The Wilson Potteries
By Nola McKey
In the days before stainless steel canisters and plastic milk jugs—and easy access to ice—our ancestors relied on stoneware for food storage, as well as for many other household needs. The demand for this strong, high-fired, nonporous pottery, along with the expense of importing it from other areas of the country, prompted the opening of numerous Texas potteries in the last half of the 19th Century. Many of these enterprises opened along the Wilcox Formation, a band of clay that stretches northeast across the eastern half of the state.
Three of these sites, known collectively as the Wilson Potteries, operated in Guadalupe County, near Capote, southeast of Seguin. Today, their history has inspired an archeological dig, a museum exhibit, and a family’s mission.
The story begins with JohnMcKamey Wilson Jr., a Presbyterian minister from North Carolina who brought his family to the Seguin area in the winter of 1856-57. He established a pottery, known as the J.M. Wilson Pottery, on Salt Creek in 1857.
“John McCamey Wilson never threw a pot in his life,” notes Wilson Potteries expert Richard Kinz, a surveyor and former archeological steward with the Texas Historical Commission in Guadalupe County. “But he had his slaves trained by some experienced potters who came through the region. They taught the slaves how to throw pots and apply glazes. Of course, not long after this, the slaves became free.”
Accounts differ as to details, but around 1869, the potters at the original site relocated to two nearby sites. Most authorities say that one site was run by Marion J. Durham (a white man) and John Chandler (a black man), both of whom had come to Texas from South Carolina, where their families were well known in the stoneware industry. (Durham and Chandler may have been employed by Reverend Wilson earlier.) The other site was run by former slaves—Hiram, James, and Wallace Wilson. (Hiram, the oldest, was the owner.) Although all three men took the Wilson name after Emancipation, it’s not known whether they were close-ly related or only slave-brothers.
Their business, known as the Hiram Wilson Pottery—the first recorded African-American enterprise in Texas—produced utilitarian stoneware with distinctive designs. For example, the handles on some of the storage jars were horseshoe-shaped and smaller than those on jars produced at the original Salt Creek site. Another distinctive feature was that the vessels were always stamped “H. Wilson & Co.” (an unusual practice at the time). “Today,” says Richard Kinz, “stoneware with that mark is highly collectible and sells for hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars.”
The Hiram Wilson Pottery thrived until shortly after Hiram’s death, in 1884. An article in the Fall 1999 issue of Heritage states that James and Wallace Wilson then went to work at the Durham-Chandler site, which remained in business until 1903. The article’s authors, Marie Blake, Steve Johnson, and Richard Kinz, sum up the significance of the Wilson Potteries: “These sites provided vessels such as crocks, jars, and jugs for food storage and preservation in South Central Texas for 56 years. The men who worked these sites were white and black, and were bound together in a tradition that survived slavery and the Civil War.”
Abandoned for decades, the Wilson Potteries were formally recorded as archeological sites in 1971. The story might have ended there, except for Richard Kinz’s interest. While doing a survey for a local landowner several years ago, he became intrigued with the potteries when he found some pottery shards.
By digging in county records, Richard discovered a partition deed that showed Wilson descendants still had a claim on the Durham-Chandler-Wilson Pottery site. He contacted some family members, and in 1998, some of the descendants formed the Wilson Pottery Foundation, which now holds the deed to the five-acre site.
Interest among family members is high: More than 600 attended last June’s Wilson family reunion in Seguin, some having come from as far away as Germany and Japan. The foundation plans to restore the pottery as a living museum so people can learn about the family legacy and see how the pots were made.
In October 2002, with a small grant from the Texas Historical Commission for fencing, Richard (who likes to call himself “Keeper of the Kilns”) began the physically demanding work of excavating the overgrown site.
The Wilson Potters: An African-American Enterprise in 19th-Century Texas, was an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston that focused on the establishment of a pottery industry in 19th-Century Texas, and included nine pieces of H. Wilson & Co. pottery, as well as pieces from other early Texas potteries.
Other examples of Wilson pottery have been on display in San Antonio, at the Institute of Texan Cultures (pieces on loan from the Witte Museum collection), and in the Seguin-Guadalupe County Heritage Museum.
See full article in the October 2002 issue.
From the September 2012 issue.