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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kirbee Pottery of Montgomery County, Texas.

For the updated version of this article, and MUCH MORE, GO TO;
(click on link below)
Believe it or not, this sad, bottomless jar found at the Kirbee Pottery in Montgomery County is a Texas treasure, a symbol of pioneer spirit and American entrepreneurial determination... And also a relic of mislaid plans and broken dreams. And that's a lot for something this ugly.  
Forty years ago my family moved to Grimes County, a history-rich strip of land that had once been part of Montgomery County.  A friendly lady lent us an old out-of-print book published in 1930, now known well to me as “Blair’s History of Grimes County," which told all about the County history, of the original Austin Colony and the “Old Three Hundred” families who settled it.  She had carefully, wisely written her name at the front of it. That book began my personal adventure into this mythical region.  I would later wish I had asked the gracious lady who loaned the book a lot more questions, as she turned out to be a dedicated local historian. She had already forgotten more than I could ever learn about my newfound home and its wonderful local heritage.  

Small-mouthed jar at the Gibbs house museum in Huntsville, attributed to Kirbee pottery of Montgomery. For many years this was the only "Kirbee" I had ever seen!  Sorry, but I have come to doubt its supposed origins. It is very straight- sided for an ante-bellum vessel, and has an Albany slip glaze interior that became ubiquitous in the 1870's, after Kirbee Pottery was defunct. If I had to guess, I would attribute it to some of the "Wilson" salt glazed pottery, done by Durham & Co., at the "third site," where this would have been the expected form and glaze combination.
The nice lady was Mrs. Bessie Owen, and today there is a street named after her in Montgomery. She was an intrepid history detective before that was ever something to be, and was lucky enough to be around in 1971 - '72 when the Texas Historical Commission did a lot of investigation at the Kirbee pottery site near Montgomery. After my mother passed away, I found that old Blair's History amongst a pile of things “to be returned… one of these days” so to speak, and after reading it one more time, I sheepishly took it back to Mrs. Owen.  It had been resting on the living room bookshelf for around 10 years, and it sure looked at home there...  but it needed to be returned… even if Bessie had forgotten what had happened to it.  Meanwhile she had stayed distracted by a lifetime of study and learning about her beloved local history. And one of her obsessions was Kirbee pottery.  It would be another fifteen years before I would even have an inkling about what a resource Bessie Owen was, and how much I had missed out on, and how intriguing the mysteries surrounding the Kirbees would become to me.
A Kirbee sherd on display in Montgomery at the Davis Pioneer Museum. I found more evidence than I could have hoped for, for Kirbee earthenware; Red clay bodied, low fired vessels.

There was so little to actually learn about the Kirbees and their pottery that I never felt the need to dig around.  There were few identified pots and they were in university archaeological collections. I had seen the 1979 archaeological report, which read like the science project it was, where the investigators never really documented the answers to the kinds of things we are interested in, such as what color was the clay body/ What colors were the glazes? The report I had read was in black and white, and was kind of redundant and basic and was almost useless to collectors. But meanwhile, I had located a great old ovoid jar at Warrenton, and others agreed with me that it might have Kirbee characteristics.  I had been hearing for years that there were Kirbee SHERDS on display in Montgomery. It was time to see them for myself.  Recently I made a trip over to Montgomery to try to catch up, and what unfolded was nothing short of incredible. So anyway, this blog is dedicated to Mrs. Bessie Owen, to whom I once again find myself in debt!

This lime drooling, pregnant beast, attributed to Kirbee, can be visited at the Universtiy of Texas at San Antonio.  The khaki color is deceiving... note the peachy tones where the chips on the rim reveal some important clues. Also the lumpy, unfinished throw rings... and the pulls, perfunctorily applied.


