The Brown Bros Pottery Through the Eyes of a Child

Detail of Brown Brothers Pottery, Huntington, 1880 by Edward Lange, from cover of USEFUL ART Long Island Pottery, Cynthia Arps Corbett, SPLIA, 1985

It’s a beautiful Spring Day in Huntington and I’m going to treat you to a story. In this enchanting tale, Georgianna Bennet Sherman recounts her childhood by the pottery. Georgianna’s history is interesting and so much can be learned through her memories, but for now I invite you to enjoy the adventures of the five-year-old foster child of George and Eunice Brown, exploring the Brown Brothers Pottery in its heyday. (The Suffolk Bulletin, May 28th, 1920)

TELLS OF THE OLD POTTERY

Former Huntingtonian Grows Reminiscent

IS A PRETTY STORY

The old buildings, Finally Demolished a Few Months Ago, and Processes and Ware Described

A friend of the BULLETIN, now residing in Boston, sends us the following interesting story of the old pottery at the Harbor, recently demolished:

It was with unspeakable regret that I learned a short time ago of the passing of the old pottery at Huntington Harbor, of its being razed to the ground during the past Winter. For years it had stood idle and falling to decay, inhabited by hundreds of swallows who roosted nightly in its tall chimneys until one blew down in a storm, and the other was torn down. One shed after another of the picturesque group of old gray buildings has fallen in or has been torn down, but that the last vestige of it is now gone is indeed sad to think of.

As a child it was my rare privilege to play in and about the old pottery; its mysteries were always new to me and its memories will always be dear. It was a busy place in those days. Sloops and schooners, sailing gaily up the harbor loaded with huge loads of clay from Connecticut, tied up at the dock and the next day were unloaded amid much flurry and excitement. The two kilns, the earthen-ware and the stoneware, worked overtime. Late every afternoon the big wagons were loaded, to start off in the early morning for long trips covering Long Island from Brooklyn to Riverhead. They went out piled high with yellow pots packed in straw, fascinating brown jugs, pitchers and pie-plates and huge gray stoneware crocks. I imagine that in many Long Island farm houses to-day these jugs and pitchers and pie-plates, marked within an oval “Brown Brothers, Huntington.” may still be found. At night one watched for the empty wagons to return. The tired horses were taken out, rubbed down, petted, fed and called by name with the same affectionate consideration shown by the head of the establishment for every worker however humble. The wagons were run into the open sheds and left unguarded. Only the big red wagon which was the special pride of the establishment was ever put behind doors, and these doors had as a fastening only a big wooden staple. People in those days were honest and expected honesty of their neighbors.

The buildings themselves must have been a hundred years old when I first knew them. They were always gray and always rickety. As one approached over the bridge around the point on the harbor side the first shed, long since blown down, was always piled high with flower pots of all sizes from the very tiniest to the very biggest flower pot ever known. Piles and piles of them nested, packed in straw row upon row on all sides as high as the low eaves would permit. There was always a pleasant, clean odor to the place—a perfectly indescribable odor, but one never to be forgotten. It was nicest on a hot day when the summer sunlight came slanting in through cracks and knotholes. The whole place, as I remember it, was always bathed in sunlight. It had a southern exposure and in the angle of the two wings, one to the west and one to the south, all the first spring flowers were found. Over the west wing stretched an enormous grape vine bearing very good black grapes, and over the entrance to the mill where the clay was ground, flourished the biggest trumpet vine I have ever seen.

Next to the pot shed was the earthenware kiln, never especially interesting except when it was being loaded or unloaded, or in the process of being “tended.” The kilns were crammed full of pottery and shut up tight and sealed and then huge fires were started, and once started they had to be watched and fed and “sat up with” as one would sit up with an ill person. The earthenware kiln baked only one night, but the stoneware kiln had to be baked two and the heat was tremendous.

Once the stoneware kiln house got on fire and the old place had a narrow escape. It was in the early morning and the process of firing-off was taking place, when great shovels full of salt are thrown in for the glazing. I was awakened by the continued throbbing of the old force pump in the kitchen, and looking out of my window I beheld all the neighbors assembled on the lawn dashing back and forth from the house to the pottery with buckets of water. The Harbor boasted no fire department in these times and telephones were rare. When the village apparatus finally arrived it was all over and only the roof had been damaged.

