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TEXAS STONEWARE Part I

Make sure and read my latest article on exciting finds about Elix Brown and John Leopard stoneware of Rusk County!
 
 

Editor's note: I am not an expert on Texas stoneware, just a big enthusiast. Still, I am very excited to finally share this project with those of you who are trying to learn about Texas stoneware. This series IS A WORK IN PROGRESS, so please be patient. If you find something wrong, TELL ME, don't just talk bad about my blog. I would certainly welcome assistance. My experience however is the folks who know the most and have all the aces in their hands keep their cards close to their chests.

Obviously, since this blog is totally free, I do not guarantee any of the following contents, and I encourage readers to question and compare, just like we all have had to do. This information has been gained over many years the hard way, without the benefit of a field guide, or an authoritative and intelligible source, and it represents the best I can do, with what I have found, and YES, STOLEN FROM OTHER INTERNET SITES! This is a good place to thank Burley Auctions of New Braunfels, Texas for the use of their excellent photographs of Texas stoneware they have sold in recent auctions. THANK YOU! A bunch! I also want to recognize my published sources for this series;

*A Checklist of Potters ca. 1840- ca. 1940- compiled by Bob Helberg,

*TEXAS POTTERY- CADDO INDIAN TO CONTEMPORARY, Star of the Republic Museum,

*The Wilson Potters- Museum of Fine Arts Houston,

*Harmer Rooke Galleries, Greer Collection Catalogue,

*American Stonewares, by Georgeanna Greer,

*Kirbee Kiln by Malone, Greer & Simonsi>



The Maker's Mark

It is ironic, as I write about these potter's names, I do not know the proper way to spell some of their names! My sources are contradictory about several potters. So to get that out of the way, be prepared for different spellings for the same individual, depending on which lobe of my brain is functioning at the time. Here are the spelling quandries;

Hiram/ Hyrum/ Hirum Wilson

George Dunkin/ Duncan





The maker's mark of J. Fowler of Limestone County.

Hyrum Wilson marked his pottery in the 1860's and 1870's with the most coveted mark in the Texas stoneware market. These shards were dug up at the site where he operated his pottery. Courtesy of UT San Antonio


Shards found at the Randolph Company (Dunkin) site, the "GD" for George Dunkin or Duncan, (somebody help!) is a rare find on his pottery. You can see the variety of glazes used. Photographed at UT San Antonio.


Here is George Duncan's impressed mark on a small salt glazed crock. Very rare.

Texas Stoneware went from one of the mysterious vacuums of information in the 80's to the hottest thing in Texas collecting circles in the late 90's and now... it's hard to find anybody that cares about it. I used to joke that only about ten guys were driving the whole market, and that they just sold and traded to each other. But in spite of the waning interest in the subject, it is still a very important part of our Texas culture. [Note; Since starting this article on Texas stoneware, visits to my blog have increased a bunch... sometimes ten visits aday... proving there are still many people interested in Texas stoneware.]

Crocks, jars, pitchers, bowls, spitoons and turkey waterers, stoneware products tell us alot about early Texas lifestyle. They are handmade objects that took considerable skill to make, and even more to preserve them to this day. Objects of constant use, for decades, it is always a wonder to find a specimen in good conditon.

Isaac Suttles put this handsome Roman lettered mark on his pottery, making him one of only five or six San Antonio area potters to put his brand and location on his pottery. Photo courtesy of MFA, Houston, TX

The very first non-Indian potters in Texas were probably in San Antonio, when Texas was still under Spanish rule. Before that, pottery was the domain of the Caddoes, an east Texas confederacy of related tribes that stretched from Oklahoma into southeast Texas. That is another blog. And I don't know anything about the Hispanic potters. The focus of this article starts with the Anglo settlement of east Texas in the 1830's.

There are approximately four general regions of pottery production in early Texas that cropped up because they had usable clay. The first was the east Texas group, centered in Rusk County. Next was the most productive, the San Antonio group, centered around Seguin and Bastrop. Then a cluster of potteries popped up around the mid-Brazos region, centered in Limestone County, and about the same time a cluster in Denton County developed. There were other smaller clusters, including a few later on in Lee County and the Dallas area, and even singular potteries in experimental places, such as Llano and Montgomery County, but these four represent the majority of pottery producing areas. Later on Marshall, Texas entered the industry and has become the last major stoneware producing area.


