Frankoma Pottery – The colorful company that wouldn’t die

As a longtime admirer of Frankoma Pottery, I was thrilled when a recent tour of Oklahoma included a short visit to Sapulpa to view the family home of Frankoma founder John Frank as well as the current Frankoma factory. My only regret is that a thunderstorm prevented me from taking photos of the home’s exterior.

In the mid 1950s the Frank family, which included daughters Donna and Joniece, had world renowned architect Bruce Goff design their crescent shaped three bedroom dream house. Today it’s home to both daughters, who are now in their 70s, and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Earlier this year the Frank sisters made the decision to open their home for public tours. Visitors are welcome Thursday through Sunday afternoons by reservations only; admission is $5.

The home’s front is flanked by two Prairie Green glazed brick convex cylinders. This color, a favorite of John Frank and his wife, Grace Lee, was also a favorite with customers. Frank developed this color as well as the Prairie Gold glaze featured throughout the tiles on the home’s interior walls. Frank received a design patent for “C-thru tile,” a pattern of glazed pottery tile adhered to plate glass on the front door and entrance. This unique door, which weighs about 900 pounds, is an amazing feature, even during heavy rain. Red terra cotta tile adorn the back of the house which is framed by miles of natural rock terraces hand laid by Frank.

Inside the home, hundreds of early pieces of Frankoma, one-of-a-kind pieces made by John and Grace Lee Frank, and other interesting pieces of pottery and sculpture can be viewed. White shag carpet provides a neutral background in front of a stunning fireplace that once burned wood but now is a showplace for dazzling art pottery. Best of all, both Joniece and Donna Frank are happy to answer questions during their home tours.

When they’re not entertaining visitors with fascinating stories about the history of Frankoma, they keep busy behind the home in their own pottery studio. Named Frank X 2, it was once the studio of their mother, Grace Lee Frank, who died in 1996. Donna Frank wrote Clay in the Master’s Hands, a book with an intimate account of her parents and their struggles to develop Frankoma Pottery. (Copies may be purchased directly from her.)

The Frank sisters also started the Frankoma Family Collectors Organization in 1995. “This is a really fun group for collectors,” Donna Frank explains. “We have more than  1,500 members in 45 states. The word ‘family’ in our club name doesn’t mean it’s just for Frank family members. We consider all Frankoma collectors our cousins. And we consider our convention one big family reunion. At our annual convention each year we love to make friendships and share our knowledge about the Frankoma pottery we all love.”

“Our convention is always held in Sapulpa, and the 2008 dates are Sept. 25-27,” Donna Frank concludes. “We’d love to meet anyone who shares our interest in Frankoma, and I promise all Frankomaniacs a great time. Just phone or go online for details.”

The story behind this business which has been a part of Oklahoma’s heritage for more than 60 years is as fascinating as the rugged pottery that has a prized place in millions of American homes.

A new graduate of Chicago Art Institute, John Frank moved to Norman, Okla., in 1927 to establish the first Ceramic Art Department at the University of Oklahoma. In 1933 he started his own company, following his dream to create a line of fine art ware and sculpture that people of everyday means could afford to enjoy. A year later, Frank’s wife, Grace Lee, suggested that the company name should incorporate both their family name and the last letters of their state. The company officially became Frankoma Pottery in 1934.

The Franks and their new business moved about 20 miles south of Tulsa to Sapulpa in 1938, but hardship followed. Their first building, constructed in part by Grace’s father, burned down shortly after their arrival. Despite the economic hardships caused by the fire and the Great Depression, the Franks followed their vision and rebuilt.

Early sculptures not reissued after the fire include figurines, ashtrays and vases. Many pieces feature art deco style woman, Native Americans and animals. Sculptures issued after the 1938 fire include bookends, candle holders, wall vases, face masks and plaques. Many have African American, Native American or animal subjects.

Frankoma became the pioneer in colored tableware with bold designs in vibrant Southwestern colors such as Prairie Green and Desert Gold. From 1942 until 1988 Frankoma created a line of Wagon Wheel dinnerware that became its signature line. Other popular dinnerware patterns include  Mayan-Aztec, Plainsman, Lazybones and Westwind.

In 1968 John Frank designed a five-ounce elephant mug as a fundraiser for the National Republican Party and it became a collectible series in 1969. Daughter Joniece Frank designed the first Democrat donkey mug in 1975. Other collectibles include ten Teen-Agers of the Bible plates that were issued from 1972 until 1982 and Christmas plates which were first issued in 1965. From 1955 until 1957 Frankoma also manufactured earrings, pins, tie clasps and a bolo tie designed by John Frank who had won a 1927 award for jewelry design.

