East Liverpool, Ohio, sits on the banks of the Ohio River where West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio meet. For decades, this small town was known as the pottery capital of the world after immigrants from Stafforshire, England settled there and brought their pottery-making expertise with them. By the beginning of the 20th century, more than half of all dinnerware in America was made there.
At one time, East Liverpool was home to more than 200 pottery factories. Today, only two major dinnerware manufacturers are left. But pottery is still central to the town’s identity—so much so that even the school mascot is inspired by the industry. Potter Pete is actually a giant kiln with a face and feet.
Passing Down The Pottery Legacy
Some in the local community are committed to passing down the legacy of pottery-making to a new generation. That commitment is on display at the Museum of Ceramics.
Housed in a converted post office building, the museum serves as a cultural hub in East Liverpool. Not only does it boast a comprehensive collection of ceramics with a connection to the region, but it also hosts pottery making classes through the Clay Academy.
Run by the museum, the academy is a summer program for kids to learn about both the art form and the history of pottery making. Emma Rose Kurtz, 14, was a student in Clay Academy before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been involved in everything as a little kid, you know, just making pottery and having a childhood where I grew up with pottery all around me,” Kurtz said. “My grandparents have a huge collection, one of the biggest collections that I know of.”
Kurtz’s grandparents, Donna and William Gray, have been collecting pottery since their honeymoon when they stumbled upon a gray colored teapot that happened to be made by Harker Pottery which once operated in East Liverpool. William Gray’s mother and grandmother both worked at Harker. That one teapot led to one of the largest East Liverpool ceramics collections in the United States, according to the Grays. And their collection also led to their granddaughter’s passion for pottery.
The teachers at Clay Academy also have a family connection to pottery. Barrie Archer has designed her classes to focus both on the history and the practical skill of pottery making. She grew up going to her family’s ceramics business, Taylor Smith and Taylor Pottery, with her father.
“As a child, if my mother was busy and it was a weekend and my dad had to leave and go over to the pottery, then he usually took us with him,” Archer said.
Preserving The Past To Invigorate The Future Of Pottery
Archer and Kurtz are representative of a community proud of their heritage, but also committed to building on the past to create a new future for East Liverpool.
While it may no longer be “Crockery City,” as it was once known, East Liverpool is now attracting a whole new group of pottery makers. In recent years, people like Kim Holhmayor have been moving to East Liverpool because of ceramics and the potential to grow the arts scene here.
Holhmayer plans to offer classes for children and adults at the Museum of Ceramics.
And, she has high hopes for the East Liverpool ceramics scene.
Hohlmayer said she wants to grow East Liverpool into an arts community like ones she has visited in other parts of Ohio.
“I would love to see something like that here. [W]e have so much to offer.”
Before COVID hit, East Liverpool was already on the path towards turning this industrial city into a place geared towards the arts. Galleries, a community theater and craft breweries were all popping up on the main street. Making ceramics is much more than what happens on the factory floor. It’s a creative process. And that creativity makes East Liverpool’s future as an arts hub much more than a dream.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.
This Folkways story originally aired in the May 27, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.