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Whenever I hear freight trains switching or moving slow down the tracks it takes me back to my boyhood home at 106 East North Street in Abingdon, Ill. I lived a block away from the Abingdon Pottery and the intersection of the Burlington Northern Railroad and a spur owned by Chicago Northwestern Railroad.
I can remember lying in bed hearing the crashing sounds of switching trains drifting through the open windows on a hot summer night. The trains were delivering slip and sand to the factory. Boxcars full of toilets, sinks and urinals were being exchanged for hoppers and tank cars. Since I only lived a block away from the pottery, I would witness many of my family’s neighbors walking to and from work at the pottery. During lunch, there would be a mad rush of pottery workers’ vehicles from the employee parking lot, down Main Street, to the various eating establishments and banks.
When many of them would return home from work, they would be covered from head to toe with a white or gray dust. The pottery was a major employer in Abingdon and many of my classmates along with students above and below me in school only thought of working at the pottery after they graduated from high school (some dropped out to start working there).
From the age of 11 to 15 my friends and I would play near a wooded slough that ran parallel to and between the Burlington Northern line and the east side of the pottery. We would see the water that ran through the slough turn white with discharge from the making of molds and the cleaning of slip containers. Our landscape around Abingdon was constant reminder of the pottery’s presence. Each year the local fairgrounds area would grow from the fill brought in from the pottery. Broken vitreous china and worn broken plaster molds provided the material to fill the gullies and ravines around Abingdon. Even though the south plant had been torn down years before, it was surrounded by past pottery fill.
I wasn’t really all that aware of Abingdon’s art pottery while growing up. I had known many long-time Abingdon residents that were either working or retired from the pottery. In 1968 my Grandfather Landon passed away at the pottery while working as a plant guard. My Mom, Dorothy Roberts, started working at the pottery’s office (then called Briggs Manufacturing) when I was in 5th grade (1971) and my brother was a year old. I could always bop in while she was at work to ask whether I could do this or that with my friends.
Throughout my school years I came home for lunch to eat with my Mom. Around that time I was mowing lawns for many elderly women and men in Abingdon. One of the women I mowed for was Jesse Wright. I can remember seeing these pink and blue vases displayed around her home (I think I thought of them at the time as being gaudy and not too impressive). I was unaware at that time in my life that she had been the secretary for the pottery during their artware period. Nor did I know that she had kept a scrapbook chronicling print advertisements and press releases concerning Abingdon artware. I had seen the Abingdon artware in other locations around Abingdon (although I didn’t know it was Abingdon). I remember one house in town on Route 41 that had the same colored vases as Jesse’s displayed in the windows of its enclosed breezeway.
|Abingdon Pottery Collector’s Club
In my freshman year of high school, Mr. Archer, my industrial arts teacher, took our class on a field trip to the pottery. There I saw the mold shop, the casting department, the drying rooms, the spray room, and the football field-length kilns. In every area I waved to friends, family and neighbors. I was impressed by the physical nature of the jobs and the harsh environment the workers had to work in. It was dusty and very hot, and this was the middle of winter! Thinking back on it now, I would have never dreamed such elegant and beautiful art would have comer from such a place.
I got a summer job at Briggs after I graduated from high school in 1979. I worked a variety of jobs at the pottery that summer. I worked second shift from 3:30 until midnight for most of the summer. I put nuts and bolts into plastic bags for them to be packed into the tank and bowl assemblies. I packed bowls (toilets), sinks, beanies, drinking fountains, urinals, bidets and water closets (tanks). I drover a fork lift moving wares to and from the warehouse and packing floor.
The packing floor was next to the kilns and an unbelievable amount of heat radiated from them. That fall I went to school at Monmouth College. A few times I got a ride either to or from Monmouth by a couple of guys who worked at Western Stoneware and lived in Abingdon. In March of 1981 I again went to work at the pottery. This time I worked days from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Again I worked a variety of jobs. I loaded the automatic bowl sprayer, cleaned casting benches, hauled wares to and from the drying rooms and casting benches. I worked in the lab taking samples of slip and glaze, monitored temperature and humidity of the drying rooms. In the fall I went back to school at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill. While going to WIU, I would walk past Haeger Pottery on my way to and from the campus. I saw workers covered in white and gray dust like the guys back in Abingdon. I even stopped in the factory store a couple of times to look at their pottery.
After I graduated from Western in December of 1984, I worked what would be my final time at the Abingdon Pottery (April-August, 1985). Again I cleaned casting benches, loaded the automatic bowl sprayer and cleaned the mold shop. Don Adcock taught me about glaze pops, glaze impurities and glaze skips. I learned how to repair these defects so they could be re-fired and sold as “A” ware. This job later helped me identify these flaws on Abingdon artware. I worked on the loading dock filling semi trailers with ware. I worked with maintenance and in the lab doing analysis on slips and glazes. I even had a stint working with the kiln gang on third shift. My final job at the pottery, before getting a teaching position at St. Bede Academy in Peru, Ill., was grinding the base of ware to make it sit level. That job made me attentive to a feature that helps me identify Abingdon artware.
My Mom retired from Briggs in 1999, a year before they shut the doors forever. My sister, Mary Lydic, worked in the office a few years before the plant was shut down. She got out a bit before the fateful day in 2000.
It makes me very sad when I go to my old neighborhood in Abingdon. The weeds and trees that have come up in the employee parking lot, around the plant and front office building making it seem like it was decades ago that the plant shut down. But because I grew up in the shadow of the pottery’s water tower and my family’s and friends’ lives were intimately intertwined with it, Abingdon Pottery is sentimental as well as beautiful. I appreciate it and the history behind it more and more. This is why I proudly collect Abingdon artware.
The following article was originally published in the Abingdon Pottery Collectors Club newsletter in 2007.
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