Next to the earthen-ware kiln on the way up came the mill for grinding the clay—to me the most fascinating place of all in the pottery. It was dark and damp and smelly and presided over by a dour and silent old Welshman. An old gray horse walked solemnly round and round all day long with a huge lever attached to his collar which turned the cylinder mill. At the top of the mill great hunks of raw clay were thrown in and issuing forth again from the bottom like huge headless eels, they were grasped by the old man and slapped and pounded into enormous square slabs ready for the turning. This old Welshman never looked up, and seldom had a greeting for anyone. The only way to rouse him from his lethargy was to approach the mill from the north side of the pottery, back of the raspberry bushes, and to lean through a low window the sash of which opened up and out, and hit the horse a crack, with a stick as he passed by. At the sudden lurch forward of the old beast and at the increased speed at which the clay spurted out of the round hole, old Smith would look up and swear roundly at the offender, who took to his heels precipitately.

I am sure Smith was at one time a sailor. He wore gold hoops in his ears and a red kerchief knotted about his neck. He always hummed loudly at his work, occasionally, bursting into a few notes of real song. He lived up the lane in a cottage under the hill with his wife who was as fat and rosy and cheery as he was thin and dour and silent. They raised gay feathered bantam chickens and there was a parrot in the house. A huge hop vine in their yard housed many shiny, quarrelsome martins.

After leaving the mill there was always the old well to inspect. It stood nearly opposite the door of the mill. It was not very deep and the water was not good to drink and was used for moistening the clay. the wooden buckets were lowered on a chain, ferns grew out of the bricks down near the water, and a long green frog lived there. Back of this well were the two clay bins piled high with the raw material.

After the well was the pottery proper, the first floor devoted to the making of earthen-ware and the second to the stoneware. There were three wheels on each floor.

At the first wheel downstairs sat old “Oaty.” I remember him walking bent over a stick and I think he must have been always old. He, too, wore earrings. He was a little, old man of German extraction, kindly and humorous, a great lover of flowers and children, always singing, never too busy to turn a tiny flower pot or jug or to hold a child on his high stool and guide the little hands while they tried to mold a lump of wet clay. I am sure “Oaty” had an interesting history, though I never heard it. He lived alone in a little old house down the road and his front yard in the summer was gay with old-fashioned flowers, many hollyhocks and later, dahlias. When anyone in the neighborhood was ill “Oaty” would be seen trudging up the road with a great bouquet of his flowers to present to the invalid.

Upstairs in the warerooms and on the scaffold big jugs and jars sat drying in the sun for days before being baked. There was an attic, dark and mysterious which held many treasures. My chief delight was in an old spinning wheel and a beautiful full-rigged clipper ship model.

Downstairs in the south wing stood the big red wagon, when not in use, and once a horse with a broken leg was stabled there for weeks with his leg in a sling. Brown Brothers had bad luck with their horses. They were always carefully stabled and always given an apple or a lump of sugar at the end of the day’s work, but I seem to remember numbers of them getting suddenly ill and dying with colic, and one quietly lay down on the road and died miles from home a few days after he had been purchased at a large price.

Upstairs in the south wing were kept all sorts of odds and ends of things which had been bought for samples or tried out and found impractical. There were shiny, glazed teapots, and hanging flower pots painted red, big brown sewer pipes and huge garden urns: a place to dig about in for days and then still find new things hidden away in obscure corners upon the next visit.

On the dock were the two barns. The new one was interesting only when the horses were being fed, but the old barn was a veritable joy. It was used as a store room for stacking the flower pots downstairs. Upstairs was a haymow in which the neighbor’s hens stole their nests. Fresh eggs were often found there, but sometimes the mother hen would hide her nest so successfully that when approached she would sally forth followed by a whole brood of yellow chicks which she led in triumph up the lane to her own barnyard. Half-wild cats also lived in the hay-mow and at the proper season had large families of wild, spitting kittens. It was a source of never- ending amusement to frighten the old mother cat away and endeavor to tame these small wild creatures. With the old barn one’s tour ended or began all over again, as the case might be. It was always new and always fascinating.

Of the dear old man who was “Brown Brothers,” who was the smiling, gentle genius of the place, by whose untiring efforts the old plant had been brought up to its highest state of productivity only to rapidly decline as machine-made pottery flooded the markets, whose old age was saddened by the stilling of its wheels and the closing of its doors, there is no need to speak here. There are scores of people in Huntington who knew and loved him and who will remember his gentle kindliness and unfailing generosity. ”God rest his soul.”

G. B. S.

Boston, May, 1926

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