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By Staff | Jul 1, 2011

A person can be married many years before uncovering secrets about his Significant Other.

For instance, we had been wed for nearly a decade when I learned that my wife is a stoner. Her substance of choice is Red Wing stoneware, cooked up in the unassuming river town of Red Wing, Minn.

This passion for Red Wing pottery came to my attention after my wife had a conversation with Doris and Jim, her aunt and uncle. Doris and Jim ran an antique store in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

They mentioned to my wife that nearly anything made by Red Wing flew out of their shop and would she consider buying Red Wing stuff here and shipping it there?

So my wife began to attend auctions to purchase Red Wing crockery. This worked for her on several levels. First of all, she got to buy stuff. Second was that she was able to expand her knowledge about everything Red Wing.

But the main benefit was that she got to buy stuff.

Doris and Jim retired and my wife lost her sole stoneware client. Which was just as well, because she had other things to do such as raising a couple of kids and getting me to grow up. But she never forgot her passion for pottery.

It was like a pilgrimage to Mecca for her when we recently journeyed to Red Wing.

Red Wing, a tidy community known for limestone and stoneware, sprawls at the feet of the bluffs that form the shore of the Mississippi.

Geologic forces and vast eons of time left deposits of high-quality clay scattered about Goodhue County. Europeans arrived and soon began to use this clay to make sewer pipe.

They switched to manufacturing stoneware after learning there’s more profit in pottery than in poop pipe.

Stoneware is evocative of a bygone era in rural America. Red Wing crockery is sturdy and unpretentious and is built perhaps a bit too heavily – much like we Midwesterners.

When I was a kid, small pieces of stoneware were often given away as premiums. I saw the stuff as little more than kitsch, certainly nothing worth saving.

The trouble is, so did everyone else. As such, some of that “worthless” crockery now brings serious dollars.

One of our first stops was the Red Wing Pottery Museum located, appropriately, in a brick building that once housed a pottery factory.

The museum displayed all manner of Red Wing ceramics, from miniature flasks that could be secreted in a pocket to crocks large enough to accommodate an entire cow.

We saw some of those “worthless” knick-knacks from my youth, along with advertising pieces and even some very attractive art pottery.

I was pleased to see crocks similar to those my wife has collected; it’s gratifying to know that I’m not the only antiquated museum piece at our house.

We later journeyed to the Red Wing Stoneware Co., where stoneware is still being made. We watched a young woman named Liz throw a bread baker, a process that took about four minutes.

Liz explained how the art of throwing has changed little over the centuries, that it’s largely done by feel and how experience is her main guide.

Watching Liz make that bread baker obviously meant we had to purchase one before we left.

Another stop was at a museum/ antique store called Larry’s Jugs. Larry wasn’t there, but his wife, Pauline, animatedly regaled us with stories regarding Red Wing pottery history.

“I wish Peterson was here because he could really fill you in,” said Pauline

Yea, 40 years on, she still calls her husband Peterson.

“This street was once known as Smoky Row,” said Pauline, indicating the avenue outside their store. “Depending on the wind, the coal fires from the kilns could make life pretty miserable.

“There were days when you couldn’t hang your laundry out.”

We asked Pauline how they became stoneware aficionados.

“Peterson has always been a pottery nut. Some years ago, I went around our house and counted the pieces of Red Wing. I quit when I got to 700. And we live in a small house! I told Peterson that he had to sell some of it, but he said each piece was unique.”

Pauline shook her head, smiling wryly.

“Crockery collectors are housewives, dentists, pig farmers, lawyers. But they all have one thing in common: they’re all crazy.”

After a pleasant interlude of highly entertaining conversation with Pauline, my wife and I browsed their store.

I found a twin to a crock my wife recently acquired for a pittance and its price tag nearly caused my eyeballs to leap out of their sockets.

I don’t know if my wife has any more secrets. But I wouldn’t mind if they’re as rewarding as this one.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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