June 2005 Issue
Shaped By Clay
With a steady stream of passionate pottery collectors and a historian dedicated to preserving its past, East Liverpool, "America's Crockery City," inspires devotees who break the mold.
It didn't matter that it was cold outside, that everyone could still hear the rain steadily drumming the pavement, or that the dark clouds hovering over the town like a shroud seemed poised to shake loose thunder and lightning any minute. Dave Preston lumbered out the front door anyway, no umbrella in sight, insisting there was something everyone just had to see.
Now, he was back from the car - hair wet, big arms cradling a package wrapped in brown paper. One could assume Preston was uncomfortable this April afternoon, surrounded by the delicate furnishings and sparkling antiques of The Sturgis House, a bed and breakfast in East Liverpool, Ohio. Tall and barrel-chested, Preston might easily pass for the local high school football coach. Certainly not a pottery junkie; a man who, for already the second time this year, had traveled eight hours from his home in Caro, Michigan, just to be here in "America's Crockery City"; a man who has no problem admitting that if he ever comes across the old white teapot with little pink flowers on it that he's been searching for - a glaring omission from one of his beloved tea set collections - he'll "probably freak."
Preston gazed at the package in his hands, beaming like a new dad, then removed the brown paper. He held its contents up high in the dining room light.
"Ugh!" shouted Barbara Johnston, shielding her eyes in disgust from the pitcher in Preston's grip - a squat and bulbous ball jug with a wide mouth and a cast like pea soup.
Preston laughed. "It definitely is unique."
Johnston, a fellow pottery enthusiast and traveling companion from Otisville, Michigan, rolled her eyes. "That's a very diplomatic way of saying it's ugly as sin."
There aren't too many places where you'll find a perfectly sane man willing to plunk down good money for a ball jug that looks more like a bullfrog. But the out-of-towner ceramics fanatics who pilgrimage to East Liverpool - of which there are many, like Preston and Johnston, rummaging through the local pottery stores for china like miners digging for gold nuggets - know that what they're really paying for is a piece of the town's rich past.
"Yeah, it's the worst color. They must've made a mistake with it or something," said Preston, looking closely at his recent purchase, a bit of buyer's remorse already setting in. He could just bury it behind his nearly 3,000 other pieces of pottery - most of which, like the ball jug, were born in this part of the Ohio Valley where Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio meet. At one time, 45 percent of all the world's earthenware came from East Liverpool, molded from the clay that flowed beneath the town like crude oil in Texas; sculpted by the skilled hands of English artisans, who 150 years ago rode down the Ohio River and emptied onto East Liverpool's Broadway wharf, in search of the American Dream; and fired in the bottle kilns that once dotted the town's landscape, their chimneys reaching up to the heavens like the skyscrapers of today. It was a booming industry that had East Liverpool crowned "Pottery Capital of the World," and the brilliant, finely crafted vestiges of that era remain, scattered across the town like treasures hidden in plain sight - whether for sale in the 40,000-square-foot Pottery City Antique Mall, painstakingly preserved in the downtown's Museum of Ceramics, or lovingly displayed in the quaint homes of East Liverpool's nearly 13,000 residents, many of them descendents of English potters.
All of which translates to East Liverpool being the promised land for pottery zealots.
"You find much more of the older things ... around here than in Michigan where we're from," says Johnston, whose diehard devotion to the wares of the 102-year-old Hall China Company - the only large-scale manufacturer of pottery still in operation in East Liverpool - has slowly but surely devoured her home, as well as the additional room with 10-foot ceilings her husband built exclusively for her collection. It also inspired her to start the Hall China Convention, an annual gathering in Springfield, Ohio, for other devotees. She, Preston and the married couple who've made the journey here this weekend proudly refer to themselves as "the crazy Hall collectors." (As if to put an exclamation point next to the word "crazy," Preston presents his toad-colored pitcher as if it was an entree and asks,
"Do you want to taste it?" He insists that a discriminating Hall collector can distinguish the company's wares from others because of a telltale flavor.)
"I have to tell you this one story," says Johnston. "One time when we came down here, we all went to the [Pottery City Antique Mall] to shop, and, you know, we bought a whole bunch of Hall China. Well, someone at the mall must have called somebody on the phone and said, â€˜We've got some live ones here,' because when we came out of the mall, some guy was standing there, and he says to us, â€˜I've got some Hall I want to show you.' It was all in his car trunk - like he was a drug ?dealer!" exclaims Johnston, the whole group laughing at the memory.
One of the foursome announces that the group intends to make a trip to the Pottery City Antique Mall the next morning, and invites us to come along. A thoughtful gesture, even with the ominous warning added by pottery addict Preston:
"It's every person for himself."
Tim Brookes leans over his desk, staring at a yellowed, bird's-eye view map of his hometown from 1886. He scans the thriving metropolis that is late-19th-century East Liverpool: the boxy potteries that seem to occupy every square foot of land, stacked one after another like dominoes; the mighty Thompson factory, hunkered down on River Road, its 12 formidable chimneys standing sentinel over the town; and the modest residences of thousands of potters winding through everything, the lifeblood of East Liverpool.
Brookes - small-town attorney, occasional judge and president of the East Liverpool Historical Society, one of the oldest historical societies in Ohio - stabs his finger at a tiny pottery nestled in a valley near the top of the map, a David among dozens of Goliaths.
"This is the one my relative had," he says. "The one that never made any money."
