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A Pottery Heritage Slipping Away

The heavy salt-glazed Red Wing Pottery bowl I just bought feels so substantial, so lasting. The outside is gray with an abstract blue design that I think is a flower. The inside is sparkly and dark, with tiny imperfections that tell me it’s hand-made. I run my fingers over the words “Red Wing Pottery 2013.”  

I wonder if it’s one of the last bowls the 140-year-old Red Wing Pottery will make.

 

My husband and I visited the pottery in Red Wing, Minnesota, in late October. We asked the sales assistant if someone could tell us about the history of the business. “Absolutely," she said. “Here’s the owner.”

Scott Gillmer gladly spent 15 minutes with us—just average tourists, as far as he knew—and talked about how the pottery started in the mid-1860s with German immigrant craftsmen. The first products were crocks, jugs and other wares for local farmers to store food. 

Over time, the business expanded and began to use machines and molds instead of producing everything by hand. By the mid-20th century, Red Wing shifted its focus to glazed dinner plates, vases, statues and other home items.

But foreign competition decimated the market for American-made dinnerware, and in 1967, the Red Wing Potteries factory was closed. Gillmer’s grandfather purchased the company and ran the business as a retail pottery salesroom. 

In 1996, potters again began crafting handmade, salt-glazed pottery with the distinctive Red Wing logo. Gillmer seemed proud of his company and its products.

Charmed, we bought a bowl as a memento of our visit. We also bought a vintage Red Wing dinner plate from a nearby antiques store.

Less than two weeks later, we read that Gillmer will either sell or close his business by the end of the year. “We grew quite large when retail was good. Now that has ended,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I have this very large overhead, and it’s just not sustainable.”

Gillmer said he’s been contacted by a couple of potential buyers, but nothing is set yet. 

Even if the company closes, it won't mean the end of pottery produced in Red Wing, since another offshoot of the original pottery—Red Wing Stoneware Company—is still in business.

But any time a legacy like this is threatened, it's a reminder of how our heritage is slipping away. Soon the demise of Red Wing Pottery may be just another exhibit in the Red Wing Pottery Museum, right alongside a wistful area called "What Could Have Been."

What might never be again.