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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

East Texas Pottery: Potters of the Republic

NOTE: you can read this and the whole series on my new page for just Texas stoneware. Go to the top right of the main page, and click on Texas Stoneware Series.

Large storage jars attributed to James Prothro.

As Western migration poured into Texas in the 1830’sand 40’s, many southern potters made the journey, bringing their trades with them. So as Texas pottery became a small industry, it was an extension of traditions from pottery producing states such as South Carolina and Alabama. For this reason, there are great similarities between Texas stoneware and stoneware from other Southern states. In some cases, the only clue as to origin is the type of clay, or a subtle shade of color in the glaze.

Bob Helberg did extensive research to track down most early Texas potters. He found by the 1840’s there were still only a few potters operating in east Texas, and almost none elsewhere. Here is a partial list:

Taylor Brown and slave Elix; Rusk Co.
James & Lewis Kirbee; Montgomery Co.
James Prothro; Rusk Co.
Cyrus & Jackson Cogburn; Rusk Co.

Since this was the Republic era of Texas, these potters share a distinction as the young and short-lived Nation’s only stoneware manufacturers, who we have record of. You can find my extensive rant on Taylor and Elix Brown in another blog, so I want to focus here on the others.

A Kirbee vessel on display at UT San Antonio.

The Kirbee family of Montgomery County came around 1848, and went to work making pottery for the people of Montgomery County and the surrounding area. Few other towns existed. There was Anderson to the northwest, and Huntsville to the northeast, and Harrisburg and Houston and Galveston to the south. There must have been great pressure to produce stoneware, and the Kirbees had a great opportunity, as this was the only way to store food. A large stoneware jar was the equivalent to a refrigerator today. After extensive study, the University of Texas archeologists found a few broken shards at the Kirbee site, and they managed to reconstruct a few vessels.
Kirbee shards found by UT archeologists.

I have lived near the Kirbee site most of my life, and its existence is part of the reason I started collecting Texas stoneware twenty years ago. But I have never seen any of these vessels outside of a museum. When I finally saw some of them, it was a great disappointment. Kirbee stoneware aptly illustrates what the primitive lifestyle in early pioneer Texas was like.

The only way the Kirbees survived as potters was the absence of competition. They apparently experimented with ash glazes, as the shards reveal, but their pottery was crude, plain, poorly glazed with salt, and made of inferior clay, that was porous and fragile. And that is why they were out of business by the time Texas seceded from the Union in 1861.

A handsome Prothro Jar showing that light golden glow.

James Prothro was everything that the Kirbees were not. He came to Rusk County and started producing pottery in 1846 and later Newton Prothro joined him. They made exquisite stoneware for almost twenty years. The Prothro Pottery Company made a variety of forms, artistically thrown, thin walled, masterfully glazed with ash; they are considered some of the best stoneware makers in east Texas. Ash glazed Prothro forms glow with a golden hue that makes them stand out in any collection.

There can be no doubt that the Prothros set the standard of excellence for the other potters in the region, and that led to a vigorous pottery market in the region, with many potters following suit.

Cyrus and Jackson Cogburn came to Rusk County a year later and started Cogburn Pottery Company. Ultimately they operated kilns in Henderson County as well. Although they only lasted around ten years, Joseph Cogburn kept up production until 1870. Like the other early potters, they made a lot of ash glazed churns and jars for food storage.

Note: If anybody reading this has a decent picture of a Cogburn vessel, we would all appreciate it if they would send it to me! I’ll post it and give you the credit! Send it to: rcush403@aol.com

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