Pittsville Pottery: A priest’s passion
By Kris Leonhardt
As the glacial ice that once covered most of Wisconsin crept slowly from the north, it left the area around Pittsville flat in its movement. Within the ice was iron, which left the white clay near Pittsville red in color. The resulting red clay would remain mostly untouched until one priest saw the value in its consistency.
Father John Willitzer was born in Sudetenland, an area in Czechoslovakia inhabited by Germans. He came to the Pittsville area in 1907 to serve the Catholic community.
Willitzer became an instrumental figure in Pittsville. As the country entered and exited the Great Depression, few jobs could be found in Pittsville, and the priest struggled to create work for his parish members and keep residents in his pews.
While visiting a parish member one evening, Willitzer eyed the chimney constructed of red brick made from the marsh clay. Willitzer then took samples of the clay and sent them to Dr. Julius Bidtel in Germany for testing. When Willitzer received the results, he was pleased to learn that the clay was well-suited for developing pottery.
In 1930 Willitzer began work on a plant to put his parishioners to work. With $75,000 in capital and three acres of land, the Wisconsin Ceramic Corporation began in a one-story building measuring 84 feet by 122 feet. The side walls were constructed of tiles, all of which were fired in a single kiln.
After completion, the factory became one of two industries located in Pittsville at that time. There was also a canning factory in the municipality. The new factory not only provided for the Pittsville community but attracted new settlers to the area as well.
A hole, which measured approximately 20 feet across and 15 feet deep, was dug in the marsh about 1-2 miles outside of Pittsville to harvest the red clay. In the early days of the pottery plant development, it was common to see Willitzer in the marsh procuring sections of clay.
In 1931 the Wisconsin Ceramic Corporation was incorporated, and the factory would become known as Wisconsin Pottery and more often Pittsville Pottery.
Next week: An uphill and downhill battle.