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Blue Ridge Pottery Club's annual event celebrates gem in Erwin's past

September 24th, 2013 8:14 am by Katherine Scoggins

Blue Ridge Pottery Club's annual event celebrates gem in Erwin's past

The Erwin National Blue Ridge Pottery Club will hold its 2013 National Show and Sale, Oct. 3-5, in the Unicoi County Intermediate School, located on Mohawk Drive, in Erwin, Tenn.

Held in conjunction with Erwin’s Annual Apple Festival, the annual show and sale brings together serious collectors to purchase, sell or just learn more about one of East Tennessee’s most successful industries. 

A must-see event for collectors and enthusiasts of Blue Ridge Pottery, the show will feature rare pieces, individual pieces and complete sets. It is the largest show in the United States, with 36 booths and 35 vendors from 17 states, including Texas and California.

“These vendors are also friends we have made over the years,” said Larna Smith, who is a serious Blue Ridge Pottery collector and whose husband, Bill, is club president this year.

“We are always glad to see familiar faces and meet new friends. Our show and sale would never be this successful if it were not for the vendors. It is a big commitment for them and they work really hard while they’re here. We try to make sure they have some fun, too!”

The Preview Sale will be held from 6 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 3, and requires a $5 entrance fee. The sale days are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, Oct. 4, and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 5. There is no charge Friday or Saturday. 

So what is so special about this china that people from all over the world collect it? The answer to that lies in the history of the area and the pieces themselves.

In 1916, the owners of the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad wanted to expand their rail shipping business. They chose the small town of Erwin. With a population of 300 people, Erwin was a railroad stop located close to a source of raw materials needed to manufacture pottery. With the help of a well-known pottery manufacturer from Ohio (E. J. Owens), they opened Clinchfield Pottery in 1916. The original workers were brought from Ohio and West Virginia to train the Erwin workers in the art of making and decorating pottery. Commercial production started in 1917 with original dinnerware that was simple with decals for the patterns.

The town of Erwin grew significantly due to the influx of employees brought in for the pottery and housing was limited. Two basic house plans from Sears & Roebuck homes were selected and used. Nicknamed the “Pottery Houses,” they were built as rental units for the pottery employees and their families. Though most have undergone significant renovations, some of these houses still stand today.

In 1920, Clinchfield Pottery changed its name to Southern Potteries Inc., went public and stock totaling $500,000 was offered for sale. 

In 1937, the decision was made to handpaint the china rather than to use decals. The pieces were painted in small groups, with stamps often used to outline the design on the piece. The lead painter in the group would paint the main design and pass it along to the next person who might paint on the leaves, then it would be passed on to the next person who would paint another part of the pattern, and so on until the entire pattern was painted. When a prototype of a new pattern was designed, each brushstroke was counted, each color recorded to determine if it was feasible and economical to mass produce.

At the peak of production during the 1940s, Southern Potteries had 1,100 employees and over 5,000 patterns. Eleven Blue Ridge showrooms (Southern Potteries) carried samples of the china throughout the country - on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in San Francisco and in New Orleans. Pieces were carried by Macy’s, Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Blue Ridge Pottery was also offered as a premium in large boxes of Quaker Oats. Blue Ridge even produced pieces designed by Walt Disney. 

By the time World War II broke out, Southern Potteries ranked as one of the largest producers of china in the United States. With over 1,000 employees, production reached an estimated 17 million pieces a year during the mid-1940s. Then, Southern Potteries closed in 1957, avoiding bankruptcy and even paying stockholders a final dividend. After its closing, a number of Blue Ridge painters went to Cannonsburg and Stetson potteries to complete outstanding orders.

So it seems fitting that the largest show of Blue Ridge Pottery would be held in Erwin. Although the Pottery itself is no longer standing, memories of one of Erwin’s finest hours live on in the collections and hearts of collectors - many of whom will travel to Erwin this October and once again pay homage to a very special time in East Tennessee history.

For more information, contact Larna Smith at 423-202-1207 or visit www.blueridgepotteryclub.org.

Editor's note: Background for this story came from interviews with Linda Day and Larna Smith and the publications “Collecting Blue Ridge Pottery: The History Behind This Sought-After Collectible” by Lynn Harris and “Blue Ridge China Today” by Frances and John Ruffin.


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