When Brookes' great-great grandfather, Stephen Moore, came to the town from Burslem, England, in the late 1850s, he was just one of thousands desperate for an escape from the oppressive conditions of the massive English potteries. For those artisans, East Liverpool was paradise.
"All you have to do is dig a hole in East Liverpool and you'll find clay," says Brookes. James Bennett, an Englishman who visited the area in 1839, took note of the town's fortunate blend of pottery-producing natural resources - including the close proximity of the Ohio River, offering an easy means to ship the product, and the wealth of largely untapped clay deposits - and became the first person to successfully manufacture the product in the area. It was only a matter of time before a wave of English potters followed suit. "And they started writing home to England, saying, â€˜Here's a place where you can make money,'" says Brookes. "'Here's a place where you're judged on what you can do.'
"If you weren't a pottery owner over in England, you were never going to become one," he adds. "[But] when people emigrated to this area, these people who were nothing more than practical potters, people who knew the trade, they could end up owning their own business. That upward mobility was very attractive."
The exacting craftsmanship they honed overseas would eventually be responsible for churning out such masterworks as Lotus Ware, made for only a few years during the 1890s by East Liverpool pottery Knowles, Taylor & Knowles and considered the finest porcelain ever produced in the United States. The delicate bone china items, expensive both to buy and produce - roughly one in 12 of the fragile pieces made it through a kiln intact - often featured naturalistic decorative accents, such as dew-covered petals and vine tendrils snaking up vase stems, all created by hand and applied with painstaking care. Today, only about 5,000 pieces of Lotus Ware survive, with the world's largest collection at the Museum of Ceramics.
At the height of the pottery boom in 1900, 45 percent of the world's pottery came from East Liverpool's more than 200 kilns. "East Liverpool went from having not more than 2,000 people by the time of the Civil War, to having 5,500 people in 1880, to having 12,000 by 1890," notes Brookes.
The fruits of East Liverpool's early prosperity can still be seen at the opulent Thompson mansion, an Italianate Victorian house built in 1876 by Cassius C. Thompson, owner of the C.C. Thompson Pottery Company, but largely lived in by his son, Dale, and Dale's wife, Dorothy.
"The house was basically a way for them to show off their antiques," says Brookes. From the Austrian chandeliers, to the turquoise and tangerine-colored stained-glass windows, to the large mirror in the library that Dorothy had tinted red to match the rosy hue of her favorite Bavarian vases - "they had a lot of disposable income," notes Brookes - the house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is lovingly maintained by the historical society and is a popular draw for pottery enthusiasts and antiques aficionados.
Not surprisingly, East Liverpool eventually encountered the same types of challenges faced by countless other industrial towns, including increased competition from other businesses, most notably the steel mills in surrounding counties, and a resurgence in imported china after WWII.
But Brookes is determined to maintain the reminders of that time, such as the Thompson mansion. When he took the helm of the historical society, he informed its volunteer members that he didn't view it as "a lifetime commitment." That was 18 years ago. For him, staying in touch with East Liverpool's past means keeping its history alive - an opportunity Brookes isn't sure he'd have in a larger city.
"This place gives you the ability to play a role," he says. "[Some people] are content to be a very small part of a big city. But here, you can be involved, you can be active in everything, and you get to see the results of your work.
"Here, you can preserve some semblance of what was."
Events This Month
The Tri-State Pottery Festival, June 16-18, downtown. Celebration of the area's pottery heritage, with craft booths, musical entertainment, parade, games and fireworks; 330/385-0845.
The Ohio Valley China Collectors Convention, June 16-18, East Liverpool Country Club. Silent and live auctions, plus a pottery market; 330/385-4688.
Lou Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame Weekend, June 21. Dinner and induction ceremony featuring coach Lou Holtz and noteworthy natives from the upper Ohio Valley area; 330/386-5443, www.louholtzhalloffame.com.
Where to Stay
The Sturgis House, 122 W. Fifth St., 330/382-0194, www.sturgishouse.com. Antique-filled bed and breakfast that is a restored Victorian mansion, conveniently located downtown. Features six bedrooms, 24-hour open kitchen, continental breakfast and basement devoted to the memory of "Pretty Boy Floyd," whose body was shown here when the B&B was a funeral parlor. (Don't miss the copy of his death mask hovering over the washer and dryer.)
What to Visit
Hall China Company and Hall Closet Retail Outlet, 1 Anna Ave., 330/385-2900, www.hallchina.com. See the making of pottery, including a line of Longaberger pieces, then stock up on Hall pottery. Guided tours Mon.-Fri. at 10 a.m.
The Museum of Ceramics, 400 E. Fifth St., 330/386-6001, www.themuseumofceramics.org. An extensive collection of utilitarian and art ware created in the more than 200 area potteries since 1839, including the world's largest collection of Lotus Ware. Wed.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m.; call to schedule guided tour.
The Pottery City Antique Mall, 409 Washington St., 330/385-6933. Multi-story mall with more than 200 dealer spaces and 40,000 square feet of antiques, pottery, glassware, furniture and more. Daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. noon-6 p.m.
Thompson House Mansion, 305 Walnut St., 330/386-5964. Italianate mansion built in 1876 by pottery owner C.C. Thompson, decorated with most of the original furnishings. Tours arranged through the East Liverpool Historical Society.
Tri-State Black History Museum, 131 W. Fifth St., 330/386-3538. Displays, literature and other historical information devoted to notable African-Americans from the area. Tours by appointment only.