You don’t have to have lived here long before you hear about old buildings constructed from “bricks made on the place.” Botetourt’s abundant clay gave raw material for both bricks and earthenware. As a result, potters set up businesses to make and sell pots, urns, pans, bowls, pitchers and other sorts of household wares here.
Kurt Russ, an expert on these pots, will speak at the second half (1 p.m.) of the event “All Fired-Up in Botetourt” on Saturday, May 14, at the Community House in Buchanan. The first part, on Botetourt bricks, takes place on the same day at 10:30 a.m., led by Mike Pultice, of the state’s Department of Historic Resources.
Russ, 54, not a potter himself, knows his pots from archeological digs in the area. While attending Washington and Lee he participated in excavations of Liberty Academy, the late 18th century school that evolved into W&L. “Ceramic artifacts tell you so much about things people wanted to use,” he said. “You can see their wealth and status from imported Chinese wares, but these coarse wares” made locally tell about everyday life.
After graduating he wrote up a lot of the work done at Liberty and followed that with a masters degree from the University of Tennessee. He gave up his doctoral work at UT to respond to an invitation to come back to W&L to work on research projects covering both prehistoric and historic eras. These projects included early industry in the valley such a pottery kilns.
“We excavated pottery kilns in the late ’80s. Now, 25 years later, we’re adding new insights.” He did research on Tidewater stoneware manufacturing, too, and found the trade link between Henrico and Botetourt. Then from 1984 until 1996 he directed the anthropology lab, then segued into selling real estate specializing in historic properties.
He got some hands on historic work when he and his wife Linda took on a 1798 farmstead near Lexington. But he now also serves as the vice director of the southern Shenandoah Valley branch of Preservation Virginia, and he now has added Botetourt and Augusta to his work’s territory.
Russ has done extensive research on the pottery making families in Botetourt, including those of George M. Fulton and Pete Obenchain, makers of earthenware with lead glazes. He’s studied lists of pottery wares shipped through Buchanan and sold in shops there. “Because Botetourt potters were late getting to the salt-glazed stoneware tradition, bills of lading show stoneware was being brought down from Henrico, on the James, for sale here.”
Both Russ and Pulice hope those attending their presentations will bring bricks or pots they believe were made in Botetourt or nearby. Russ also wants to find more information about an Obenchain kiln operating somewhere along Mill Creek. “Somebody might find shards and find where it was so it could be registered with the state.” He warned that potters here rarely signed their pieces, but sometimes they would incise marks on them.
He’s looking forward to discovering the location of the Israel Christian kiln. “He either had a pottery person or he was one. I’ve seen fragments, so I know there was an 18th century kiln in the Fincastle area.”
Russ encourages all comers to enlighten him on their knowledge of Botetourt pottery. He will bring a large number of pots with him so he can illustrate his talk, but he expects also to learn from the audience. So make sure you bring your pots and bricks and engage in discussion about things “fired up” in Botetourt.
Event: All Fired-Up in BotetourtLearning and sharing sessions on Botetourt bricks and potsSaturday, May 14, 2011, 10:30 a.m. (bricks) and then 1 p.m. (pots) at Buchanan’s Community House