Fowler Pottery also had a mark made with indigo glaze and a stencil.

Vessels can be identified, to some degree, based on the general characteristics known from each region. But sometimes it is very hard to place a piece, (yet experts will agree it is undoubtedly a Texas pot from a certain area). So collectors have gravitated to the easily identified, and so not surprisingly the potters who marked their works enjoy the most attention. Unfortunately, there are only a few who did. So far I have not seen any Texas stoneware makers who routinely signed their pots by hand, like the famous "Dave the Slave" of Edgefield fame.




X's as slave signatures
 


Collectors like to argue about the meanings of seemingly random X's found on some old vessels, but I refrain from the popular assumption that they are signatures by "illiterate slaves." These X'd pots often are promoted as "slave signed." [MY OPINION:] If this were so there would be a lot more X's on pots... But it makes no sense, because how would one illiterate slave's "X" be distinguished from another's? (The 5 Wilson brothers for instance) More likely, they were daily inspection notations by the master potter to the hired help about vessel features not meeting craft standards... and never smoothed out after corrections had been made. An X is just what it appears to be, a way of grading, perhaps concerning a poorly formed handle, a pull, a lip or foot of a vessel or a thin wall, or a thick one... a hundred things that a supervisor could find wrong with many of these early, primitive Texas-made pots. Most likely, the potter was in a hurry, the X's were completely ignored and the vessels were fired, glazed and sold anyway.

True maker's marks, usually stamped in or on the clay, help to identify the following potters:

East Texas: Rushton (JR impressed by stamp into clay), Hayden (JH impressed by stamp into clay), J.S. Nash (name impressed by stamp into clay), Marshall (indigo stamp) also (H impressed by stamp into clay) for Hunt? Much later Hogue pottery was stamped on the bottom. Leopard is known to have stamped his JL n some of hismpottery.

Dallas: Love Field (indigo stamp), Southern (indigo stamp)

Denton: Roark, Lambert and Cranston (Names impressed by stamp in clay)


Nothing fancy about Roark's bold mark, from Denton.

San Antonio: Star Pottery (indigo stamp), Suttles (stamped name impressed into clay), Wilson (H. Wilson & Co. impressed into clay), McDade (indigo stamp), Duncan (stamped GD) Saenger #2(stamped with indigo) and San Antonio Pottery (stamped in indigo)





Mid Brazos: Kimick (stamped name impressed into clay), Fowler, (both indigo stamp and stamped name impressed into clay),  Kosse (indigo stamp)

That will give you some idea about the difficulty in identifying Texas stoneware, since there are probably hundreds of known potters. These are the potters you can collect and have confidence that you can sell it someday with no arguments about the origins of them. But most of them are very scarce. The rest is hard work and study. But then, that's the fun of it! The best thing you can do for the rest of them is break it down by clay body, glaze, vessel form, and details about numbering, handles and lips.

Read on!



Primer on Texas Stoneware

This photo courtesy of Burley Auctions, where I purchased some great Texas Stoneware.

I’ve mentioned the four basic regions where the pottery came from; San Antonio, East Texas, Denton-Dallas and Mid-Brazos.

Each region had characteristics that help to identify vessels thrown in that particular area. So when I look at a piece of pottery I ask these four questions:

Clay body?

Glaze?

Form?

Handles and numbers?

Clay body: The “clay body” is the make-up and characteristics of the clay. There are two basic kinds of pottery, made of either an off-white to peachy to gray colored stoneware, or an inferior pink to red, very porous clay called earthenware. Stoneware was the far more preferable, as it was less porous and much more dense, but required a higher firing temperature.