The Kirbee Pottery started production sometime around 1848, making it one of the very earliest in Texas. James Kirbee (also spelled Kerbee) hailed from the Edgefield District of South Carolina, the most famous pottery producing area in the South. This made the most influential potters of that period his peers, and as evidence will show, he must have had more than casual contact with the guru of them all, Abner Landrum of the Pottersville pottery. But the “Kerbees” kept moving, ever so slowly in the direction of their final destination. After a stay in Georgia, and then by 1840 Jackson County, Alabama, James “Kirby” aged 58, and his sons Lewis, 39, James M., 30, M. Jefferson, 27, and their wives came to Texas, and were well established in the manufacture of stoneware near Montgomery by 1850. They chose to place their kiln very near large clay deposits on “Mound Creek,” an ancient Native American campground where Indian pottery sherds were very common. Here there were examples of several types of clay, and running water via nearby springs. And just as importantly, lots of timber available with which to fire the kilns. So far so good.
 From Crossroads of Clay, McKissick Museum, Univ. of South Carolina.
A vessel attributed to Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory, owned by Dr. Abner Landrum. A Renaissance man, and a student of European and Oriental techniques in pottery, Abner Landrum introduced ash glazes to the Edgefield potters of South Carolina, who in turn took these ancient techniques all over the South and on to Alabama and Texas. Note the decorative little circles at the throat, a Landrum trademark, probably made with the end of a jail key. Originally from North Carolina, Dr. Landrum and his son Linneaus and grandsons left a significant legacy of stoneware in South Carolina, and Abner's two brothers also worked in their own Stoneware businesses at Edgefield;  Reverend John and Amos Landrum.  Rev. John operated his stoneware pottery at Horse Creek as early as 1817, and is known to have had at least one son who also had a pottery, Benjamin Franklin Landrum. And it was Rev. John Landrum's son-in-law, Lewis Miles, who had his own pottery where he employed the turning services of  the legendary"Dave the Slave." Edgefield District was crawling with future Texas potters... Chandler, Durham, Nash, Cogburn, Kirkland and others. 
The Kirbee family enterprise in Texas was only to last a decade. The pottery appears to have ceased production sometime right after the Civil War. By the 1870 census, the “Kerbys” were either moved away or farming.  One look at the pottery itself explains some of the reasons for their kilns to grow cold. To put it bluntly, Kirbee pottery was just like their name, somewhat unschooled and unpredictable. The Kirbees seemed to have changed their name again, as if they wished to put the whole thing in the past.
From Kirbee Kiln, 1979, Texas Historical Commission
In no way pervasive with Kirbee stoneware, yet the little circles seen embellishing the sherd on the ^lower right^ indicate a direct but mysterious kinship to the legendary Landrum brothers of the Edgefield tradition. One possiblity is that this was a bowl brought by the Kirbees from South carolina... made by Abner Landrum, and used until it was broken. And there is an even more intriguing possiblity...

Some of the diversity in the Kirbee forms can be attributed to the differences between the pottery styles of the Landrum brothers of Edgefield.  This John Landrum jar rim is identical to the sherd samples of the Kirbee's above.

The local clays of Montgomery County that served the Indians so well for earthenware were not suitable for stoneware. Because of this one fact, very little Kirbee pottery survived. The vessels that did are often poorly formed, even misshapen, cracked, and downright ugly, and not in a charming sort of way. The potters Kirbee were evidently marginally prepared to start such a business on the Texas frontier, with too little experience with mining, sifting, throwing, and firing native clay. And even less with building and operating a kiln. The vessels we know of show an almost alarming diversity in form, glazes and functionality. There seems to have been no particular style or master to follow. They were experimenting artistically, technically, desperately, with salt glazes, lime glazes, ash glazes, gray clay, red clay, pink clay, trying to find the winning combination; The melding of form and function.  It seems to have never come.

The archaeologists found records where the Kirbys began to sell off their town lots and other properties and ironically, of when they finally obtained the patent on their farmland, but never had they ever owned the site where the kiln stood. They found few surviving complete vessels, anywhere, and not even graves where the Kirbys buried their dead.  They and their products simply vanished. After all has been researched, a few rugged vessels are all of the legacy we have of these early Texas potters.
A crude but important vessel from the Bessie Owen collection. My big discovery during the visit to Montgomery: RED! Note the lack of proper finishing of the throw rings and pulls. The black glaze may not be Albany slip, but the result of a glaze made from crushed Empire period glass..

Red clay body

In 1971, the archaeologists were beginning to dust the long forgotten handmade bricks that made up the Kirbee's monster, 35 foot long, low-arched “groundhog” kiln at the pottery site.  Later Mitchell Energy and Development helped clear almost an acre, situated on the edge of Juggery Creek. The archaeology team collected specimens from the waster pile.  They dug around for kiln “furniture” but found little. The old kiln was tight-lipped, unwilling to give up her secrets.  And the sherds from Montgomery were supposedly too easily confused with others from other Texas kiln sites, making identification by clay body or glaze next to impossible.  They tried X-Ray Defraction, and a Proton Magnetometer Survey; they made charts and graphs, then the team published their findings, and went on to more fruitful endeavors. And not being potters, or collectors, they seemed to have missed all the obvious questions, and conclusions.  They documented artifacts, but shed little light on the story, or the pottery. But then, in their defense, too much time had lapsed. There was no visual record, as the Kirbees had blossomed and wilted before the age of photography reached Texas. The story would only reveal itself in snippets, over the next few decades.
Not only was the Juggery Creek clay unsatisfactory, the somewhat overly ambitious kiln presented insurmountable problems. The huge length of the kiln was ill-conceived, requiring two fire-boxes and the sustained production of incredible heat to ever get everything inside fired to stoneware hardness. It got so hot that the base of the brick chimney was nearly burned up, but since the kiln was divided in half, the second chamber could never get hot enough, as evidenced by inferior glazes on sherds found there.  Of the over 32,000 sherds collected, three-fourths of them were under-fired, indicating a chronic struggle to produce satisfactory results. The scientists decided the kiln was unique among American groundhog kilns. But not exactly in a good way.  It was nearly three times the size of other kilns of the same period. The only solution to the inefficiency of the kiln was for the Kirbees to have rebuilt the kiln smaller and hopefully render it more manageable, but this was never done. Never-the-less, that number of sherds suggests that a train car load of pottery was made at the site during the ten years of Kirbee production. There has to be more out there...
From Kirbee Kiln, 1979, a report by the Texas Historical Commission
Jekyl and Hyde. Kirbee vessels from collections in Montgomery. One quite ovoid, white (lime glaze?), and sloppily done, and then one nicely thrown bowl with a successful alkaline ash glaze.

