Monday, March 8, 2010

Fiesta Fantasy in West Virginia

On the banks of the Ohio River, wedged in between Ohio and Pennsylvania sits the town of Newell, West Virgina. This entire region was once home to dozens of potteries, china companies and brickyards, all of which used the abundance of clay that was native to the area. Most of those companies are now long gone, but still going strong after more than 110 years is the Homer Laughlin China
Company, best known for its Fiesta line of china. (Pictured left: The view of the Ohio River outside the HLC factory in Newell, WV.)

I began collecting Fiesta china by accident almost 20 years ago when my dear Aunt Jo (Josephine) had to leave her home and move into an assisted living facility. Now, I loved Aunt Jo. We all did. She always had something for everyone, a pack of gum, some little trinket, a candy bar. She was the first person in my family to go to college and was a school teacher. She got married very late in life, and was a widow for all of the time that I can remember. She was actually my dad's aunt, my grandma's sister, but even though she was older, she was always on the go.

Many members of my family were engaged in cleaning out my Aunt Jo's house. She never through anything away. Her house was packed to the gills and it took weeks and weeks to clear things out. Among the items unearthed at Aunt Jo's was a bunch of mismatched old Fiesta ware. There were plates, bowls, creamer, sugar and a few serving pieces. No one wanted it and it was offered to me. I thought the colors were interesting and so I took them home. They sat in a box for months before I gave them a second look. I had never heard of Fiesta before, but when I happened to be browsing around Hudson's Marketplace, I saw that they sold Fiesta. The colors were different then the ones Aunt Jo had, but that wonderful concentric pattern of the plates and bowls were the same. So, I picked up a few more pieces and my love and appreciation for this classic American dinnerware began. (Pictured left: Me having fun inside the HLC company store - I really had to behave myself!)

Taking a tour of the famed factory in Newell was something I've wanted to do for years. Since Ralph and I were going to be in Pittsburgh, PA today, I booked a factory tour of the Homer Laughlin plant. Newell is only about 45 +/- minutes from Pittsburgh, so Ralph, his niece Debbie, her friend Maria and I headed off this morning.

What a beautiful part of the country this is! Industrial but scenic, the twisty-turny roads snake through the rolling hills and take you through one small town after another. We arrived at the factory at about noon today and spent the next three hours seeing the fascinating skills of the potters at work in the factory.

Barb was our tour guide and took us to every corner of the plant that is shown on the tour. The company has a number of buildings, some more than 100 years old. It's amazing how much craftsmanship goes into something as seemingly simple as a plate or a coffee cup. Homer Laughlin not only produces Fiesta, but make china for hotels and restaurants across the country and around the world. (Ralph's niece, Debbie, Uncle Ralph and Debbie's friend Maria are ready for the tour!)

We couldn't take any photos inside the factory itself, but the process of producing these products is amazing. So much clay - it's everywhere! And in the manufacturing of the china there is breakage, and there are bins and bins of broken pieces. It seems like a waste, but it's all part of the production process. (Outside the factory, there are mountains of broken pieces of china. Like an accidental sculpture, these pieces create a landscape of color and patterns.)

The factory store has so many beautiful pieces of every description, but we had the most fun in the "irregulars" section. Here, the bargains were plentiful although each piece has some minor blemish. Maybe it was a bubble in the glaze or a scratch, so the hunt was on to find the pieces we wanted where the irregularities were not very noticeable, or on a part of the piece that wasn't really seen. We had a blast looking at everything.
Sure, it's just dishes. But every time I hold a piece of Fiesta in my hand I can't help but think of Aunt Jo, and nothing could be better than that.

1 comment:

  1. If you ever go on a trip to Virginia you will have a lot of fun. There are many sightseeing places and many beaches in Virginia. You will not have to worry about hotels in Charleston West Virginia as there are many that offer rooms at a very cheap rate.