: The Tomlinson Warehouse

Author Frank Morelli discusses the storied history of the Tomlinson Chair Manufacturing Company warehouse and its connections to his upcoming young adult novel, On the Way to Birdland.

This is going to be a weird post for me to write, one that will most likely vacillate between historical fact, the nuggets of inspiration they provided, and my own deep, dark emotions that were inevitably brought to the surface.

I’ll start at the beginning. I’m a Philadelphia native who moved to High Point, North Carolina from New York City back in 2005. I’m also an aimless driver. That is, I like to simply drive around somewhat aimlessly when I enter a new environment to develop my sense of direction and better understand my surroundings. I guess you can say I get lost on purpose.

That’s exactly what I did in August of 2005 on the first night of my new residency as a High Pointian. What stands out to me most from that night was coming to a dead end along the side of the train tracks on West High Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the High Point Train Depot.

At first, I took it as an ominous sign. Not only did the street terminate in a mess of bramble and kudzu, but a great, vacant body–an abandoned warehouse–loomed like a phantom over the entire scene. It was eery as hell, but also the stuff that stories are made of, so I packed it away in the back of my mind as a go-to location for the pages of a future novel, and I moved on with my life.

Well, that novel has finally arrived, and now I can’t keep the cool story behind the warehouse I happened upon way back when–and the major role it plays in my upcoming young adult release, ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND–from my faithful readers.

You see, as I soon found out through research and statistical data, the warehouse I decided to include in my new novel is quite the historic timepiece in downtown High Point. In fact, it has been there since 1901, when it became the town’s very first manufacturing hub built along the original Plank Road. What started in Thomasville by James Erwin Lambeth in 1898 at the Standard Chair Company, eventually expanded into High Point under the careful leadership of co-founder, Sidney Halstead Tomlinson, Sr. and was renamed the Tomlinson Chair Manufacturing Company. A company that once exclusively manufactured wooden rockers for Sears Roebuck grew in its new home on West High Avenue to become one of the first industrial hubs in the nation to produce matching dining room sets and to develop American adaptations to the period styles of 19th Century French and English furniture.

Why is any of this important to my novel? Well, the warehouse scenes in On the Way to Birdland bring my protagonist repeatedly back to his nightmares, to the very heart of what it is that motivates his epic journey, albeit unbeknownst to him at a conscious level. Comparatively, the Tomlinson Warehouse still stands in High Point as a memory of what formed the heart and soul of the town’s growing economy, and a daily reminder of how quickly those gifts and resources can evaporate.

To go more deeply into my own psyche, the warehouse I realized, and all the scenes in my upcoming novel that pull Cordy Wheaton directly into the darkness of his nightmares, has a visceral connection to my own experiences…with PTSD. No, I never fought in a war or found myself as a victim of abuse, but I did find myself staring up at the Twin Towers on a sunny morning in 2001 as they burned and collapsed, and I did it from street level in the heart of Times Square. And I still find myself waking up from time to time in a cold sweat without any real understanding of why that plane, or the shards of glass, or the bodies I saw diving headlong from over a hundred stories up keep showing up in my nightmares. Or, why I keep going back to the operating table, or to the medi-vac helicopter that flew me to Cooper Hospital Trauma Center after my spleen ruptured during a baseball-related accident when I was seventeen, and I spent an entire year trying to recover from the blood loss, and the abdominal pain, and the realization that my hopes of being a future athlete had vanished overnight.

You see, that very warehouse I came across in 2005 with its vacant eyes staring down at me as I stood at the terminus of a dead end was so much more to me than a lesson in High Point history. It served as a reminder that I needed to write out my own traumas through the magic of fiction, and Cordell Wheaton became the perfect vehicle to deliver my experiences with trauma and the subtle-yet-strong grasp of addiction with my readers.

And it was a powerful and liberating experience.

I hope you’ll pre order a signed copy of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND from Sunrise Books here in a hometown that has filled me with inspiration and made me bold to share it with others.

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