The Crooksville Bowl
March 8, 2009 § 11 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
The bowl was sitting in a shop window along the narrow Main Street of Newberry, South Carolina. Newberry is an old town, its cotton mills long gone. But it does have a leg up on economic recovery with the restoration of the Opera House into a first class performance hall, and its streets lined now with interesting restaurants and antique shops that range from excellent to laughable.
The window in which the bowl sits no longer belongs to a functioning shop. It has a colorful display of mismatched goods and a couple of handwritten signs, “For Rent,” and something I can’t decipher from the intersection. The bowl is quite large, a foot across the top rim; cream colored, with a reddish band. Maybe McCoy, I think from the car. It’s handsome. The light changes, I put the car in gear and not another thought is given to the bowl in the shop window.
As it happens, I find myself stopped at that particular stop light nearly everyday. I have come back to Newberry to help my mother who is scheduled for major surgery. In the first days of her recuperation, alone in my car, I find myself looking for the bowl when I arrive at that crossroads, and it is somehow reassuring that it is always there. When Mother is well enough and we are on our way somewhere, I point it out to her as we pass by. Her glance does not locate it among the hodge podge of goods, so I ‘round the block and slow down for her to see it. It’s not really to her taste.
By now I’ve deciphered that one sign directs inquiries about items in the window to the oddly named Pink Verandah, a shop two doors up that has no verandah and is not pink. I have still not actually walked up to the window to give the bowl a closer look. It could have a giant chip in the rim not visible from the roadway, or a significant closed crack; both of those would be deal breakers. I mention the bowl a few times to my mother, thinking perhaps she’ll take the hint that this might be a good birthday present to mark the otherwise unacknowledged day that passed by a few weeks before. She does not.
Then it’s time to go home to my husband and son in Ohio, I decide if I am that undecided about the bowl, then clearly I don’t need it. So I go away, and come back a week later to resume care for my rapidly recovering Mom. I am pleased to see the bowl is still sitting in the window. One day after lunch at one of the better restaurants in town, we walk across the courthouse square to take a closer look at the bowl. There are no visible chips or cracks, but the litmus test is to ring the rim. If it rings with a thud, there is a crack and the structure is significantly compromised. Ringing true is the hallmark of a piece that is still very much intact.
The tag is visible from the sidewalk outside. It reads “Crooksville Bak-In Pantry Ware” and “$45.” From the turn of the century through the forties bowls were produced (often made of yellow clay and referred to as “Yellow ware”) for use like a casserole dish in woodfired ovens, baking puddings and pot pies. They were quite popular and are still sought after by collectors. Though the bowl in the window is the right color for Yellow ware, which can range from the color of egg custard to that of Dijon mustard, the clay isn’t the right consistency, as the Ohio river clay used for Yellow ware was pretty coarse and resulted in a thick earthenware vessel.
We walked to the store down the street to inquire. Our timing is less than perfect, though, as the store is inundated with a gaggle of women demanding the attention of the shopkeeper, their observations and limited knowledge ringing out like a chorus of chain saws. I think maybe I’ll just go see what I can find out about Crooksville on my own.
It isn’t too encouraging. There was lots of ugly stuff made by Crooksville, and most of it is being offered for less than ten dollars. There are some other examples of Bak-In Pantry Ware, but their resemblance to “my” bowl does not extend beyond the mark. It’s very curious. I dig deeper.
Crooksville, Ohio, is about sixty miles southwest of Columbus. It is a tiny town of less than two thousand, and the area has been home to many famous potteries. Hull pottery was located in Crooksville, six miles north is Roseville, another tiny town, home to both Roseville pottery and McCoy. Eleven miles further along is the larger town of Zanesville, which was home to Weller.
Historians have established that in 1851, there were 41 potteries within three miles of Crooksville. These were called “Bluebird” potteries, and were established to provide farmers with containers and tableware. They were often set up in sheds with a couple of kick wheels, and a brick kiln outside. They were called “Bluebird” potteries because the potters relied on the return of the bluebirds from the south as a signal that it was the proper time to mine the clay.
