Potteries have always been gathering spots. The timeless wonder of watching someone throw is hypnotic. And anyone who’s taken part in a wood firing knows the communal atmosphere of those events. Back in the day, kiln firings also meant free heat. Potters often advertised, word of mouth or otherwise, to “bring your beans to bake in exchange for small favors.” Usually garden produce, eggs, or whatnot.
The amount of mindless jobs needed to keep a shop going (then and now) made curious kids easy prey for grunt labor. Ebenezer Corliss founded the largest pottery in Yarmouth, ME in 1806 and turned it over to his son-in-law David Cleaves in 1850. In the 1930’s Augustus Corliss fondly looked back on life around the pottery:
“Uncle David’s shop was a favorite resort for the small boys, although at times he made it very lively for them with the hoop used by the potters in carrying their ware from the wheel to the drying board. The boys used to be paid one cent to sit upon the sweep of the clay mill and keep the horse going while the clay was being ground, which took about an hour, – During the burning of the ware it became necessary to keep up the fire for several days and nights, and it was the custom of the young men to collect there every night and play old sledge, raffle for turkeys, or hustle for coppers.”
But sometimes the hanging on could take a different turn. The Norwich Pottery Works of Norwich, CT was located in such a way that kids could come barreling through the shop with arms outstretched, wreaking as much havoc as possible before running out the other end.
Then there was Joseph Proctor of Glouster, MA. Joseph was a descendant of John Proctor, executed during Salem Witch Trials. Joseph had big ambitions (and a big dowery). Besides a sizeable pottery (operating from 1766-1799) he ran a cooper shop and mills for chocolate, corn, and wheat. His fleet of schooners traded pottery and dried fish in the West Indies for the cocoa for his mill. Joseph played violin in a local band and he loved a good joke. These attributes only added to the lure of going down to watch his workmen throw. But how to keep the kids at bay? Joseph’s solution was to put the word out that his property was haunted. The spirit even had a name; Uncle Suts.
It was a different time…
Early New England Potters and Their Wares. Lura Woodside Watkins. Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA. 1968.
Early Potters and Potteries of New York State. William Ketchum. Funk & Wagnalls/New York. 1970.