Pittsville Pottery: An uphill and downhill battle
By Kris Leonhardt
The Wisconsin Ceramic Corporation was formed in the early 1930s by Father John Willitzer and became known as Pittsville Pottery.
The business progressed quickly with the patent of a dripless pitcher and a staff that nearly reached 50, but success was short-lived as the Depression hit rural America, sending things into a downward spiral.
When the plant closed in 1932, disgruntled stockholders came knocking on Willitzer’s door demanding compensation. From his own pocket, Willitzer reimbursed the investors an estimated $27,000, a fortune in those days.
The factory sat nonoperational for years before Willitzer considered pursuing his passion once again. In 1936 Willitzer and Pittsville native Antone Lins reopened the plant, fulfilling product requests for a mail order house in Chicago. The factory produced vases, bowls, and pitchers using the vast deposits of red clay in the area.
They enjoyed a certain level of success until production waned, and once again the factory fell silent.
Three years later there was another spark of activity at the plant. Willitzer enlisted the help of James Wilkins, a multigenerational pottery maker, and his son William to reopen the pottery factory. Wilkins found the Pittsville clay of superior quality, and due to his expertise, the factory began moving in a new direction.
Willitzer gave the Wilkins father and son half interest in the business and allowed them to work on a more artistic form of pottery.
As an experienced pottery maker, James Wilkins brought along with him a formula of powdered glass and color-inducing oxide to add a beautiful color sheen to the pottery.
The new business became Wisconsin Artware Inc. but had already secured its local moniker of Pittsville Pottery.
By this time pottery artists were elderly, the art form was not nearly in demand as it once was, and young artists were hard to find. The Wilkins, though, brought with them three young potters.
The trio found some level of success for approximately four years before the factory would close for the final time.
Next week: The collection.