Century of Niloak pottery

BENTON, Ark. – Any time an old clay pot gets dug out of the ground in this city, you can guarantee Arlene Hyten Rainey’s telephone will ring.

A few years ago, a man working a backhoe north of downtown on Military Road made one such call. He plowed into a long-abandoned burned-out kiln of dozens of antique jugs. Someone told him to call Arlene. He brought a jug to Arlene to show her.

“I nearly had a fit! I said you’ve dug into a burned out kiln,” Rainey recalled. She had reason to be disappointed. On that exact location a century ago, a fire consumed the kiln and pottery that had been buried and abandoned by her father, Charles “Bullet” Hyten. The jugs, to Rainey, are like keys that unlock this city’s fascinating history with pottery.

Although no commemorative events are planned yet, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the successful creation of the method now known as Niloak pottery. The pottery is famous for its marbleized swirls of red, blue, grey, white and other clay colors. However, the city’s public Gann Museum, 218 S. Market St., has a permanent display of a remarkably diverse collection of Niloak brand and Hyten family pottery.

Niloak had achieved center stage in national auctions. Rago Arts auctions in recent years have seen the values paid for Niloak demonstrate a pottery that holds its value, commanding prices that would have been impressive before the recession. The Belhorn Auction Service American Art Pottery Auction held in the fall of 2009 also witnessed increases in what collectors were willing to pay for Niloak and other older brands, again, despite the recession.

It’s no surprise to Rainey that Niloak has an appeal that has reached worldwide.

“I think the appeal of it is that … from the ground to the finished product, it’s home done. A man put his hands on this clay that came from this earth,” said Rainey, now 93. “It’s never been made any place else.”

The main clay veins under this 200-year-old community are kin to the bauxite ores mined in eastern Saline County. There’s so much clay underground that a crew digging foundations for a new Benton High School auditorium a few years ago called Rainey about a bank of clay they discovered in the process.

“They had dug down 16 feet and had not reached the bottom of it,” she said.

Niloak derived its name from the backwards spelling of the clay type kaolin. In regular production from 1910 to 1934, Niloak appeared as vases, penholders, kitchen ware, ewers, creamers, sand jars to douse cigarettes, umbrella jars and even a very limited, special-order production as tile.

“I’ve always heard that he (Bullet Hyten) made a birdbath for a house up in the Heights (in Little Rock). We never have been able to find out where or for whom it was and there’s no telling what became of it,” Rainey said.

Bullet Hyten was born in Benton, Ark., in 1877. His father died while he was a boy. Hyten learned the pottery trade from his step-father, Frank Woosley. In a true story handed down through the generations, it is known that Woosley worked for the elder Hyten and cared for him until his death, also keeping the family business going. Woosley married Bullet’s mother, Harriet, in 1882.

The family pottery produced houseware with the name “Hyten Brothers” and “Eagle Pottery” on it. The location isn’t marked but is at the intersection of the present-day Congo and Military roads.

In 1895, Bullet’s step-father and mother along with his siblings left the Bear State of Arkansas for the Buckeye State of Ohio, to help Woosley family members run farms there. Woosley sold the family business to Bullet, who was 18 at the time.

Soon after, tragedy struck. A fire consumed one of the kilns. Bullet almost lost the business. A minister friend gave him $100. The gift kept the cashflow going. Without that gesture, Rainey says her father probably would have found work elsewhere with another potter.

It’s important to point out that in this era of American life, any city with a few hundred or more people had several potters. Refrigerators didn’t exist. White stoneware or white and brown stoneware was used for canning, pickles, milk, cream and other uses. Saloons used sand jars for their smoking patrons. Jugs, pedestals, lawn ornaments, butter churns and flower pots were standard items for sale at a pottery. The popular song “Little Brown Jug” referred to the color of clay jugs for alcohol. The familiarity with producing artistic items gave Bullet the background necessary to expand into Niloak production – a much more creative enterprise.

In time, Bullet and other potters in the area couldn’t help but notice the amazing colors of clay in the local ground. He had a business connection with a potter in Hot Springs. Together, they discovered that kiln heat burned out the unique colors of Saline County clays. So, they found a way to add chemicals and colors that duplicated the color of what was in the ground.

Bullet Hyten started to experiment seriously in 1909. He built a new shed to develop the process. “Only the people who were savvy to what was going on were allowed. It was off-limits to the rest of the crew,” Rainey said.

To her best recollection, 1910 was the year they perfected the Niloak process. Occasionally, Bullet’s brothers, Lee and Paul, returned to Benton from Ohio to run the kilns. Lee could barely contain his excitement in a letter to their mother in Ohio about the new way to make pottery.

“I wish you could see it. The people who see it go ga-ga over it,” he wrote.

Confident of success, Bullet Hyten sought out financing for his company in 1911. A fire, however, destroyed the pottery a year later. This wasn’t unusual considering the risks; a kiln fire consumed 12 cords of wood. Undaunted, Bullet built a single-story brick factory near the intersection of present-day Market and Hazel streets alongside the railroad tracks. He had a big dream and he was bound to see its fulfillment.

The location next to a rail line was deliberate. Bullet planned to capitalize on the line for ease of shipping. The other end of the line was in Hot Springs, so all the tourist traffic that came through Benton would pass by his pottery.

