BYBEE MASTER POTTERS
It began two million years ago. Actually, much earlier, if you consider the pallet upon which it was drawn. For Kentucky is an old place, with ancient stone levels laid one upon another like a layer cake of nature, ready for your inspection, as the streams of erosion slice out sections.
In the middle of Kentucky, between the cities of Richmond and Irvine, is the land where the “Bluegrass Kisses the Mountains.” And just as importantly, for the importance of this story, is the course of the mighty Kentucky River. Waters surging out of the mountains to give a Commonwealth its identification. Cutting through rock laid down more than 450 million years ago.
So why do I now talk about a younger-aged deposit, a pup, so to speak, in the eons of geologic structures? Because of glaciers, of course, and the glacial outwash impounding the Kentucky River and spreading different layers of soil and sediment around Waco and Bybee, Kentucky. And the residue it left was in places naturally sorted, sifted in a way, into golden plasticity. Clays so fine that to find them was to begin an industry.
And so the old pottery-making families migrated into this area, each with their own “lens” of clay to dig. Clay to spin and mold, slip and glaze, and fire in the kilns they built to sinter the vessels forming colorful glass casings.
And the Kentucky River was close. A highway in those times. And Boonesborough was just down the way. I wonder if any of their pottery shards were found down there?
So the Cornelison, Bybee, Grinstead, and Zittle families began their pottery operations. The Huffmans from Texas bought the Grinstead Pottery business in 1847. They renamed the surrounding community in remembrance of Waco, Texas, which, in turn, was named in remembrance of the Hueco tribe of Native Americans who once lived there.
The Cornelisons began their pottery business back in 1809 [and maybe even earlier], on land granted to Conrad Cornelison, Jr. for Revolutionary War service. The family began making pottery soon thereafter. Six generations of Master Potters, including Webster Cornelison, James Eli Cornelison, Walter Cornelison, Ernest Cornelison, Walter Lee Cornelison, and, now, James [Jimmy] Cornelison have spun pottery there.
The Civil War knocked many of the local potters out of the business, but the Cornelison’s pottery operation persevered [called Bybee for the name of the stagecoach stop owners at this location]. Its fine silt-free clays became well known for their durability, texture, and fine-colored glazes.
In the early 1900s, the Cornelisons would put their pottery in trucks and travel to Kentucky State Parks to sell their wares. There was too little tourist traffic in Waco and Bybee to support a retail operation. Hard to get to then.
But the modern expansion of pottery operations really took off when the First Lady of Kentucky, Phyllis George Brown , took to promoting Kentucky crafts all around the country. The Bybee Pottery business flourished, although it continued to be made [even so today] in its 200-year-old earthen floor pottery barns. Only the Recession of 2008 and the death of Jimmy’s father, Walter Lee Cornelison, could slow it down.
So the production was drastically cut, and the barn operation closed to the public. Eventually, even the Louisville, Kentucky outlet, operated by cousin Ron Stambaugh for decades, closed down after a successful run, but not for the lack of appreciation of the quality of beauty and function in Bybee pottery.
Limited production, however, is still ongoing, and new Bybee pottery becomes available, on a restricted basis, after each infrequent firing in the same old kiln. The kiln operates at between 1,950 and 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit for 16 hours in that same old barn in Bybee, Kentucky, but the Bybee operation remains closed to the public.
So the business continues, unbroken, through six generations of Kentucky Cornelison family potters. If you find some, buy it. If you have some, smile at its appearance when you use it. You will be eating and drinking Kentucky’s authentic cultural history.
Now for some science.
Clay. It sounds pretty simple. You know when you seize it. It is obviously different than rock and silt. And its texture is based on the type and size of the particles. Clay particles are generally considered less than four microns in size [0.004 millimeter, the smallest unit in sedimentary rock and soil]. Just consider that “tiny.”
Or maybe you know clay by its feel. Rocks are gritty, silts are muddy, and clays are slippery. Now we are getting somewhere. Just try not to slip and fall when you dig it.
Plasticity. That’s the thing. Like cookie dough, with the right moisture content. What causes that sponginess? Clay minerals. Now our logic chases its tail. But clay minerals will ultimately explain it all!
These tiny minerals represent erosion of the great rocks pushed up from Earth’s interior. Complex mixtures of Silicon and Aluminum, with Iron complexes combined with Alkali Metals [ including Lithium, Sodium, Potassium, Rubidium, Cesium, and Francium] and Alkaline Earth Metals [ including Beryllium, Magnesium, Strontium, Barium, and Radium].
