By Debbie Adams
In the past several years, Vinton has experienced unprecedented economic revitalization, beginning with the Vinton Library, then the Roland E. Cook Lofts, Macado’s, reinvestment in the Lancerlot, the opening of Rosie’s Gaming Emporium, and the Billy Byrd apartments. There have been a host of ribbon-cuttings and renovations galore. Vinyard Station and Gish’s Mill are on the horizon.
However, it is important to recognize the stalwart businesses that have served as the mainstays of Vinton over the years. One of those is Citizen’s Upholstery, owned by Ralph Chumley, who opened his business on Lee Avenue in downtown Vinton in 1965 and has remained for 54 years. He has moved to a different location on Lee and bought some nearby properties, but his business has remained steady in Vinton for all that time– and continues to prosper.
When Chumley’s grandson, Josh O’Leary, was a fourth grader in Mrs. Molnar’s class at Bonsack Elementary, he wrote a biography of Chumley’s “interesting life” entitled “A Kid Named Ralph” dedicated to his “Pawpaw.”
Ralph was the sixth of 13 children and a native of Hurt in Pittsylvania County. The children walked to school and then returned home to work on the family tobacco farm in the afternoons.
Chumley completed sixth grade and then quit school to work on the farm. When he was 17, he wanted “to do something different than work on a farm,” and see the United States. He set off with two cousins and a friend in a 1947 Cadillac looking for adventure and work with $10 in his pocket. For a while their address was “Cadillac USA.”
The group stopped in Baltimore to earn more money working for the railroad. After two months, they lost those jobs when the railroad discovered they were underage. The young men traveled on through Detroit and Chicago taking small jobs to earn enough money to continue. In Utah they helped dismantle a carnival show and then traveled to the next town and helped set it up again– earning a grand total of $80.
They eventually made it to Sacramento and got jobs on a fruit ranch picking apricots. Until their first pay day all they had to eat was apricots. After a couple of months, Chumley’s cousins and friend decided to go back home to Virginia. Chumley, who was “almost” 18, decided to stay in California. He got a “pretty good job” at a warehouse and then a heating company.
O’Leary describes his grandfather dressed in the “snazzy” style of the times– long sideburns, wavy hair, and white buck shoes– applying for a job at a Ford Motors factory. The manager gave him the dirtiest job in the plant, assembling truck tires and motors.
Chumley met a girl in San Jose. They had two children, Dwayne and Kim. (Kim still lives in California. Dwayne had Cerebral Palsy and passed away in 1995 at the age of 35.)
Chumley returned to Virginia in 1962 and met his wife Mary by happenstance when she was just about to graduate from high school. Chumley said he believes “the Lord had something to do with it.”
They married four months later and went on to have three children, Cliff, Clint, and Paige. They were married for 56 years when she passed away in June 2019. His son Clint passed away in January 2019 after a lifelong struggle with diabetes.
The Chumleys first lived in Danville where he worked for a heating company. When it went out of business, they moved to the Vinton area where she had family who worked for the railroad.
Unfortunately, Chumley discovered he was four months too old to be hired by the railroad himself, so he ended up with Johnson Carper Furniture (Singer). He worked there for 13 years, beginning on the production line and then as supervisor for the last seven years.
Chumley says he was a hard worker and learned fast– about furniture making on the line and about operations as supervisor. He learned the skills that enabled him to fulfill his dream and open a business of his own.
He started in the upholstery business part time in southeast Roanoke while still working for Johnson Carper. For several years he didn’t get home before 10 p.m. as they worked nights and weekends. “I intended for the business to grow.”
He “met a fellow who had a little business with a Sears contract. I bought him out for $1,000 and renamed the business.”
He and his wife decided to move their business to Vinton where business licenses and taxes were cheaper and the rent was lower.
“Everything about Vinton clicked for us,” Chumley said.
His first business in Vinton was located in two rooms upstairs at 117 ½ Lee Avenue in what was once a bake shop. He took over the downstairs when the former occupant moved to a new location.
In 1975 Chumley bought 125 East Lee where he is now located and added more commercial work to his business.
At the time of an interview with The Vinton Messenger in 1977, Chumley owned five lots, three buildings, and one parking lot. The business had grown from a man-and-wife operation to a company with several full-time employees and three trucks to serve the valley and the surrounding area.
He was proud to be able to offer customers about 500 different styles of furniture and fabrics.
“If a customer could draw it, or describe it, we could build it, and to fit a certain room.”
He expanded his work into medical offices and restaurants. They did the furniture repair and upholstery work for Sears for a time and made connections with their customers. At one time they sold carpet and drapes. For a time, the business had a manufacturer’s license and built custom-made furniture on the premises.
Chumley attributes his success over the years to “hard work and help from the Lord. I give God the glory for anything I have accomplished. I haven’t done a thing on my own.”
Mary Chumley was a valuable asset at Citizen’s Upholstery. Ralph says she was able to do everything in the store. As the business prospered, his wife was able to spend less time with the company and more time at home with their children. She was dedicated to their church, New Hope Christian, and in general was the “Energizer Bunny” in whatever she was involved with.
Chumley describes himself as “unschooled but not uneducated” as he picked up a great deal of knowledge along the way. He said he has learned “by doing and by trial and error,” and he still learns something new every day.
At one time, Chumley was president of the Downtown Merchants Association, formed by local businesses. They sponsored festivals and special events such as the Bluegrass Festival held on the Vinton Farmers’ Market for 20 years. For most of those years, Chumley emceed the gospel sing on Sunday night. He played for a while with the Bluegrass Boys but gave up the guitar when his wife became ill.
The business continues to thrive, although there were some lean years during the recession when Chumley says “the phone didn’t ring” as “reupholstering your furniture is something you can put off.”
Citizen’s Upholstery has an outstanding reputation and many repeat customers. Chumley says that in a throwaway society, people are more likely to toss furniture than to repair and re-upholster, but there are still individuals with family furniture and heirlooms who want to keep it in good repair. Some pieces they work on have been in families for three generations or more.
The demand for commercial work continues. Country Cookin’ is one of their customers with about 10 locations in the region. Citizen’s Upholstery generally removes and returns seats and booths for repair and upholstery to them within 24 hours.
Back in 1977, Chumley said, “If I didn’t believe in Vinton, I wouldn’t have purchased this additional space. That’s for sure.” He has watched the town change from the sleepy little town it was for quite a few years, to a “place that’s starting to move” with all the new enterprises in town.
He says he is fortunate that the business remains in his family, with his son Cliff to take over. Cliff has been a part of the business since he was a child stopping by after school.
Chumley says he has lived a good and fulfilling life and isn’t really interested in retirement although he has cut back his hours in recent months. He likes to keep busy and thoroughly enjoys working with people.