Herman’s Antiques preserves the past for the future

Jerry Herman works on sanding an end table with drawers to be refinished later in the shop at Herman's Antiques and Furniture Restoration in Gillette. (Photo by Rhianna Gelhart, Gillette News Record)

By Patrick Filbin

Gillette News Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — With the shop’s garage door open on a warm and sunny afternoon, the sound of Jerry Herman’s sander could be heard from the gravel driveway.

Birds chirped from the rafters of a nearby shed. On the wall behind Jerry were dozens of tools shaped like letters of the alphabet: clamps that looked like As, wrenches like Gs, scissors like Xs.

Jerry was wearing glasses, a Hawaiian print shirt, a blue work apron with a handful of pens and pencils tucked tightly near his chest  — and earmuffs. As a lifelong coal miner, Jerry knows a thing or two about safety.

In the shop’s entryway, there were a few small tables and a couple of chairs that were next on the list for restoring or finishing.

These days, the workload at the shop has dwindled. In the last decade or so, less and less antique furniture has come through the shop compared to the business’ heyday.

“This room right here was full of stuff,” Jerry said about the past.

Garey Herman, the owner of Herman’s Antiques and Furniture Restoration, had to take on several projects at once by himself when the shop was busiest.

Garey has since stepped away from the restoration and handed that duty off to Jerry, his nephew.

“I got too old for all that stuff,” Garey said.

Surrounded by aging furniture, Garey is starting to come to grips with his own age after dedicating the latter part of his life to antique things.

“I think it’s pretty limited,” Garey said of the future of antique restoration. “It’s a lost art.”

Just then, Garey darted out of the shop into his crowded antique store, seemingly busy as ever while the power tools continued to hum.

Garey Herman opened Herman’s Antiques and Furniture Restoration with his wife Ann in 1983.

Garey once owned a lumber yard on Juniper Lane. He built houses for years before opening the antique shop. He guesses he’s built upwards of 100 homes in Gillette and has remodeled at least 100 more.

Ann, a Campbell County transplant, served as director of nursing at Pioneer Manor for a time in the 1980s. Not long after they wed in 1989, the Hermans’ similar upbringings — trips to farm auctions with their parents that are now fond memories — steered them toward a new line of work.

Their love for antiques and auction sales lead to them to open their own antique store that has been a gem in Gillette since.

Ann and Garey ran the business for decades together. Ann took charge of the antique portion of the business while Garey worked in the shop. The two would go on cross-country road trips in search of antiques. Every year they would come back with a trailer full of antiques.

The road trips slowed down a few years ago when Ann got sick. Around the same time, Jerry retired from the coal mines just in time to miss the massive layoffs in 2016.

“I got too old to lift all the furniture,” Garey said. “I dabble in it and let Jerry do it now.”

Jerry has worked with his hands as a hobby most of his life. He worked in construction when he was younger, but on 12-hour shifts, it was hard to dedicate time to his hobby.

Even before retirement, he thought there was a good chance he would start working with his uncle.

Jerry took on most of the restoration work about three years ago. He’s a humble craftsman who enjoys completing a project with different finishes, prefers working with cedar because of the smell and doesn’t enjoy sanding wood.

“It’s too monotonous,” he said. “It gets too dusty and noisy.”

When asked if he considers what he and other restorationists do as similar to historians, he chuckled but saw the common thread.

“We do preserve a little bit of history in here,” he said.

He remembered someone came in and dropped off a piano that had seen better days. The man was born and raised in Deadwood, South Dakota, and in his family home his mother had a piano. Years later, after the man’s mother died, he randomly stumbled on the same piano in Wheatland.

“He bought it, brought it back in here and wanted it restored in its original state,” Jerry said. “That was a fun one.”

Jerry said stories like that one, and so many others, are what make his job enjoyable.

“It’s fun to be able to put something together that (someone) went through so much trouble to get and put back together for their family,” he said. “It makes you think back to the memories you had when you were a kid.”

Both Garey and Jerry said that most of their clients now drop off old furniture that belonged to a generation before and they hope to have them restored as mementos.

These families will drop off a piece to preserve a memory, to honor a family member who is gone and will leave it in the hands of Jerry.

Does he ever feel pressure from that?

“Not really,” he said. “There more joy in it.”

Both Garey and Jerry know that the art of furniture restoration may be on its way out. One of the main problems, Garey said, is that a majority of younger people don’t cherish old things the way previous generations have.

The younger generations make up “a throwaway society,” he said.

“It’s easier to go down to Walmart or Kmart, get a particle board piece, use it for a few years, throw it away when it breaks down and get another one,” Garey said.

He pointed to two old tables next to the open garage door, part of Jerry’s to-do list.

“Those will last for another 75 years because they’re at least that old,” Garey said.

Garey said he still has the same passion for restoring and collecting. Some of that has been more difficult recently after Ann died in January.

“I still love fixing up stuff,” he said. “We’re bringing things back to life.”

Jerry thinks that the local layoffs played a factor in the slowing of business. Because people had to tighten their belts with everyday expenses and “what goes away first in hard times are the luxuries.”

Even so, he believes the artistic work he does will always have a place, especially in Gillette.

“I think there will always be a need for someone to be doing this,” he said. “We’re one of the last places left in this state.”

When Jerry thinks about the work he does, dedicating so much time to the past by giving it new life, he thinks about his grandkids.

I would love to bring my grandkids in here and have them (come) alongside and learn this stuff,” he said. “But you don’t see that much these days. They’re interested in other things.”

Every day, Herman’s Antiques and Furniture Restoration brings history back to life.

They give families a way to remember loved ones through the art of restoration and a reason to believe not all things have to die.

As long as people show a passion and interest in the art, the Hermans will keep the garage door open.