Nothing so simple like the chemical signature in limestone [calcium carbonate, CACO3]. Instead, clay particles are composed of clay minerals with strange names such as Allophane, Kaolinite, Halloysite, Smectite, Illite, Chlorite, Vermiculite, and Sepiolite.
Yikes! And the chemical structures are even more bizarre than the pronunciation of their names. For example, take a look at the structure of Kaolinite [AL2SI2O5(OH)5], or search out the magnesium and iron variations in Chlorite. Yet, it is this complex chemical structure and tiny size of particle that creates the lattice-like layers that trap and hold water. Plasticity that will be driven out by high heat during long periods when the pottery is “fired” in a kiln and the clay “matures.”
What you get at the end of the pottery making process depends on the composition of the clay going into its making. Each deposit has its own character. And Bybee mines its own special seams, infrequent lenses of high quality clay, scattered and buried with other deposits of sand, silt, and debris.
Here is how Bybee makes that clay into its famous pottery.
Bybee first goes out and hunts up its elusive pocket of special clay. It is hard to predict the location. Discovery is often by chance. Then the potters remove the overburden and soil and dig out as much of the good clay as is present. Then they re-cover the opening to protect what is left.
At the Bybee barn, water is added to change the moist clay into a slurry. That is then passed through a shaker screen to remove any large, foreign material, and then fed into a plate press to squeeze back out the water. The cakes of clay are then mixed in an upright clay mill, with water added to get a uniform consistency, and squeezed out in plugs about the length of your forearm. The plugs will then be taken to the oldest part of the barn where the pottery wheels and molds are housed.
If the object to be produced is not round [rectangular baking plates, for example], the wheel is not used. For these, a mold is used, instead, and the clay re-liquified into a thin slurry “slip” that is poured into a mold of the required shape. Drying quickly from the outside in, the excess is removed when the piece is thick enough, and placed on a shelf to dry further. When the piece is removed from the mold, it is often placed in direct sunlight to complete the drying process.
For round bowls and cups and special, created art pieces [like my wine decanter created by Jimmy’s father, Walter], pottery wheels are used. The traditional wheel, once called a kick wheel and operated by the potter’s leg, has, since 1939, been operated by electricity. Turning clay in this way is a work of history and beauty [check out Demi Moore in the Patrick Swayze movie, “Ghost.”].
Large, flat bottom pieces [plates, for example] are often made in a mold on a mechanical wheel [a “jigger”]. The clay is set in the mold to maintain shape while the wheel is spinning and the potter forms the clay with his fingers. A “shoe” [bevel] is used to maintain uniform thickness and depth. The piece is then set out on a shelf to dry. And it must be “bone dry” in order to take the “glaze,” and when fired, not crack.
Now, for the “glaze.” It is important for both function and beauty. And Bybee is famous for its colors! Pink, white, “new” red, purple, “teal” green, “Bybee” blue [cobalt blue, almost black], yellow, speckled colors and others used over time [now collectors’ items].
After being fired, the Bybee pottery is strong and sturdy, but liquids can still seep through its “matured” chemical structure. Hence, the use of a “glaze” [minerals and stains], which becomes glass-like when melted.
The glaze minerals and stains are mixed with water in small vats. The thoroughly dry, raw pottery is then hand-dipped into the appropriate color mixture. The water is immediately absorbed by the “bone dry” pottery piece, and the glaze now coats the vessel. Additional designs can then be painted or dabbed on with a sponge. Then into the kiln, the pottery goes!
So to round out this discussion, let’s go back to those clay lenses. They formed during the Glacial Ages in the Pleistocene Period, somewhere between two million years ago and when the glaciers retreated about twelve thousand years or so.
The glacial ice faces were like bull dozers, pushing much of the surface of Ohio and Indiana down before them. They stopped at what is now the Ohio River, not significantly entering our Commonwealth. But they did significantly impact our waterways, blocking them all the way up into the region around Bybee, and flooding them with glacial outwash. And at different times and elevations, backwater lakes formed on the Kentucky River and its tributaries. Within those waters, different loads of sediment were affected by turbulence sorting out clay in different locations.
The Bybee clay is from what is called the Irvine Formation, a deposit that was once spread out over a four-mile area. Since then, erosion has cut down the surface to the current topography, isolating pockets of that golden clay treasure.
And here is one last thought to remember. These were the times of the great Pleistocene Megafauna. Giant Sloths, Sabertooth Tigers, Mastodons, and Mammoths. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine those creatures stomping on those clay bottoms in their passing.
Don’t believe me? Take a visit to Kentucky’s Big Bone Lick. Those creatures once roamed around Waco and Bybee, too!