Clay changes color when it is fired. Light Gray clay fires to white, but with impurities, it might look peachy. Dark gray clay fires to a warm light gray. Brown or red clay fires to a deep orangey-pink, near the color of brick. Some red clays can be used for stoneware, but most are only suitable for earthenware; bricks. Occasionally you see places (like Limestone County, or Henderson County) where the same clay that made bricks and tiles made pottery. Texas is a kaleidoscope of various clays. Every color of clay can be found here, from gray, rich brown, to black to red to orange. The best clays are gray in appearance. Most Texas stonewares are made of this kind of clay, although I have seen some that was borderline earthenware.


An interesting jar, possibly a rare example of Texas Redware. Mexican and Native American pottery is usually made from low fired earthenware. And there is a reason why there are few surviving examples of them. Earthenware is handy because of its low temperature requirements for firing, but it is soft and easily damaged.

The earliest clays dug and used in the Republic era were pretty crude, as there were not the sophisticated methods of filtering the clay. Therefore there were telltale contaminants in the clay that made it fire spotty, creating spots or halos, or caused it to bake inconsistently, sometimes causing hairline cracks, or the clay to turn funny colors.

So is the clay clean or contaminated? If it is contaminated, that is good, a sign that it is quite old, so what is showing up? In east Texas, iron granules and other ingredients plagued the early Texas potters. These impurities show up as hundreds of little rusty, dark spots, sometimes causing the vessel to have tiny explosions during firing, leaving little “blow outs,” or the vessel to flake later. Around central Texas, early Suttles pottery was often discolored by bleached areas that look like faded blotches or little round halos.

If the clay is pretty clean, what color is it? Later clays were better processed to get a more pure clay body, free of contaminants. How porous is it? Early ceramics were softer, more porous, and after hundreds of years they have often absorbed a great deal of kitchen grease, that cannot be removed, which makes the clay body sometimes appear very dark gray. The better, later clays are denser, less porous. Can you find a recent chip on the surface that will give you a truthful reading on the color, without the usual aging? Normally chips are bad but they can help out a lot! If it is light pinkish or peachy white, and porous, it is probably from San Antonio, 1860's to mid-nineteenth Century. If it is deeper pink, or orangey pink, probably Bastrop area, but it could be mid-Brazos. If it is grayish to white, or grayish pink, with a whole lot of the iron granules, it is probably east Texas. Unfortunately, there are dozens of various combinations of these otherwise helpful clues.

Note; A lot of antique ceramics show up here in Texas, because we pay so much, and often they are very early and Southern made, but not from our native potteries, and sometimes the only way to know is the clay body, as every other indicator might be identical. Often the telltale suspicion is over a great looking pot, but the clay is too nice, no impurities, or it is dark gray, no pink present at all, and suddenly everybody shrugs and walks away. The best place to look when you pick up a vessel is on the bottom, to check out whatever you can tell about the clay body. But remember, the clay body can be stained because of prolonged use with foods, kitchen grease, etc, and old surface chips and the vessel bottom can be darkened over time by these and other factors. That's why a small, fresh chip can sometimes be a good thing!

So you can establish an approximate age and origin by studying the kind of clay body used. The purer and better the clay, the newer the vessel.


The iron spots in this Athens brick are quite similar to those in this salt glazed jug, attributed to the Athens Pottery Co., which started in 1895.

Iron spots usually say early manufacture: 1830 – 1860’s (approx) So in Texas stoneware circles, "ugly" is desirable. We get excited when we see a real grainy, porous, pinkish-grayish clay body, lots of tiny blackish spots. That means east Texas, maybe a Cogburn, Leopard or a Prothro, or Hines or a Rushton. And then there are nuances of this. Lighter, cleaner gray to almost yellowish white, with less iron spots, could still be east Texas, but perhaps later, as technology improved. But by the 1890’s, potteries like Hunt were making vessels with a nice light clay, much like the San Antonio potteries. So to tell the difference, you have to move on to the next question; Glaze.

Glaze: There are several basic types of glazes. 1) Alkaline or what we call "Ash" glazes, 2) Salt glazes, and 3) glazes made from different clays (called "slip"), that could be brown (Albany slip) olive to green (Leon slip) or plain white (Bristol).

