Digging into a proud past
EDGERTON — Art lovers in Edgerton have rekindled the idea that what is old can be new again, particularly those who are fired up about clay pottery.
No one exemplifies both better than Fred Maves, an Edgerton native and lifelong resident who has continued to share his talents since retiring in 2006 after 36 years as an art teacher at the high school.
He was instrumental in establishing the first Clay Day and Pottery Festival last year and is excited about the second annual event, which is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 20.
It is a celebration of the local land's rich supply of clay and the resultant pottery and brick-making businesses that helped make the community famous starting in the late 1880s.
Tying that history to the present started with a dedication of Pottery Plaza in front of city hall in August 2015.
“The idea hit me that cutting the ribbon around the large, commemorative sculptures would be short and sweet without some kind of real, tangible reference to our city's long history in clay production,” said Maves, who completed his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and postgraduate studies at UW-Madison.
So, he touched base with City Administrator Ramona Flanagan, who in turn contacted Tom Hartzell, the head of public works. The latter and his crewmembers dug up clay from one of the three original pits, this one at Clay Pit Heritage Park and the festival site. Maves prepared enough clay for some of his former art students to use in demonstrations during the dedication event.
“The seed was planted, and it didn't take long for a group to form,” Maves said of the festival organizing committee and supporters. “They were intent on forging a new festival based on our long history of brick production and art pottery companies.”
By all accounts, the festival was a huge success as numerous members of the public took their turns at creating pieces on one of the potter's wheels.
“There's just something that everybody enjoys about getting their hands in clay,” said Maves, whose personal workstations include his garage, basement and a 30-cubic-foot outdoor kiln.
Greg Sack and his wife, Bobbi, quickly became admirers of Maves and the festival.
“I found out about Pauline Pottery and learned that Cincinnati had a major pottery around the same time that also was selling to places like Tiffany's,” the northern Kentucky native said in reference to Pauline Jacobus, who opened the first art pottery company in Chicago in 1883 before moving her studio to Edgerton five years later, according to www.hoardmuseum.org. “In learning about her, I became fascinated about this city's clay community.
“Meanwhile, our son (Carl) had moved to Madison, so we started to look at this area as a place to move and retire to,” Sack added about his search that eventually led to the couple buying a home on Lake Koshkonong near Newville. “I had seen a sign in a shop window about the pottery festival. Well, we arrived here with a load of our stuff the morning of last year's event, unloaded and went to the festival.
“I had never seen an event like this,” Sack said. “People who had never been on a wheel before were throwing (shaping) and walking away within an hour. Some participants were on the wheel for only 10 minutes and were helping others. I thought to myself that it was amazing and made this a one-of-a-kind festival … people were getting their hands dirty and finding out how fun this could be. And they were using all local clay, which also was new to me.”
Now Sack is among the festival's organizers for a daylong event that will include demonstrations, painting pots, clay stomps and tours of the original log cabin that Jacobus used.
And it's all because of efforts from folks such as Jacobus. Her first company went bankrupt in 1894 but that didn't stop her from continuing to produce works for Edgerton Pottery and later from home as an independent potter.
Jacobus' items — which featured vases, jars, teapots and cups — still are highly sought by collectors.
“It's kind of interesting in that clay predated the history of the tobacco industry in Edgerton … it brought the railroad here to ship the bricks to Chicago and elsewhere,” Maves said. “Locally, there are pieces of hers displayed at city hall, there's a collection at the library and a couple of residents have extensive collections.”
Maves made 20 commemorative vases that were sold at last year's inaugural festival and has created another set of pottery forms for Saturday.
Sack said he cannot wait for this year's event to start.
“What's neat is that many people don't show up just to admire and buy the pottery … they're here to participate.”