Mrs. Anna Weisinger and Mrs. Bessie Owen  allowed the team to photograph their known [attributed] Kirbees, [^ above ^] which helped create some kind of picture of the elusive pots, as they pieced broken sherds together to reconstruct several Kirbee vessels from the site.  And here some of them are...
From Kirbee Kiln, 1979, Texas Historical Commission
A reconstructed bowl and artist's conception of its intended form.

There are some facts coming to the surface.  Kirbee had a mark...an "O"... called in South Carolina the "keyhole" mark by stoneware collectors of Landrum pottery.  It may have been just decorative, but some speculate that each little circle represented 1 gallon of capacity... The red and pink clay of these vessels, was actually borderline earthenware (and contrary to the assumptions of the archaeologists, is not typical of Texas stoneware). Red clay, AKA earthenware may have been what the potters at Kirbee finally found would fire successfully with their poor performing, low firing kiln. 

Furthermore, it makes sense to me that the broken sherds found in the kiln floor were remnants of what was wrong with their process, so more khaki colored clay sherds tells us what failed.. . as the red clay worked and flew out the door to customers.  Some of the vessels seem to made of a mixture of clays; More evidence of the scavenging and possible haste necessary to make stoneware.
From Kirbee Kiln, 1979, Texas Historical Commission
It was a long way from Edgefield, yet on a good day the Kirbees still betrayed their influences. Compare to the Abner Landrum jar way above and the John Landrum right below; Same general form and lip. Note the emergance of another tell-tale Kirbee trait... the little rib right under the rim. It is also present on the red Owen jar.

A jar attributed to Rev. John Landrum, of Edgefield District,  South Carolina.
Another large-mouthed jar, the artist got a little speculative here.
All of the excavated forms were ovoid, except for the bowls. Perhaps half of the sherds now on display at Montgomery are pink or red clay. Most of them have dark to medium olive-green ash glazes.
The typical successful Kirbee vessel was made from red or pink clay, coated with an alkaline glaze, perhaps white lime or muddy olive green ash glaze, with the throw rings un-smoothed, handles applied almost carelessly, and fired to various stages of maturity. Immature, foggy, muddy, opaque, unsuccessful glazes were the hallmark of this pottery.
More Kirbee sherds at the Davis Pioneer Museum, Montgomery. They range from the milky-khaki-greenish gray- to the glassy olive on the right.

Another tid-bit that came to me, something I learned from Blair's History of Grimes County; When my family came to Grimes County, we purchased land in the JOHN LANDRUM SURVEY. There was a John Landrum already in Montgomery County when the Kirbees arrived and his wife was related to Mary Davis!  And quite possibly he was a cousin of the brothers Landrum in South Carolina... as all of them came originally from North Carolina, where the Landrum patriarchs were known as potters.  This John Landrum had blazed the path for the Kirbees, passing through the South after a short stay in Alabama to purchase a league of land in the original Austin Colony, in south-central Montgomery County (later to become part of Grimes County).  But Landrum did not stay in the area, and moved to the pottery center of Texas, at Rusk County. His very name and presence in two early Texas pottery producing areas seems an incredible coincidence, if he had nothing to do with the Landrum stoneware dynasty. Might he have been the carrier of that keyhole mark?  Might there have been some kind of relationship early on at Montgomery, Texas, much like the one in South Carolina? Might this explain why the Kirbees came, and after some kind of break up, their struggles with the technical aspects of stoneware production? Perhaps.

The last we heard of the Texas John Landrum was his wife had passed away in 1850, and her Davis kin in Montgomery County were sent word.
So to wrap it up where I started, And most incredible, the half dozen or so early Texas stoneware vessels I was able to see from the Bessie Owen collection, were in the custody of her niece... an old neighbor/ friend and ocassional art assistant of mine, all along!  I was able to borrow essential materials, once the veritable stoneware library of Bessie Owen, for the creation of this blog. I'm sure glad I finally went to Montgomery!
Oh... and my jar. It could be... perhaps some day there will be a way to scientifically analyze the clay...
My 4 gallon jar, purchased at Warrenton from a dealer from... ODESSA! This great old jar has many characteristics of the Landrum - Edgefield pottery tradition... especially those made of  Georgia clay.  But potters in Georgia would have ridiculed this vessel with its chalky, immature glaze. Given all their trials, the Kirbees might have been pleased.

160 years of wear.

Dang these pots get around! And sometimes they come home.

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