Archive for March, 2012

The Dutch and The Deacon

March 18, 2012

Since 1653 the settlers of Huntington, Long Island struggled to establish a pottery.  But their clay was no good.  In the mid 1700’s Adam Staats, a newly emigrated Dutch stoneware potter, identified the ungainly local clay as stoneware, useless for lead glazed redware.  On October 22, 1751 the town agreed to let Staats dig, at one shilling per cord, “…from a walnut sapling on ye side of ye bank to the eastward of Jehiel Seamer’s northerly to a rock near low water mark to carry away as much as he can gitt to ye west of said bounds…”

Staats moved to Norwich, CT in 1772 with fellow potter Christopher Leffingwell.  But his move to Greenwich, CT shortly thereafter resulted in the first sustained stoneware pottery in New England (Grace Parker was the first stoneware potter in New England, but her shop failed soon after her passing).  Wherever he went, Staats imported clay from his Long Island deposits.  He Anglicized his name to Adam States as business grew, but he was always known as “the Dutch Potter.”

One of the Dutch Potter’s many apprentices was a lad named Abraham Mead.  Apparently Abraham soaked up his lessons like a sponge.  As legend has it, early on in his apprenticeship young Abraham took advantage of a prolonged absence by his master to fire a kiln all by himself.  Adam came home early (of course) just as Abraham was salting the kiln at the end of the firing.  Rather than punish the lad, Adam proudly exclaimed “He’s got it!  He’s got it!”

Abraham Mead eventually took over the shop.  Being in a port city, Mead, like Staats before him, was able to thrive by shipping his wares far and wide along the coast in his own barges.  But being in a port city also meant that business ground to a halt during the blockade years of the Revolutionary War.  Afterward, Mead picked up the pieces and kept the shop going.

Mead was active in Greenwich society.  He was town treasurer for many years.  He also took great interest in the local Congregational Church.  At one point he paid the church’s outstanding mortgage by donating an entire boatload of pottery for the purpose.  People called him “the Deacon Potter.” 

The only question is, was this Deacon-hood bestowed before or after the mortgage settlement?

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.


Lake Hitchcock

March 4, 2012

Lake Hitchcock doesn’t exist.  But I learned something about it when picking up bricks in my yard after my old chimney collapsed/was torn down. 

Old bricks are useful for any number of things.  I gathered up the debris and stored it for, well, whatever.  Many of the bricks had the name “Pray” on them.  As my house is 120 years old, there must have been a Pray brick making company somewhere near here at that time.

Casual research (ie; Google) into the Pray Brickyard exposed an entire field of brick obsession.  There are research sites, forums, blogs, etc.  How interesting can a brick be?  If you’ve ever stood inside a Hoffman brick kiln during a firing and saw the glowing stack, you’d probably say “Ok, this is pretty cool.”  (Especially if the brickyard was located in the shadow of a live volcano and operated by a consortium of ex-convicts freed on the condition that they keep the yard going.  But that’s another story altogether…)

Brickyards appeared in Virginia by 1612, and were soon found throughout the colonies.  Mid century laws regulated dimensions, molds, and (as in a June 10, 1679 order by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) that clay be dug no later than November 1 and turned over in February or March a month before production.  Large scove kilns could hold 200,000 bricks and take almost a month to fire.  By the 1850’s stoneware’s predominance combined with widespread building and land improvement projects led (forced) many redware potters into the brick, tile and drainpipe business.

But all that is economic necessity.  The love of brick developed later, so that by the mid 1980’s billboards throughout England proclaimed “Bricks make Britain beautiful.”  True enough.  (There was even a one hour TV special on this wonderful building material hosted by non other than Prince Charles.)

Anyway, back in Massachusetts, where did Robert E. Pray get the clay for his bricks?  The clay was obviously dug up right there in his Greenfield, MA brickyard yard from the 1840’s to 1960’s .  But the deposit for his bricks was laid down over 15,000 years ago.  During that time the area was under a gigantic Pleistocene lake.  This lake, which doesn’t exist anymore, is known today as Lake Hitchcock.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850. Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques.  Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977. 

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968. 

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.