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Local Hands and Native Clay
Blacksville Pottery

By John Lilly
(Originally published in the Spring 2000 issue)

Bess Richardson, of Blacksville, holding a pitcher made by her husband, pottery instructor Ed Richardson. This piece of handmade pottery was a birthday gift to Bess in 1946. Photograph by Mark Crabtree.

Most people around Blacksville own a piece or two of beautiful handmade pottery. Some own quite a few. Many in this friendly town in far northern Monongalia County have fond personal memories of making this unique pottery and of participating in this pioneering community arts and industrial education program.

Beginning in the mid-1930's, the Blacksville pottery program thrived for some 25 years, drawing on the creativity of hundreds of ordinary local people and a nearby vein of high-quality native clay. Thousands of pottery pieces were made in Blacksville, attracting widespread attention, including the New York World’s Fair and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Today, these pieces are considered to be collectors’ items and are an indelible part of the local culture.

Bess Johnson Richardson was born in 1903 and lived in Blacksville all her life, until her death in 2000. Making the pottery not only provided her with a welcome artistic outlet, but it was part of her social life. “We had suppers,” she said, recalling the monthly social gatherings held among the adult pottery students. “People’d bring their husbands or their wives, and everybody brought their favorite dish they liked. Some bring buns, some bring potato salad, some baked beans and bread. Anything! We just had a good time together. It was just like having a little party. We’d work a little while and then we’d decide it was time to eat. We’d spread things on the table and everybody’s sit down and eat. Oh, it brings back memories, I’ll tell you!” 

The program also provided financial support for the Richardson family, since Bess’ husband, Ed Richardson, was the pottery instructor at Blacksville for some 15 years. He taught pottery, welding, and shop classes at Blacksville’s Clay-Battelle High School during the day and taught adult pottery classes at the school in the evening. Two nights a week, he also held adult pottery classes in Morgantown. “He had a nice class and everybody liked him,” Bess said, with obvious nostalgic pride. “We had a wonderful life. He was the nicest person. You ask any student what they thought of him, everyone said he was a wonderful person, and he was.”

Their romance began with a car ride, she recalled with a chuckle. “He had bought a little car. A Ford. He come to borrow a flashlight from my brother. I told him, ‘I hadn’t seen much of you since you had a new car.’ He said, ‘Would you like to go for a ride?’ I said, ‘Well sure!’ From then on, I had him hooked.” They were married in 1923.

During the 1930's, Ed Richardson was among the first students in the early days of the Blacksville pottery program, before eventually assuming the role of teacher in the mid-1940's. Bess recalled how her husband first learned to make pottery. “He had his leg broken. He was just sitting around, and he wasn’t being satisfied sitting still. So I’d fix his lunch, and he was on crutches. He went to school and learned to make pottery on crutches.”

Ed’s teacher was Bess’ cousin, Charles Tennant. It was Charles who accidentally discovered a valuable vein of native clay in about 1935. Charles Tennant was an industrial arts instructor at the local four-room high school. A small mudslide — or slip - in the road revealed a rich deposit of fine grey clay, which Tennant found to be excellent for making pottery. This clay was so pure that it required very little preparation or handling before it could be formed into attractive and useful shapes by local hands.

According to Nick Fedorko of the West Virginia Geological Survey, vast deposits of native clay have been found across the state, some of it underlying coal beds and dating back more than 300 million years. The Blacksville clay, however, is of a relatively modern vintage in geological terms — dating back perhaps as recently as 20,000 years.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.