The earliest glazes were salt glazes, as they were the easiest and most reliable. But Texas had a salt shortage, so like their Southern ancestors from Alabama and the Carolinas, Texas potters resorted to ash or alkaline glazes; Literally glazes made from the ash of burned up wood. They learned different wood ashes, mixed with various amounts of silica (sand) under various environmental conditions, gave different tones in glazes. Their recipes yielded wonderful greens, warm grays, even golds and pale yellows, but these glazes were terribly runny and inconsistent. To compensate, we in Texas have learned to appreciate a good ugly, random glaze. Potters literally threw the ash into the glowing kiln at around 1200+ degrees, and the ash instantly vaporized and stuck to everything inside the kiln, and hopefully the pots. So results were quite unpredictable. These glazes could be yellowish, or greenish, or grayish, even olive and dark brown, or any variation in between. They were most commonly used in early day east Texas, but a few potters in the Bastrop area used some ash glazes, such as John Wilson and George Duncan.
This early one gallon jar has a fabulous, pristine olive green ash glaze. Very elegant, with thin walls, this kind of craftsmanship was rare in early Texas. Perhaps from Rusk County, Texas, it favors the work of John Leopard, probably when just forming his style as an employee of James Prothro.

But soon enough, salt glazing became the standard, with all kinds of variations. Salt could be applied thick to get an almost reptilian texture. Sometimes it was put on so thin it failed to cover and the vessel appears unglazed, but it would still barely hold water. It usually was meant to be clear, or provide a slight amber finish, but when it went badly it could be crusty white, grayish clear, rusty brown or just flake off when you touched it. In salt glazes, the color of the clay itself plays an important role in the final outcome, as it is transparent. So that has to be considered. Most the Denton pottery I have seen is salt glazed on white clay, which reflects the Ohio-Illinois Valley where many of the potters who came there after the Civil War were from. They look amber to light gray today. The famous Wilson brothers near Seguin used mostly salt, as did the mid-Brazos potters, like Lyon, Fowler, Kimick, or Knox. But any potter, I don’t care what any “expert” tells you, would have used whatever he had on a given day. Every craftsman is constantly experimenting, a fact many collectors fail to figure-in during identification.


We have a selection of Texas stoneware for sale at Blues Alley in Navasota.

Saenger, Suttles, Hunt, Knox and Stoker came along by the 1870’s and 80’s, when Albany slip glazes became cheap and available, but results were varied. Suttles got a beautiful reddish brown glaze to die for. Hunt got a fiery burnt orange. Stoker struggled, got some streaky blacks and old salt droppings from previous firings mixed in, but got some decent, sellable products, and William Saenger got a beautiful mess; wild flashes of gold mixed in amazing sienas and even maroons, but often almost half of his glazes just shed off like snakeskin. It appears he was determined to find a useful mixture of the Albany slip with the local Leon slip. The Wilson brothers made the transition from ovoid to semi-ovoid vessels, but made little with the new brown glaze. Strangely, Duncan unexplainably continued the old style, and did not seem to embrace the changes. For many potters in this period, such as the Wilsons, they began to use the salt glaze outside and the expensive Albany slip (dark chocolate brown) inside where it counted the most, to make the crock water-tight.
William Saenger achieved incredible effects with his glaze mixture, but also had trouble with them flaking off!

But due to a great deal of sharing of technique and technology, experimentation, and the cross-pollination of artistic ideas, and unpredictable use of materials in a frontier environment, glaze cannot be the final word on identification, either.

So once again, just as in clay body, glaze can only help establish a premise for time and geography.

Form: To me the most telling characteristic is the form itself. I am a potter, and I throw on the wheel and like every potter, I have a style, a way of doing things, a look that can be learned through study and comparison. But remember, every potter had assistants and they were usually trained to throw like the boss, but many times they got in a hurry or were not supervised and well, things happened. So even form does not always have the last word.

Due to its distinctive footballesque form, Duncan pottery can be easily recognized.