The Crooksville Pottery was established in 1902, but by 1959, they had shuttered their doors. They had outlasted Weller (1948), Hull (1952) and Roseville (1954.) McCoy managed to continue through to 1967, when they were bought by another firm; production ceased altogether for them in 1990.
Crooksville (named after a postmaster, not a tendency for larcenous behavior) still is a pottery center, holding a festival (complete with Queen and Cute Baby contests) every year, and providing a home for Pottery Museums and other organizations interested in American pottery. While all this was fascinating, I could still find nothing that looked like the bowl in the window.
In fact I was having a hard time finding reference to any earlier pieces at all. What I was seeing on line (and it is not pretty) was serving and table ware produced in the 1950s: little Dutch girls in tulips, elaborate decals of roses, rust and gold florals. I combed through several hundred patterns at Replacements.com, an excellent online resource for china patterns. Nothing. I still hadn’t seen the mark on the base of the bowl, perhaps there was some mistake.
In the meantime, my mother was much improved, and quite ready to live independently. I’d been gone nearly a month and my family was getting fractious. So I made plans to go home, and started packing. On my last day in Newberry, we went to lunch downtown with my mother’s two sisters and one of her brothers, and as one is wont to do in such situations, we ate too much.
“The bowl,” I thought. While the others still sat around the long table, my aunt Carol and I took a stroll up the street, pausing outside the restaurant to admire Calamity, a bulldog out with her owner. The Pink Verandah is empty of customers when we arrive, but it turns out Calamity and her owners are on our heels. There is a sweet teenaged boy behind the counter. When I ask about the bowl in the window of the shop two doors up the street, he says “I’ll have to call my Mom.” As he does so, the woman with Calamity says “Are you calling your mother? Ask her what the name of the lamp shop is and where is it?” As the boy talks, she interrupts several times. “Don’t forget about the lamp shop.”
In the meantime, we browse. There is a tin that used to hold Balkan-Sobranies cigarettes. I smoked them occasionally in college. $4. I wish I’d kept the tins. There is a plywood cabinet, painted white, presented as a folk piece. $550. Carol and I laugh. There is an awful lot of negrobilia (mammy dolls and the like) that makes me intensely uncomfortable. You see quite a bit of that in antique shops in the south. It’s funny, they’d never dream of selling the disrespectful caricatures that the Nazis produced of the Jews. Or maybe they would. There are some nice paintings, but I really just want to see the bowl.
Finally, the father of the boy tending the store arrives. He has unlocked the other shop, and Carol and I walk up there, with the boy who climbs into the window to get the bowl.
“Don’t drop it,” I pray silently. There, on the sidewalk, I examine it. On the bottom, there’s the mark, in orange. “Bak-In Pantry Ware by Crooksville.” There’s no pattern number, so it was one of the earlier pieces. Somewhere around 1920-1930. I could tell that anyway, by the arts and craft style border below the rim, brick red with a floral motif, maybe poppies, or pansies. An open faced and friendly flower. I flick the edge of the bowl with a finger tip. It rings true.
My mother is surprised that I didn’t try to get a “better price” on the bowl, but really, I just didn’t have the energy. My uncle Allen examines it and proclaims that it is not old, because it has no chips, cracks or crazing. In fact, crazing (fine lines in a pottery glaze) is caused by fluctuations in temperature, extreme hot (like in the oven) or extreme cold, (like in a freezer.) It isn’t necessarily an indication of age, as improperly glazed contemporary items can become crazed.
This bowl was probably never “baked in.” There are some very light marks inside the bowl, where a South Carolina mother stirred up brownies or macaroni salad, mashed potatoes, biscuits. Maybe she set it on the table laden with green beans or collards.
Who knows how it got here to Newberry, South Carolina. If it sat on a shelf in the old Rose’s store, or one of the other housewares shops that used to dot Main Street. Maybe it was purchased in a general store in Pomaria or Little Mountain or Whitmire. No matter, today, it’s going home to Ohio.