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Jim McKee: Lincoln was pottery capital

August 19, 2018

Lincoln, in the past few years, has been No. 1 or in the top 10 of American cities in various categories, but it is still hard to think of it as the major producer of pottery in the state. Still, for nearly three decades, from the mid-1880s, Lincoln produced most of one of the staple stoneware kitchen items of the day for Nebraska and parts of Kansas.

Pottery items were made by area American Indians long before Nebraska was even a territory, but in 1859 John Ziegler and Charles Eckhart expanded from their grocery business, establishing the Dakota City Pottery Company with five employees as “the most extensive stone-ware manufacturer on the Missouri River.” Very shortly afterward, Eckhart assumed ownership of the store while Ziegler took over the pottery business expanding it to Bellevue a few year later, utilizing clay deposits on the river. By the mid-1860s a pottery was established at Nemaha City using clay from the banks of the Missouri River and in 1867 the Nebraska City Pottery Co. began business using clay deposits which had been used for brick making since 1854.

J. T. A. Hoover, sometimes called the father of Louisville, Nebraska, established the Louisville Stoneware Manufactory in 1878 with $5,000 of capital. The firm built a 30 by 78 foot, 1 ½-story building, utilized local clay of “inexhaustible quantities” with an initial output of 7,000 jars a month and anticipated a quick doubling of that production. In 1887 the firm became Western Pottery which, with 30 employees, was manufacturing 4,500 gallons of stoneware a day.

In 1882 a Nebraska history reported that vast quantities of superior quality clay at Steele City were being exported to St. Joseph, Missouri, but a local pottery manufacturing plant was anticipated. The Nebraska State Historical Society reported that here were also small concerns established at Alma, Aurora and Franklin but little evidence of their businesses survives.

Webster Eaton arrived in Lincoln from New York in 1879 or 1880 and occupied a house on the north side of Q Street east of 12th Street and was followed by his younger brother Orsamus who had been in the pottery business in Red Oak and Hamburg, Iowa. Within months the brothers established the Lincoln Pottery Works with $7,000 of capital at 715 South First Street using clay deposits three miles west of the city where a brickyard had been established and possibly other sources in the area.

In 1882 the Nebraska State Journal reported the “Eaton Brothers pottery manufactured stone ware, tiles, sewer pipe, etc., employing sixteen hands and having a daily capacity of 1,000 gallons.” The firm had two kilns each having a 5,000-gallon capacity and were in the process of adding another 40 by 50-foot kiln. The brothers utilized a steam-powered Ohio Clay Crusher and noted there was only one other pottery in the state.

In 1886 Orsamus lived on the corner of First and H streets along with James S. Eaton who was listed in the city directory as a clerk at the pottery while Webster was listed as the firm’s president and O. V. as manager. The firm was incorporated in 1888 with capital stock listed at $25,000. By 1889 James was gone and the directory listed O. V. as living at 715 First Street with the company’s office at 700-04 South First Street, but directory entries and street addresses were a bit casual at that time. O. V. Eaton’s son Dr. Joseph Eaton and daughter Edna, a teacher at nearby Park and Longfellow schools also appeared briefly at 715 South First Street. In two separate listings in the 1892 directory the pottery was listed at both the northeast corner of First and F as well as the southwest corner of First and H streets while Joseph was at 100 G Street, showing that listings were all a bit suspect.

In 1891 Lincoln Pottery claimed to be “the finest pottery on the globe the products of which go to either coast,” having 25 employees and three salesmen in Nebraska and Kansas selling over 300,000 pieces plus 1,500,000 flower pots, over 70 car-loads, of products annually. A year later the firm was called “one of the most reliable and most popular manufacturing concerns of Lincoln, Nebraska,” making flower pots, vessels, cuspidors, urns, vases, hanging baskets, milk pans, beer mugs, stone churns, jars, Boston bean pots, etc.

In 1903 or 1904 the firm closed for undisclosed but undoubtedly economic reasons though O. V. Eaton was still called a potter in the city directory. O.V. was killed in a railroad accident in 1905 and the following year the 24-lot Eaton’s Subdivision, which had West First Street as its western boundary and First Street on the east showed seven residences and no pottery buildings extant.

In 1986 Peter Bleed and Christopher Schoen of the University of Nebraska’s Anthropology Department excavated the site of the Lincoln Pottery Works as part of the impending construction of the K Street bypass. The detailed results of their work was the subject of a 1989, 389-page report for anyone interested in the rest of the story. Pieces of extant pottery of all kinds turn up in antique stores today and are imminently collectible.

Lincoln buildings that have made history

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