|Pittsville - The memory of a small Pittsville
pottery factory is kept alive by the remaining ceramic pieces that were
produced there from 1931 to 1943.
Those pieces are prized by a growing number of avid collectors.
Wisconsin Ceramic Corp., sometimes called Wisconsin Pottery and
commonly referred to as Pittsville Pottery, was started by a Catholic
priest named John Willitzer. Those were the post-depression days when
times were hard, and there were few work opportunities in the Pittsville
Norman Tritz, of Pittsville, who now lives in Marshfield, was a young
at the time and remembers when Willitzer started the factory.
"He built that whole system to keep the people of Pittsville
there. That's the kind of person he was," Tritz said.
Willitzer first go the idea as the result of a visit with a
parishioner. The man had a chimney constructed of red bricks made from
clay in a nearby marsh.
The priest sent samples of the clay to Meissen, Germany, for analysis.
The results were positive. In 1931 the Wisconsin Ceramic Co. was
incorporated with $75,000 in capital and the priest was it first
The factory provided Tritz, then 17, with his first off-farm job. He
worked in the casting room, pouring the liquid slip into molds.
Dorothy (Kleifgen) Faust, of Marshfield, also remembers working at the
"There was no industry other than the canning factory and then
this pottery factory," Faust said.
Faust was 19 and worked there from 1939 to 1941, doing finishing work
which involved taking off the mold seams and pinholes.
According to Tritz, Willitzer's original plan was to use Pittsville
clay to make flower pots and fuses - not art work.
"A man called Lichner managed it," Tritz remembers.
"But, because of lack of sales it failed."
Father Willitzer reopened the factory a short time later: Tritz and
Faust remember when James Wilkins and his son Bill, Sr. arrived.
The two were originally from England and came to Pittsville after the
Muncie Pottery plant, where they worked, closed in 1939. James took
half-interest in the plant and became the manager.
The focus of production dramatically changed.
"They went into art pottery at that time," said Tritz.
"Bill and his dad had done that in England. They were the developers
of the art pieces."
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|"He was a real nice
man. He always had some story to tell," Faust said.
"Sometimes he'd bawl us out, because we weren't doing something
right. One fella would sass back in German and he didn't know what was
being said. We had to all try and keep a straight face," Tritz said.
Neither Tritz or Faust remembers Father Willitzer being involved in the
operation. Working in the factory was quiet and peaceful, but it didn't
pay a lot, they said. A typical vase cost $6.50 and workers were paid 35
cents per hour.
During that time, the factory produced mostly flower vases and was
known for the dripless pitcher which was patented. More than 50 sizes and
styles of pottery were produced over the years.
Faust remembers counting 600 pieces at a time after they were unloaded
from the kiln. Some of the pottery is unmarked. Other pieces were marked
on the bottom with a hand-scribed number over and under a horizontal line.
Faust used the finishing number 11-1.
Wilkins left suddenly early in 1941. No one seems to know why.
"We didn't have a foreman or leader except the salesmen who told
us what was needed. That five-month period was the only time we operated
in the black," said Tritz.
It was not a good time for many companies. The factory produced
decorative items that were not essential. Sales were slow.
A man named Holberg was hired to manage the plant. According to Tritz,
he was an expert on the wheel, but a poor manager. Holberg complained the
finishers were too slow and had to move faster: Quality suffered as a
"That's when the place went broke and closed," Faust said.
"we knew something was up when we were called in the office and asked
if we could wait for our checks."
Tritz soon left and, when he did, he took with him the clay formula
which was not written down, but stored in head. Holberg failed to ask him
for the valuable information.
Ed Arnold grew up in Pittsville. He now lives in Oregon, Wis., and is a
dedicated collector of Pittsville pottery.
"When I was a kid, a good friend of mine lived within a block of
the place and we would go in their dump pile and rescue pieces and take
them home and paint them. Now I've seen pieces that never existed in the
dump pile," Arnold said.
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|Arnold owns 90 pieces of
Pittsville pottery for which he has paid as little as $4 and as much as
$250. Though thousands of pieces were made at the factory, the pottery can
be difficult to find.
"Two weeks ago I was at Four Seasons Antique Mall in Marshfield
and I found two pieces I didn't know existed that weren't marked but they
had the right glaze. One of them was one-of-a-kind," Arnold said.
Arnold said aspiring collectors should have a lot of patience. He has
been going to Four Seasons for three or four years and has only been able
to find three pieces there.
His favorite piece is a vase that he remembers being on the altar at
"I've got some others (the nudes). I've got two of the four,"
Tritz said that it was obvious that Father Willitzer did not approve of
the nude art that was produced at the factory, but never said anything
According to Arnold, the plant sold certain pieces of pottery to the
Sigel Cheese Factory and Richfield Dairy. The businesses would give these
pieces away to patrons at Christmas.
"I have this piece from the Richfield Dairy and I have one from
the cheese factory in Auburndale. Both out of business," Arnold said.
Gill's Liquor Mart on Highway 80 in Pittsville is abandoned and slated
to be torn down. Ceramic tile, from the Pittsville factory, is almost
hidden underneath the rubble of broken asphalt tile on the floor. Charlene
(Parmeter) Orgel and her husband, Pete, owned the building in the 1960's.
"I can remember mopping the tiles and they would be bright red and
then dry to a lighter dull finish," Orgel said.
Arnold would like to see the tile saved. Tritz said salvaging the tiles
would be difficult because they were made with three grooves on the back
to hold the concrete.
"It was the decision of the city to donate several tiles to the
historical society," said David Lyons, mayor of Pittsville.
Weeds now grow around the Pittsville factory, located on Jefferson St.
After the pottery operation closed, Pittsville Fur Foods used the building
and rendered downed cattle for mink food.
Gardner Trucking and Cold Storage occupied the building next. The
building is now used by Black Forest Products as a kiln-drying wood