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Texas Trails: Wilson Pottery

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May 31, 2012 - One of the first, if not the very first, African-American-owned businesses in Texas was

in Capote, not far from Seguin in Guadalpe County. The business was known as H. Wilson and Co. and was one of three potteries in operation around Capote from 1857 to 1903.

The first Wilson Pottery was a slave-based business started in 1857, after John McKamey Wilson, Jr. settled in Guadalupe County with his 11 children and 20 slaves. John M. Wilson was the minister of the Seguin Presbyterian church and headmaster of the female academy of Guadalupe College. He was also a keen promoter who wrote articles about the composition of various clays in the area and their suitablity for pottery. He might have built the first Wilson Pottery to show that he knew what he was talking about, but he probably did it to make money because utilitarian stoneware was much in demand on the frontier.

None of this is to suggest that John Wilson was a potter. Instead, he hired professional potters to teach the craft to his slaves -- Hiram, James, George and Andrew Wilson. The everyday products they turned out -- chamber pots, churns, bowls, pitchers, storage jars and the like -- were durable and functional, just like the people who bought them.

Much of the stoneware from the first Wilson Pottery is in the celebrated Edgewood style of South Carolina, which is alkaline glazed. Alkaline glazing was used a thousand years ago in China but wasn't developed in America until the 1880s by Abner Landrum in South Carolina. The glazes that Landrum and other Edgefield potters used was composed of lime or wood ash, or both, and fired to a temperature of more than 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit. Other pottery was either lead-based and poisonous or salt-glazed and expensive. Edgefield pottery was durable, non-toxic and inexpensive.

When the Civil War was over and his slaves were freed, John Wilson gave Hiram and James Wilson some money, which they used to start casino spiele their own pottery. He also sold another pottery site to a trio of other potters in 1869. The most historically significant of the three sites was the second one, which Hiram ran. Aside from being an African-American-owned business at a time when such a thing was unheard of, the stoneware was distinguished by the H. Wilson and Co. etching; most utilitarian stoneware of the day was not signed.

Stoneware from the casino spiele second and third sites was salt-glazed, which gives the finished product a shiny and pitted finish, often referred to as "orange peel." Everything was shaped by hand on a potter's wheel and the interior was coated with dark brown slip clay. After air drying, the stoneware was put into a kiln and heated. Salt was added by simply throwing it into the kiln when it was at its hottest. The vessel shape of the H. Wilson stoneware harks back to the first Wilson pottery, but the horseshoe-shaped handles and rims to support the lids were new. After all, Hiram and other were now free to add whatever artisitic embelishes they desire.

Of course, in those agrarian times, nothing and nobody was expected to just sit around and look pretty. Not even stoneware. The Wilson stoneware was put to use mostly in the preparation, storage and serving of food, though the potters also produced a few flower pots, churns and even some marbles.

The black Wilsons of Capote formed a Freedman's Colony after the Civil War as violence and the threat of violence, particularly against African-Americans, escalated. The Wilsons were said to be the victims of at least two attacks. Hiram started a Baptist church there and a school, essentially filling the same role in his community that John M. Wilson had served when he first settled near Capote.

The H. Wilson Company lasted until about 1884, when Hiram died. James Wilson and others from Hiram's pottery went to work for Durham at the third site, which continued until 1903 when Salt Creek flooded and destroyed the operation.

Since then, examples of Wilson stoneware have been exhibited at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, the Institute of Texas Cultures in San Antonio, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The Wilson Pottery Foundation, with its own museum, is dedicated to preserving the memory and works of Hiram and the other Wilsons who, in bondage and as free men, created durable and practical stoneware that today is worth more than what any of the Wilson potters made in a lifetime.

 

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