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SE Ohio Pottery: Decline and Future

Thousands of buyers, sellers and fans of pottery are in Zanesville for Pottery Week activities. The city known for the Y bridge used to be known as the Pottery Capital of the World.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a boom time for art pottery. With giant kilns running 24 hours a day in some operations, fires were not unusual. Mary Ellen Weingartner of the National Ceramic Museum and Heritage Center near Roseville says, more fires destroyed all or portions of many businesses. Some were re-built. Others were not.

Business remained viable until the end of World War II which marked the beginning of the end for art pottery and pottery production as it had thrived in southeast Ohio. Weingartner says less expensive imported pottery and several other factors contributed to pottery's decline in the late 1940's and early 1950's

"Refrigeration meant less need for large stoneware containers for pickling and so on," she explains. "And grain storage was largely unheard of in a normal home."

Lead was used for generations in pottery glazes to make the colors more vibrant. And the companies that remained in business in the 1980's were hit hard when lead was declared a hazard. The EPA told companies to clean up their dump sites.

Pottery production continues today along the clay corridor albeit on a far smaller scale. Much of what is produced is art pottery.

Hartstone Pottery is celebrating its first anniversary under new ownership. Wess Fultz is one of the owners and vice-president of operations. "Hartstone is believed to be the largest pottery in the Zanesville area. They employ about 25 people.

"I believe we're the largest manufacturer of hand decorated stoneware in the u-s today," Fultz says.

He acknowledges that the pottery industry grew in the Zanesville area because clay is plentiful. But local clay has a high iron content which gives it a yellow cast. Hartstone is done on a light, ivory background. Ironically, Hartstone Pottery gets its clay from Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Hartstone building used for production is quiet the day we visit. Two huge kilns are cool. The ram press that stamps out pizza pans, pie plates and large serving pieces is at rest. Vases and pots wait to be released from molds in the slip casting area.

But there is activity around three large circular work turn-tables. A decorator sits at each table. The women are focused on brushing colors on a sponge. Each sponge has been cut by a laser so the edges are smooth and its assigned shape will be distinct. The sponges are used to apply the paint to pottery that has been fired, cooled and dried and sits around the outside edge of the tables.

Fultz explains that one decorator is working on russet apple loaf pans. Another is laying down a couple of holly leaves on Christmas clayware.

Fultz says Hartstone finished in the red after its first year of new ownership, but he says the company is placing more retail information on its web site to expand its market.

Hartstone is looking to the Internet to maintain viability as a pottery. In the related field of industrial ceramics, at least one company is looking to the military. Crooksville- CerCo has two government contracts. They are making sidewalls for Humvees and inserts for bullet-proof vests.

The National Ceramic Museum and Heritage Center and Hocking College, though, see the future in working artists and young people. The college bought the center five years ago and made it part of the school's decorative arts program.

Tim Barnett is a new student at Hocking College and one of seven interns working this summer at the center. On this day, he uses an electric potter's wheel to demonstrate how clay becomes a bowl

The sounds of hands hitting wet clay fill the air in the small studio while Barnett explains what he's doing.

"Right now, I'm forming (the clay) into a ball to get all air pockets out. Otherwise your piece will explode in the kiln. When you get your ball of clay, throw it in the middle of the wheel, slam it on there."

Barnett begins shaping the clay into a flat-bottom ball. He adds water frequently. The extra slaps lightly against the inside rim of the wheel.

"Once it's centered, you use your index finger, push down in the middle that'll be the start of your opening."

Barnett pushes down with his index finger, holding the outside of the clay with his other hand. An opening quickly forms. As the bowl begins to take shape.

The large scale pottery manufacturing operations might be gone for good from the clay corridor, but art pottery and those who shape, decorate and sell it are evident throughout the region ensuring that potter's wheels will continue to turn in southeast Ohio