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Wisconsin Pottery Association
 
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Pittsville Pottery
Pittsville Wisconsin
1931-1943

The following article appeared in the Marshfield News-Herald on March 31, 2001 and is reproduced here with their permission.

Pittsville Pottery
Story by Nila Szweda
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 area.

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 president.

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 factory.

"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 result.

"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 church.

"I've got some others (the nudes). I've got two of the four," said Arnold.

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 about it.

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 operation.

 

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