Niloak had been expensive in its time. Wares sold for 35 cents up to $75, with the bulk of items in the $5 to $15 range.

In 1920, the factory increased to two floors. At full strength, about 35 people worked there full-time, including four to five potters.

The way that Rainey described the process, workers brought clay into the pottery and separated it by color. The process was long and detailed and included a number of steps that resulted in four to five excellent potters shaping the clay forms. They then placed the clay items in a kiln and fired the pottery. The crews watched the progress of the firing through isinglass in a door. They kept their eye on five cones and when the fifth one had melted, they knew it was time to turn off the heat and let the baked wares cool.

There was always excitement on the day that the kiln was opened to see what had fired successfully.

That which didn’t fire correctly was tossed into a common spot next to the building. (Relic hunters take note: Generations of local residents have successfully picked this place clean.)

Through these years, the Niloak pottery continued to manufacture Eagle brand pottery and the red clay flower pots which had no name. A large album at the Gann museum has several enlarged photos of the factory, its people and “Old Mike” — the mule.

“My earliest memories are going down there,” Rainey said. “He was very much a family man and the pottery was very much a family type operation. Most of the employees called him ‘Bullet.’ There weren’t many that called him Mr. Hyten. It was a wonderful place for a child, to play in the clay, and know all the employees and be free to roam. He very often took me to work with him and I loved to go.”

Her face lit up into a big smile when asked to describe the smell of the pottery.

“It was a wonderful, earthy smell,” she said. “When I walk into a place where there’s wet clay, it’s just a wonderful smell. There’s not a sweet fragrance to it but it’s just a wet clay, earthy smell and I wasn’t aware of it at the time that I was absorbing that but when I grew up and I would encounter it, it would take me back!”

The pottery thrived in the World War I and early 1920s recession years. As Arlene Hyten the girl grew into a young woman, she worked for her father in the stock room and the sales room. A showroom was built in 1929 on Military Road for tourists and visitors, and is marked by a roadside marker today. However, the company couldn’t survive the Great Depression. Her father lost the pottery in 1934, the same year Arlene graduated from Benton High School. Official Niloak production ceased that year, too.

Some Little Rock businessmen bought the business and Bullet Hyten worked for them. The new pottery sold Hywood, which was a glazed castware and produced Niloak in limited quantities.

In time, the factory sold all pottery under the Niloak name because the brand was very marketable. Wartime limits on materials in the 1940s hurt the quality of production. The factory closed in the 1950s.

Bullet Hyten, for his part, kept an association with the factory until 1941 when he went to work for Camark Pottery in Camden, Ark., a manufacturing city about 90 miles south of Benton. They built a gift shop for Camark Pottery. Arlene worked there after she graduated from college. He owned a building at the foot of the hill of the Niloak shop, and opened a gift shop in the building for Camark Pottery.

Meanwhile, Arlene Hyten met her husband, Nelson Rainey, at the state Teacher’s College (now Henderson State University). They married in 1941. Bullet and Rainey talked at times about reviving Niloak but time had other plans for them. Nelson Rainey turned to a career working at Alcoa and a family soon followed. Niloak production never revived in the city and there no longer are any pottery works here.

Several reminders of the family’s life stand to this day.  The Rainey homeplace stands across from the downtown Benton fire station. The factory building has long since disappeared although some concrete foundations are visible. The company converted a house into a visitor’s center in 1929 on Military Road, near present-day Fred’s department store. A state historical sign marks the spot.

If you go to the Gann Museum
Gann Museum, 218 S. Market St., Benton, Ark. From Interstate 30: Use Exit 116 (South Street). Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues./ Wed./Thu.
(501) 778-5513 or (501) 778-1219

Perhaps the greatest reminder of Niloak is Arlene herself. She regularly volunteers and advises the supporters of the Gann Museum about the Niloak collection and local history.

One thing about the family visit may surprise people.

“I never learned to make pottery,” she said, sincerely. “Now, I had my table, a wheel, and I dabbled in the clay and I made marbles and little bowls and they fired them for me. I don’t have any of those but I never learned a thing about turning on the wheel and I wish I had but I don’t know why he (Bullet) didn’t insist I learn.

“It was a day-to-day thing. You didn’t think about the specialness of it,” she said.

That’s why the occasional discovery of pottery from the past interests her so much. Not too many months ago, the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store in this city had a piece of large Eagle pottery get donated. Store manager Wes McFarland asked someone to call Rainey.

The story about the fellow on the backhoe, incidentally, had two happy endings. One came after the discovery. One came as a real act of kindness before the fellow moved to another city.

“He brought me a couple of jugs and he kept a bunch of them,” Rainey said. “Later he moved so he brought me a whole bunch more jugs.”

It’s just like Rainey to share everything she knows about Niloak. Indeed, her enthusiasm for the family pottery would make Bullet Hyten proud.

A century later, Bullet still has a sales room employee telling the public all about the virtues of the family’s wares – that of his daughter, Arlene Hyten Rainey. ?

John J. Archibald is a publisher in Benton, Ark. Contact him: news@ouachitalife.com or P.O. Box 147, Benton, AR 72018.

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