Cornelison Pottery, Bybee, Kentucky

August 29, 2013

Over 270 images featuring more than one hundred and fifty ceramic pieces shown in the Early 20th Century Art Pottery from Madison and Fayette Counties exhibition at the Lexington Public Library (November 12, 2011-January 22, 2012) were recently added to KOAR.

2012.59.7Central Kentucky pottery may not be quite as well known as other regional brands, such as Rookwood in Cincinnati, but as co-curator Jerry Nichols says, “This is Southern, homegrown, real stuff versus factory-produced stuff, so you could argue it is better. This is true Kentucky art, made of our natural resources and labor.” The Lexington exhibition included work from three potteries, one with two production lines: Cornelison Pottery (later known as Bybee Pottery), Waco Pottery, and the Bybee Pottery Company of Lexington. Details about the last two potteries can already be found in KOAR (by clicking on the “Link to Artist Details”), from an earlier exhibition at the Hopewell Museum in 2012.59.7 mark2Bourbon County, Waco and the Bybees: Central Kentucky Art Pottery, 1900 to 1935 (May 27-September 27, 2009). There is less information given on the Cornelisons’ pottery, however, so this post focuses on them.

Bybee is a small rural town in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in southeastern Madison County, Kentucky. Bybee Pottery, owned by six generations of the Cornelison family, operated as the Cornelison Pottery until around 1954, when it finally adopted the name of the town with which it was so closely identified. (Alas, causing much confusion with the now-extinct Bybee Pottery Company of Lexington!) Bybee Pottery was the oldest continuous industry and last surviving traditional pottery in Madison County, the oldest working pottery west of the Alleghenies and second oldest in the United States, when operations were suspended in 2011, just two years after it had celebrated its bicentennial. At that time, Jim Cornelison called the idea of permanent closure “a misconception. The pottery is not closed, we just aren’t producing anything at the moment.”

The Cornelison-owned Bybee 2012.6.20Pottery claimed it was originally established in 1809; actual written sales records proving its existence date as far back as 1845. Pottery was produced for over a century in the same log building, which always looked much as it did when the business began. The oldest and central portion of the structure, a landmark from pioneer days, was built of V-notched logs with solid walnut ceiling beams. Tall people often were forced to duck under these beams since the accumulation of clay dust eventually raised the floor level several inches. Many longtime employees came from the community. “We have had generations of families work here, and not just ourselves,” Buzz Cornelison, Jim’s brother, noted. “Most of the people we have hired over the years are neighbors.”

Webster Cornelison founded Bybee Pottery, which passed down to James Eli, then to Walter (who was proprietor during the 1920s heyday of art pottery), and to Walter’s son Ernest in 1939. Most Cornelisons had not been potters themselves; they had hired potters. That was until the fifth generation, when Walter Lee Cornelison (Jim’s and Buzz’s father) came along. As Buzz explained, “My great-grandfather made a kick wheel for my father when he was a little boy, and he said he had his own corner … his 2012.58.2own clay. Every once in a while, somebody would walk by and say, ‘Try it this way’ and show him something. That’s the way he learned to throw.” Walter spent decades at the potter’s wheel, even after he took over the business, producing hundreds of thousands of pieces now prized for their quality.

The art of ceramics begins with mineral-rich clays having a crystalline structure that becomes more plastic when mixed with water. The clay used to make this pottery can be found in an open pit about three miles from Bybee. Historic records show that the first settlers mined this same clay-rich soil near the Kentucky River in southern Madison County, then still on the American frontier, and took the clay to Fort Boonesborough for making crude dishes. Since Kentucky’s pioneer days at least fifty small potteries have been located near the clay deposits of Madison County.

The Cornelisons’ process of making pottery remained very similar to the methods used two centuries earlier. The clay was open-pit mined several 2012.61.1feet beneath the topsoil, more recently dug out by bulldozers, backhoes, and tractors rather than shovels. (After removal of the hundred tons of clay typically used in a year, the hole was filled in and marked for the next year’s dig.) The fresh clay was then ground to remove any pebbles or impurities in a simple pug mill, traditionally powered by a mule-drawn wheel. The clay was formed into “logs” then stored in an ancient vault to keep it moist and pliable until needed. The only thing ever added to the clay was a little water.

After being weighed on an old balance to ensure uniformity, the clay was thrown by hand on a traditional foot-controlled potter’s wheel, now powered by electricity. Once off the wheel, the clay body will retain whatever shape it has been given as it is allowed to dry. Finishing details (such as handles, flukes, and spouts) can be added by hand while the clay is still in 2012.6.24a leather-hard state. The clay form must be thoroughly dried before firing in the kiln, heated to 2,200° for 24 hours; natural gas eventually replaced wood for fuel. Firing chemically transforms the clay into a material resembling the moderately hard stones from which clays originate.

Finally, adding glazes created Bybee’s signature colors and patterns. Glazes are silica-based substances that provide a lustrous non-porous (thus waterproof) surface. Fluxes added to lower the melting point of the silica, such as certain mixtures of minerals or metal oxides, can act as color-inducing agents. Typically, glazes are hand-applied after the bisque (first, or unglazed) firing by dipping, brushing, sponging, or pouring directly onto the surface of the piece. Then it must be fired again, this time at a somewhat lower temperature (to preserve the integrity of the ceramic body), transforming the glaze into an amorphous glass structure that fuses with the surface of the clay.

By the early 1900s, demand had diminished for the utilitarian crocks, churns, jars, and jugs used in a largely 2012.57.3agrarian society. The need for everyday pottery became obsolete with the increasing prevalence of modern storage vessels made of glass or tin and the industrialization of the potter’s craft. Many of the remaining traditional potteries in Madison County went under. But the Cornelisons, like many other American Arts and Crafts potteries determined to continue creating handmade objects, adapted to the twentieth century by shifting their production to “art” pottery that was designed to be beautiful as well as functional. (Waco Pottery and Lexington’s Bybee Pottery Company soon followed; all three Kentucky potteries gained national recognition during the economic boom of the 1920s.) Practical and decorative tableware, cookware, and containers glazed with bright custom-made colors created a distinctive look that marked each piece as a handmade Bybee original.

KOAR images shown here, from top to bottom:


Want to know more? Try the links below: (video)
Appalshop Archive: Bybee Pottery (includes a tour of the pottery and how pottery is made)
“Madison’s Oldest Industry is Pottery” by Dr. Fred Engle, Madison’s Heritage Online (July 14, 1971) (includes audio and video links)
“Bybee Pottery celebrates 200 years “ by Tom Eblen, Lexington Herald-Leader (February 22, 2009)
“After two centuries, Bybee Pottery now facing its toughest challenge” by Bill Robinson, Richmond Register (May 31, 2011)
“Bybee Pottery One of the Oldest Potteries Left in America” by Tommy Fox (November 29, 2011)