You have to realize that these guys were workaday tradesmen, even though some of us consider them folk artists, and one potter might have thrown for several different potteries in a lifetime. No matter who he was throwing for, he would sometimes reflect his master, his mentor. We know that Isaac Suttles got his start under the Wilsons. So it stands to reason that a lot of their pots look similar and some pots could either be “Third Site” Wilson or first site Suttles. Saenger, Parkhurst, Richter, Williams and Meyer had interrelationships. One might work for the other to get an order out… or vice versa. One would get the other started until he got his own operation going. There was bleed over like crazy amongst every local pottery with the other. This leads to lots of confusion today, where collectors want to pigeonhole everything. Too often, non-creative people try to impose logical structure on creativity in order to understand it. Sometimes that works, sometimes it just creates more confusion. Just remember these guys were ARTISTS and thus constantly inventing creative solutions. Sometimes the creative process is just like the Internet, where people steal ideas from each other...

Still, there are distinct forms that we can attribute to particular potters. Potters might borrow clay or a glaze recipe, but they still had to make the vessel on the wheel. And that artistic shaping is like a fingerprint. We talk a lot about ovoid or semi-ovoid forms, or just plain cylinders. A rule of thumb is that most true ovoid vessels were made in east Texas, except for the John Wilson’s and the Duncan’s. Typical east Texas ovoid forms were made by Leopard, Cogburn, Nash, and Brown, and a few others.
 
These were veteran potters, sons and grandsons of potters, and their wares were well shaped, handsome, reflecting the Greek Revival style of the day,and the vessel walls were made as thin as possible. Handles and pulls were carefully and elegantly formed. An ash glazed, ovoid vessel from east Texas is the most sought after as they are beautiful, reflect superior craftsmanship, growingly scarce and have great artistic value. In good condition, vessels made by these potters easily fetch four figures.
 
 
This outstanding ovoid Greek revival jar by J. S. Nash is courtesy of Burley Auctions.

Soon potters figured out that the less ovoid they made the vessels, the easier they were to stack and pack in wagons, and the more successful shipments could be with these streamlined forms. That bulge in the ovoid made a stress point that did not fare well in transport through the Old West. So the O in the ovoid became gentler; a semi-ovoid, and in many cases a thicker vessel wall was thrown to make it more durable in the Texas frontier lifestyle. By the 1870’s most potters were using this form, up until the late 1800’s. Brown glaze (Albany slip) had become available, and more affordable, and Texas potters began to experiment with them.
 
 
Marked "JH," this semi-ovoid, ash glazed jar from east Texas is attributed to Jim  Hayden. Photo courtesy Burley Auctions.

Perhaps the most expensive vessels on the market today are the ones made by former slaves such as the Wilsons, then freedmen; simple semi-ovoid , salt glazed jars… as long as they have H.(Hyrum) WILSON & Co. stamped in them. The later Wilsons do not bring much, as they require a little knowledge, and can be confused with early Suttles.

By the turn of the Century, as with every other thing made at this time, great changes were in the making in stoneware. Potters were going straight, and making white pottery with salt exterior finishes, meant to emulate Bristol glazes. Now pottery was made to be lightweight, economical and straight-sided vessels were required to be transported on the rails. Higher quality clay was used, that fired white, and was glazed to appear white. Some attempts to employ actual white glazes show up, that suggest Texas potters were experimenting with whites, but were unable to get satisfactory results, probably because of iron in the clay. So potters like Ernst Richter became adept at faux white finishes, using the purest white clay and salt glazes. "White" glaze could be cleaned and actually look clean. Sanitation was becoming an issue in Texas, as with the rest of the country. But just like turn of the Century Texas picket fences, a whitewash was about the best they could do.

At the same time, all the exciting elements that made Texas pottery so wonderful were abandoned. For the next twenty years, pottery got more predictable and standardized. And boring.  But McDade made an interesting vessel, mostly crocks and churns, half white, half brown.
An early 2 gallon McDade jug, Bastrop County, perhaps 1890's.

And Meyer Pottery in San Antonio came on the scene in the 1880’s with wonderful retro-round shouldered vessels, straight-sided but adorned with the old style handles on the shoulder and gorgeous Leon slip glazes in gradations of golds, browns and greens.
A gorgeous Meyer half gallon jug. Note the green-gold glaze, sometimes splashed with browns, called "Leon Slip" after the creek where it was mined, and the handle "on the shoulder."

