The UHL Pottery Company
OFFICIAL WEB SITE
In 1848 August and his brother Louis, both mere boys, decided to seek their fortunes in the land of opportunity, America. It was decided the elder brother August should go first and determine whether their trade could be established over here and to look for a suitable location. After landing in New York he went to Pittsburgh and took a boat, coming west on the Ohio River. The boat made may stops and August took advantage of these stops by examining the particles of clay that were showing along the banks of the river. He finally decided to stop at Evansville, Indiana for here he found a clay that had the necessary plasticity for the making of pottery.
After experimenting for a while he wrote to his brother Louis, and told him to join him. When Louis arrived they established a small pottery at a site, which is now in the heart of Evansville, Ninth and Sycamore Streets. The name of the firm was A. & L. Uhl. August managed the business end of the industry, while Louis made the wares – which then consisted of jugs, jars, garden vases and stone pumps.
Their business prospered from the start. However, the clay was an inferior clay to that which makes high grade ware and they were forced to sustain losses because of it. Therefore, it was decided that they hunt elsewhere for the proper clay. Having heard of a good fire clay near Huntingburg, Louis Uhl went there and brought samples of the clay from a spot close to the hill, now known as Stand Pipe Hill. After it was tested at the plant in Evansville it was immediately decided that this was the clay they wanted and needed in order to produce good wares. The clay was taken out in wagons and hauled to Rockport, Indiana. Here it was shoveled into hogsheads and taken to Evansville on flat boats, where it was again loaded onto drays and hauled to the Pottery, and there it was dumped into the clay cellar.
At this time all of the ware was made by hand. It was turned by hand on kickwheels. A potters wheel must keep continually rotating. The kickwheels were made to turn by pumping back and forth of a lever. The levers were pushed with the left foot of the operator, as he turned the piece of ware. A ball of clay was thrown as a flat disc and no tools were used, other than the operator’s two hands, a sponge and a flat piece of wood, called a “rib”. In this way all sorts of shaped were created – many shaped pitchers, vases, jugs, etc. The inside was covered with a natural slip glaze, which was obtained from Albany, N.Y. (Albany slip glaze is the only deposit of its kind known in this country. It has all the requisites for the making of a good acid proof mahogany colored glaze.) After the ware was thoroughly dry it was put in the kilns, which were shaped like a large bottle. Large pieces of hickory and oak wood were used for the firings. When the kiln had reached the temperature of 2200 degrees Fahrenheit, common coarse salt was dropped into the kiln from small holes on the top. The intense heat melted the salt and the fumes of this attacked all exposed surfaces of the pottery. After the kiln had cooled the ware carried a very pretty and practical glaze.
The business continued for a number of years and in the year 1879 Louis Uhl bought the interest of his brother, August, and took his son, George, as a partner under the firm name of Louis Uhl & Son. After several years while this partnership continued my father (also named Louis Uhl) was given a position in the office of the firm. Not long after he entered the business his father, Charles Uhl, bought the interest of his brother, George. The Uhl Pottery Company was then formed. In 1908, after the death of my great- grandfather, Louis Uhl, it was decided that the manufacturing plant be moved to Huntingburg, where the clay deposits were located.
My father, then a young man of 25 was delegated to the task of erecting and establishing the plant. The plant that stands now is the same one that was built then – with of course, additions and improvements as the business grew. So far in this history of Uhl Pottery no mention has been made of the women and their help. My mother, then 25 with three small babies must have felt like a woman of the pioneer days – and she was no less courageous.
The work, the grind, the ever constant plugging and pushing necessary to the building and development of a new industry is one of my memories. I was a baby when Dad and Mother came here and the Pottery was built, but I remember so clearly the many changes that has come. It has been only within the last 17 years that the large ware - big jars and jugs have been turned by machinery. Before that we children, and of course other visitors, never tired of watching the turner turn by hand the large sized jugs and jars. In the warehouse at the Pottery, now, is a sixty-gallon jar and a thirty-gallon jug, turned by John Ross, one of the finest hand turners of large ware this country has ever had.
Those two pieces, of course were turned merely for the purpose of experimentation - to see how large a piece he could turn. I watched John Ross turn a 80 gallon jar and what a thrill I got when I saw him stand on a barrel to finish it as the piece grew in height. Now, of course; through the aid of machinery, large pieces are not unusual. Although the plant was in Huntingburg the main office remained in Evansville, under the management of Charles Uhl, my grandfather, assisted by his younger brother. After my grandfather’s death, my brother, Bob, took his place in the business in Evansville. Finally, in 1932, the office was moved to Huntingburg and a retail store and warehouse remained in Evansville.
Not only has the fascination of pottery and it’s making taken a grip on the Uhl men, but it has also filled the hearts of the Uhl women. We all love it, but it is Jane Uhl, my father’s sister, who has inherited the art of designing and making it. She accomplished some very fine things with her knowledge and ability of pottery making. The Uhl Pottery Co. of today makes 900 different articles and ships the ware all over the United States and into Canada. Eighty-eight years ago August and Louis Uhl started their modest little firm, and through many years of slow but constant growth and careful management the art of pottery making has been uppermost in the minds of there descendents.
During these years, however, the “going” was not always smooth. Many times they were ready to give up and quit the business entirely. For at times they were making barely enough for an existence. However, there is a certain, almost hypnotic, fascination in the trade. In fact, among the pottery people there is a saying, “Once a potter, always a potter”. As a matter of fact a number of them did leave the business, but the majority of them stayed with it.
An interesting story, often told in connection with this is one of a Mr. Bray, the finest hand turner that has ever been connected with the Uhl Pottery. He worked many years for my great-grandfather, Louis Uhl. In 1903, he was hired by a wealthy man at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Here he demonstrated the art of hand turning, after which he gave lessons to those who wished to take it up as a hobby. This man, a very clever intelligent person possessed a great power over the clay. He came back to the Uhl Pottery and resumed his work. However, my great uncle finally laid him off, and he tried many other jobs, but was not satisfied and finally came to my father, who was then a part of the business. He begged him to take him back. He said, “Louie I don’t care if there’s no money in it. You don’t have to pay me, just put me in some little corner out of the way with my wheel. The feel of the clay draws me; it’s like a poultice. It’s my first and only love.” He got the position, and the things he turned out were amazing. Mr., Bray and his art and his love for that art is a legend in the history of the industry.
We love this ancient trade of our ancestors and it is only natural that we now take great pride in the progress it has made.
REFERENCE: (The above article was given by Mrs. Hannah Uhl Switzer of Evansville, Indiana at a recent library district in that city.) Article taken from The Huntingburg Independent, Friday, June 4, 1937.