Pottery is part of Southeast Ohio’s Heritage

Weller Vase at the Zanesville Art Center.
Weller Vase at the Zanesville Art Center.

Thousands of pottery enthusiasts from all over the U-S and Canada are in Zanesville this week to celebrate Pottery Week.

Zanesville sits at the eastern edge of what some call the Clay Corridor of southeastern Ohio. The history of pottery in this area goes back centuries, but the future is clouded.

“You could say the history of pottery goes back to the Woodland Indians,” says Mary Ellen Weingartner,coordinator of the National Ceramic Museum and Heritage Center. The center a five-building gem nestled in the trees near Roseville, a few miles south of Zanesville. One building houses a gift shop which includes work from the handful of area potteries still in business.

Three buildings display examples of work by area potteries producing during the past 150 years. They include some of the top names in pottery companies whose pieces are among those most popular with collectors today – Roseville, Weller, McCoy, Owens.

Wess Fultz is the vice president in charge of operations at Hartstone Pottery in Zanesville. He says the history of the industry goes back to 1796.

“Before Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark, George Washington and the First Congress commissioned Ebanezer Zane to blaze a trail through the Northwest Territory.

Settlers came quickly. Many were veterans of the Revolutionary War, eager to claim the land grants given them by the federal government. “They brought their families, and they were farmers,” says Fultz. He adds, “Some found clay on their property.”

Weingartner says the settlers also found wood to fire kilns and coal. “Clay lies on either sdie of a vein of coal,” she points out. “The area is also rich in natural gas for firing kilns.”

Fultz says, during fall and winter, the farmers threw or formed utilitarian items for the home – water tight crocks and canisters to store and ship farm products.

These farmers were known as Bluebird potters. In the winter when they could not work in the fields, they produced pottery. When they saw the Bluebirds return in the Spring, it was time for the farmers to return to the fields.

Blue Bird Potters sold the extras they produced. By 1850, more than 40 such potteries were operating in the Roseville area. A few of these Bluebird potters evolved into some of the area’s most famous potteries.

Samuel Weller started his Bluebird pottery in 1872. He made, decorated and sold the pottery. By 1915, Weller had hundreds of employees to handle the work at his Zanesville plant. Weller said it was the largest art pottery in the world.

Weller was one of many pottery producers to experience massive growth during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and to began offering hand-painted art pottery. They employed talented painters to create images of people, animals and nature on everything from elegant vases to cookie jars.

Susan Talbot-Stanaway, director of the Zanesville Art Center, estimates that 70% of the population must have been artists between the 1890′s and the 1930′s.

Talbot-Stanaway says the Zanesville Art Center has the largest institutional collection of Ohio Pottery. The pottery room at the center has a breath-taking collection. Perhaps the premiere piece, though, sits in a large glass case in the lobby. About five feet high, it is likely the largest piece of Weller that exists

Deborah Thompson, curator of collections at the Zanesville Art Center, says it was created for the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis. The artist was Frank Ferrell.

The Weller vase is decorated with large, exquisite irises. Thompson says artists produced floral patterns while looking at live flowers which pottery companies had shipped in fresh every day.

Roseville pottery was particularly well known for its floral patterns and for its matte colors.

Creativity clearly flowed during this period in pottery’s history.

Mary Ellen Weingartner of the National Ceramic museum and Heritage Center says the competition among companies was fierce. “There were as many as 40 to 50 companies by the turn of the century,” she says. “They worked behind locked doors and were very secretive about the glazing process. Matte glazing is more difficult. Duplicating it is very challenging. The process by which designs were achieved was highly coveted.”

Weingartner says lead was used in all of the glazes at that time. It was one of the reasons the colors in flowers and other designs were so vibrant. Potters today use no lead in their glazes

The exquisite designs and vibrant colors help explain why pottery from this area is some of the most sought after anywhere. Author and antique store owner Betty Ward sees another reason to collect the products of the Clay Corridor

Ward observes, “Sometimes when the stock market goes down, people buy pottery. Pottery always goes up…it HAS always gone up. A particular line in a company will level off, but it never crashes.”

What did crash among potteries in the Zanesville area are the number and size of the operations. At the turn of the 20th century, there were as many as 50 potteries. The largest of them employed as many as 400 people each. Today, only seven potteries remain. Together, they employ barely one hundred people. And one of those businesses – Fioriware – is closing its doors this week.

While the future of pottery in southeast Ohio is clouded, local artists and Hocking College are working to ensure there is a future. More on that tomorrow.

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