But the crocks and jugs made around the state, in other San Antonio potteries like Star Pottery in Elmendorf, or the mid-Brazos or Dallas, or Marshall, were white, fairly straight, sometimes ringed in blue, and marked with indigo ink; The kind of stoneware you think of in grandma’s kitchen. Pottery became strictly utilitarian, and although it had its own charm, the variations between makers is so slight as to make collecting much less interesting.
This Richter jug from Star Pottery in Elmendorf, Texas became a standard at central Texas mercantiles.

To oversimplify:

Early East Texas 1830-70: Darker clays with iron spots, ovoid to semi-ovoid, drippy ash glazes in several colors. Stamped impressed initials, but rarely. Every kind of handle and pull. Churns, jars, pitchers & jugs. Usually fine craftsmanship, sometimes quite elegant. Very strong Edgefield, North Carolina influence.


 
A magnificent John Leopard jar.
Examples of ash glazed Leopard pottery made in Rusk County, beginning 1860.

San Antonio 1860-1940: Lighter hues, porous clays, very little iron spotting, semi-ovoid to cylindrical, Albany, Leon slip, salt glazes (some exceptions), stamped initials & names, indigo stamps. Handles sometimes completely on the jug shoulder, sometimes to the neck. Churns, jars, crocks, pitchers, jugs, bird waterers & ant traps. Very varied craftsmanship. Edgefield, NC and Illinois influences.
 
These highly coveted Hyrum Wilson vessels belong to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Mid-Brazos 1870- 1930?: Pink and gray to white clay, contaminated clays, semi ovoid to cylindrical, salt and Albany slip glazes. Indigo stenciling. Handles on the jug shoulder to the neck. Crocks, giant jugs & jars. Average to almost crude craftsmanship. Mixed, even more Northern influences.

A churn made by the Fire Brick & Tile Co. of Kosse, Tx. (Limestone County)

Denton - Dallas: 1880-1950: white high fire clay, (often with many flaws) cylindrical, some Albany slip and mostly salt glaze, stamped names, indigo hand-lettering, artistic flourishes. Mostly crocks. Some churns. Standard, utilitarian, production-workshop craftsmanship. Ohio - Illinois Valley (Compare to Red Wing) influence.

James Roark made handsome salt glazed jars in Denton County

The potter's mark for Cranston of Denton County.

A Denton County Cranston Jar... courtesy Burley Auctions.


Handles and lips and feet: So you you’ve got a great old ovoid jar, and it this rich olive glaze, but you still have no idea which east Texas potter made it. Each potter has a unique style when he makes handles and pulls and when he forms the lip on the mouth or trims the foot of the vessel. Even the way he removes the vessel from the wheel. He also has a certain style of making the numbers, to signify how many gallons the vessel will hold. Some had number stamps, others inscribed it carefully, others slashed almost recklessly.

Describing all of those details would be too laborious and confusing. So I will post blogs about the different potters, one at a time… and hopefully I’ll get around to the one you need to know, to identify your stoneware treasure!



East Texas Stoneware; The Republic of Texas potters

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 the Carolinas 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 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, whom we have record of. You can find my extensive rant on Taylor and Elix Brown in PART II, so I want to focus here on the others.

An ovoid slat glazed  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, Texas and the surrounding area. Few other towns existed. There were no railroads, and very few roads, so importation from outside civilization was unlikely. 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 then 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.
Salt and ash glazed 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 seen very few of these vessels outside of a museum. When I finally saw some of them, it was a great disappointment. Plain, crude and as much a product of improvisation as craftsmanship, 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 fashioned from inferior materials, poorly glazed with salt, and thus porous and fragile. And that is why they were out of business by the time Texas seceded from the Union in 1861.




A wonderful example of a Kirbee jar, from right here in Grimes County.

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, quite ovoid, artistically thrown, thin walled, masterfully glazed with ash; they are considered some of the best stoneware makers in east Texas. Ash glazed Prothro forms are olive colored and sometimes 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

 
Early Texas (Statehood) ash glazed, ovoid jug made by J. S. Nash. Photo from Burley Auction sale of Texas stoneware.