Clay and trademarks help identify old and new Frankoma pieces, according to Gary V. Schaum, author of Collector’s Guide to Frankoma Pottery 1933 through 1990 (L-W Book Sales, 2004.) “John Frank experimented with many types of clay from different areas of Oklahoma,” he stated in a recent phone interview. “From 1933 until 1954 he used tan clay found near Ada, Okla., and pieces made with this clay are now called Ada Clay by collectors. In 1954 he switched to a brick red firing clay located a few miles from the factory in an area known as Sugar Loaf Hill. Collectors call this Sapulpa Clay Pre-1980. In the 1980s the red brick color of the clay was affected with additives and became either a light pink or a light orange. Collectors refer to this as Sapulpa Clay Post-1980. Even the color of glazes was affected by the color changes in the clay. Ada clay pieces are generally the most valuable today.”

“While he was still at the University of Oklahoma, John Frank designed an OU tepee to mark pottery made there by either him or his students,” Schaum continued. “This mark was used from 1927 until 1933. Collectors today regard the pieces with Frank’s initials “JNF” or “JF” the most desirable. In the summer of 1933 Frank began Oklahoma’s first pottery company. During 1933 and 1934 pieces made here were marked (1) FRANK POTTERIES NORMAN OKLAHOMA (2) FRANK POTTERIES NORMAN OKLA or (3) FRANK POTTERIES. Frankoma Potteries was incorporated in February 1934 and the first mark used was a rubber stamp of the word Frankoma. It wasn’t used for long and is rare. From later in 1934 until 1934 the company used an impressed mark Frankoma with a perfectly round O. Frank also used what collectors call the cat mark from 1934 until it was destroyed in the 1938 fire. Known as the “Pot and Puma” logo, his company’s first trademark was a large ceramic vase with a Taylor pacing cat in the foreground. It can be found on larger pieces. After he rebuilt the company after the fire, Frank again used an impressed Frankoma mark but this time the O was oblong and not round. This Frankoma mark continued to be hand impressed until the early 1950s when the trademark was often included in the mold along with the mold number. But some of the pieces made at this time were unmarked because their mold was never modified. John Frank often personalized pieces he gave as gifts to friends, family and special customers. His etched message and signature is definitely the most valuable mark.”

When Frank passed away in 1973, his artist daughter, Joniece, became president and CEO of Frankoma Pottery. In September 1983, at the company’s all-time peak of success, fire destroyed the Frankoma factory for a second time. Fortunately, John Frank had built a fireproof storage area for master molds, and most were spared in the fire. The company was reopened in July 1984, but IRS tax debts forced the closure of the business in 1990. In 1991 the company was sold to Maryland businessman Richard Bernstein who made the decision to shut the company on Dec. 31, 2004. It looked like the company might end for good until Las Vegas residents H. B. “Det” and Crystal Merryman came along. For eight years the Merrymans had been producing the Merrymac Collection of whimsical, oversized ceramic dogs which have been regularly featured on The Price is Right.

“On July 1, 2005 we became officers of Frankoma, Inc., a newly created Oklahoma corporation charged with the operation of the company,” Det Merryman explained. “The sale included all designs, trademarks, products and standing inventory as well as the entire 75,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on a seven acre site. Also included is the offsite Oklahoma property which supplies the natural terra cotta clay used in Frankoma Pottery. When we reopened the business in August 2005, my wife,Crystal, and I first focused on rebuilding the line. Now we are establishing new lines and even more collectibles. We’ve made some changes to accommodate 21st century food trends and lead paint restrictions but everything new is being done to coordinate with historical pieces. Our on-line store details information about these new pieces as they become available for sale.”

“Group tours of our factory have also resumed,” Crystal Merryman added. “And by this fall a large display of vintage Frankoma on loan from a private collector should be completed. As new Oklahomans we’re very excited about the future of an important part of our state’s heritage.”

What’s It Worth?

Recent Frankoma Sold Prices on EBay

6-inch flower girl, 1940s – $234.90
3 ½-inch vase, desert rose, Ada clay – $175
Blue teepee salt and pepper shakers – $130
Cowboy boots bookends – $37.05
1965 Christmas plate – $44.95
2007 Christmas plate – $10
2003 donkey political mug – $19.50
Green acorn wall pocket – $19.99

For More Information:

Frankoma Pottery
9549 Frankoma Rd.
Sapulpa, OK 74066

Gary V. Schaum
P. O. Box 303
Mounds, OK 74047

Frankoma Family Collectors Assn.
Donna Frank, Secretary
1300 Luker Lane
Sapulpa, OK 74066