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Posted November 7, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Potters of the past: Art exhibit reminiscent of Strasburg's history

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- Long before the nickname had another meaning, Strasburg proudly passed itself off as "Pot Town."

The town was once a potter's paradise, an achievement that can be attributed to destiny and chance -- its clay was of high quality and its settlers brought a tradition of pottery, said John Adamson, who will showcase some of his historical collection at an exhibit opening this weekend at Belle Grove Plantation.

Strasburg resident Adamson and his wife, Barbara, will have pottery pieces on display at the plantation through November. Strasburg couples Fred and Debbie Ritenour and John and Donna Huntsberger (Debbie Ritenour and Donna Huntsberger are sisters) also will have their pottery in the exhibit. And there will be a few pottery reproductions made by Dr. Jim Kiser, of Woodstock, said Adamson, a member of Belle Grove's board of directors.

Belle Grove's mission is to keep old traditions alive and in the spotlight, so celebrating Strasburg's history with pottery belongs in the mix, Executive Director Elizabeth McClung said. There is an exhibit opening, champagne breakfast and panel discussion scheduled for this morning at the plantation. Advance reservations were required.

The exhibit debuts during Belle Grove's antique appraisal weekend, too. People are invited to bring paintings, quilts, books and more to be appraised by one of three experts. In the past, items worth as much as $50,000 have been discovered, McClung said.

Pottery can be a lucrative item to own as well. Its history in Strasburg provides some value locally.

The town became Pot Town rather easily, it seems. For starters, the clay was "really good," something Native Americans picked up on as early as 1200 B.C., Adamson said. Then, when early settlers from modern-day Germany arrived, they brought with them a tradition of pottery, seeing its importance to food preparation and storage, he said.

"It was highly useful," Adamson said. "It's part of everyday life. As early as the 1760s, settlers were making pottery."

These people likely just made pottery for their own use, he added, and nothing from that era has survived. But the foundation was laid for what was to come -- a wave of families, beginning in the early 1800s, making and marking pottery.

Adam Keister, coming from Europe around 1810, was the first to mark his work, Adamson said. The Keister family, one of several with deep pottery-making roots in Strasburg, was the first to go from making what is known as earthenware or redware to stoneware, which stores liquids better.

"You have to fire it hotter," Adamson said.

From the 1840s until the Civil War, all of the pottery was made in family-sized businesses -- as many as six active potteries going at the same time. The war disrupted the trade's popularity, but when the fighting ended, the clay creations' "heyday" was born, Adamson said.

After the war and until the early 1890s, pottery took off, with it being shipped by wagon and rail. The success drove a group of local businessmen in 1891 to form the Strasburg Stone and Earthenware Manufacturing Co. and build a factory, which is now the Strasburg Museum and includes the largest public collection of town pottery, Adamson said.

"Unfortunately," he said, "this was the end of the pottery period."

Ohio, with bigger pottery factories, led to the market becoming flooded, Adamson said. By the end of the 19th century, tin cans and glass collapsed the market.

Potters tried to survive by switching to fancier, more decorative works that had mutlicolored glazes, but that did not sustain their businesses, Adamson said. The last small pottery in Strasburg closed in 1910, and in 1913 the factory changed hands to become a train depot.

"It collapsed pretty quickly," Adamson said. "It was roaring in 1890, but by 10 years later, they knew it was over."

The job of carrying on the memory of the period is up to places such as Belle Grove. Adamson said about 35 pieces of pottery, mostly from the Ritenours and Huntsbergers, will be on display. He and his wife are not big collectors, although they enjoy what they have, he said.

"The expensive stuff is so expensive, you've got to be lucky or really, really into it to have a big collection," Adamson said.

Good fortune, in fact, is what the Huntsbergers had. They unearthed more than 130 pieces of pottery on their rental property in Strasburg. It appeared as if the bowls, jugs and other forms of pottery were used as a drain that ran for more than 165 feet.

That, Mrs. Huntsberger said, sparked her and her husband's interest into getting more involved with collecting pottery.

"They're country," she said of the pieces. "It's a part of Strasburg. We just like them. They fit in very well with our decor."

Belle Grove is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $5 to see the exhibit and be a part of the antique show and other activities. For the rest of the month, the exhibit can be seen for $8 on weekends or $10 during private weekday tours that require a reservation. For more information, call 869-2028.

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