The Wilson brothers make Texas History...




A recently discovered photo, believed to be of James and Wallace Wilson.

It says in the Bible that God is like a potter, and we are like the clay. So potters have always had a certain importance to us, as they illustrate attributes of our Creator. These guys were once slaves, shaping pots on the potter's wheel in Capote, Texas, (near Seguin) for their master, John Wilson, a Presbyterian minister. When they were freed, they started their own business, making pots with their brother Hyrum for their community. Also working in the family enterprise were Andrew and George Wilson. Still, it was the oldest brother's name, H. Wilson, that was stamped on every vessel. The following is a little information I have scavenged about this intriguing Texas family. But what I am most excited about is the epiphany of this photo, believed to be of the less known Wilson potters, now on display at our blues museum at Blues Alley...

When Texas stoneware collectors gather and converse around pick-up truck beds at flea-market parking lots, they sometimes share information about their searches as they find the elusive grails of Texas lore. The name Wilson will invariably come up. Wilson stoneware is the most famous and best documented, and thus the most sought after early Texas pottery.

Only a few years ago, just a small specialized group of Texana enthusiasts even knew of the obscure cluster of potteries in Guadalupe County. A protégé of stoneware collector and author Georgiana Greer, young Craig Oatman blazed the trail as he scavenged through forgotten and abandoned pottery sites to find scraps of Wilson pottery to aid in identification. [He recently contacted me, amazed that he was remembered, and gave me a thumbs up on the blog...Thanks Craig!] A devoted assistant of Greer's, Oatman learned a great deal from the matriarch of Texas stoneware collecting, but soon ran into the same wall of ignorance, or worse secrecy, that I did, where it was very hard to learn about the various potters and the towns they were from. His mentor Mrs. Greer finally wrote a book on the subject, called American Stonewares ( although a little outdated, very useful, with an emphasis on Texas ) but just the pioneer in this study, Greer left a great deal yet to be discovered.

What hurt the stoneware market was the lack of a field guide, and soon the few that were knowledgeable about the subject began to use that advantage with fairly selfish, profit driven policies. If you had something good, they might shrug and make an ambivalent offer... but nobody was ever going to tell you what you had.. or what it might be worth. It was too much to try to learn.. and hope to be successful. Most of us just scavenged around and became satisfied to be the bottom feeders in the chain, selling to somebody else who "had contacts," as we looked desperately for sources to identify the stoneware ourselves. Finally there were stoneware conferences, and I remember the revelations I enjoyed after just attending one of them.

I was introduced to Texas stoneware through an old friend, now deceased, who insisted that I “fix” his broken and chipped pots so that he might enjoy them better. Stuart Cox harangued me until I finally fixed a few, replacing handles, patching glazes, even reconstructing spouts and some bottoms. It did not take long however for the word to get out, and I "fixed" several vessels for other collectors, to the howls of protest from purists who hated the very idea of restoration. I was able to restore many pieces for collectors back in the late 90’s, before I just got too busy to fool with them. In the process I handled and studied some great old stoneware... IDENTIFIED early stoneware, and I fell in love with the stuff, and soon could recognize some early Texas potters by just looking at the pottery. Most of it is not signed, and it takes expert knowledge to discriminate between some potters, and even they are fooled and surprised sometimes.

As rare, early Texas stoneware has become a coveted thing, it has also become the subject of various unorganized educational efforts. With trickles of information, and a few publishing ventures of Russell Barnes, Dale Ross and others, now Texans can know a tantalizing portion of the Wilson stoneware legacy. The first point of note is there were three “sites.”


Photo of John Wilson, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

First Site Wilson: The first site was established in 1857 by John MacKamie Wilson, a Presbyterian minister and entrepreneur. Wilson promoted the central Texas region where he settled, and wrote glowing reports about the suitable clays that were found in the area for the manufacture of stoneware. His business was named Guadalupe Pottery and the pottery was made by his slaves, including Hyrum, Wallace and James Wilson. Production in this pottery must have ended shortly after the Civil War.

The short number of years of production under John Wilson limited the amount of artistic variation, and there is a fairly strong coherence of artistic style in these forms. Vessels made here were quite ovoid, and crudely glazed with alkaline substances or more likely salt, which created smooth, clear to inconsistently colorful and somewhat crusty glazes. First Site forms include mostly slope necked jugs, small-mouthed jars and churns. Handles on jugs were high and open, joined completely to the vessel shoulder. Handles (grips) on jars were horseshoe shaped and tapered on the ends.

An example of John Wilson's salt/ash? glazed stoneware, made at Guadalupe Pottery, on display at UT San Antonio.


Photo of Hyrum Wilson, courtesy Institute of Texan Cultures, San Antonio via MFA, Houston.

Second Site: John Wilson’s slaves, members of the black Wilson family who had worked at the Guadalupe Pottery, started their own pottery at a different site soon after the war. Throwing and firing begun around 1869, as Hyrum, James and Wallace Wilson made a team of potters that are believed to be one of the very first businesses in Texas owned and operated by freedmen. Hyrum was apparently the boss, and the primary force in the enterprise, as his name was stamped boldly on much of their stoneware produced from the end of the Civil war until 1884, when the legendary potter passed away.


Mostly salt glazed shards found by archeologists at the Hyrum Wilson "Second Site." Note:You can click inside the photo and it will come up MUCH larger.


Stoneware made by Hyrum Wilson. Note the huge bluish salt drops on the largest vessel, made by accident when the salt encrustation inside the kiln, built up from numerous firings, melted during firing and dropped these little jewels on the stoneware. VERY DESIRABLE!

Vessels made at the "Second Site" were ovoid to slightly ovoid, usually glazed with salt, which resulted in unpredictable, runny, transparent, grey-green finishes. Flashes of iron present in the materials made beautiful crimson swirls and spattering, which appear randomly on the vessels. Forms from the second site are usually small and large-mouthed storage jars (crocks), churns and jugs. Side handles on crocks and jars are typically a no-frill horseshoe-shaped coil. Most importantly, the vessels are marked, with the prominent stamp in plain letters: H. Wilson & Co.

Third Site: At the same time that the former slaves began to throw pottery as free men, John Wilson conveyed his old pottery site to M. J. Durham. Durham produced stoneware there and was later joined by a partner, a black potter named Chandler. It is known that Isaac Suttles began his pottery career here. Wallace and James Wilson joined this operation in 1884 after the death of Hyrum Wilson. This pottery was in continuous production until 1903.

A salt glazed Suttles jug, that could easily be confused for a "third-site Wilson." The mouth is a concave cylinder, whereas the Wilsons were not so carefully shaped, and tended to be very robust.


Third site vessels are greatly varied stylistically and are much more cylindrical, salt-glazed, and light grey to beige in color. Many flaws in the clay body became evident in the firing, and surfaces were crude and splotchy. Forms discovered today may be very similar to later Suttles pottery, since I. Suttles worked there after arriving in Texas from the Ohio valley. Jugs might have a fancy, flared bulbous rim, known in some circles as "cavetto," or kind of blob top, or flattened ring, or refined tubular "napkin ring" spouts. Handles usually start on the shoulder and end at the spout of the vessel, reducing breakage. Shipping by rail caused an evolution of the forms over the years from ovoid to straight sided, to decrease wasted space in crating. Third Site pottery is thick, sturdy and more utilitarian.

Salt glazed jug attributed to the Durham-Chandler "Wilson Third Site" pottery, from UT San Antonio.

Editors Note: The photo of the two men at the top was purchased from an antique shop here in Navasota, and was thought to be two of the Wilson brothers... The man on the left could easily be a brother to Hiram Wilson, the famous black potter, and another artist saw a striking resemblance between the man on the right and James Wilson. I concurred and offer it and a rare published photograph of James Wilson to the general public for viewing and comparison. We have no proof of these men's identities, but are still pleased and thrilled at the possibilities.

Also look for Texas Stoneware PART II and new articles about Texas Stoneware, searching STONEWARE in the search button at the top right of the main page.