Pottery piques director's interest

February 16, 1998|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

Pottery piques director's interest

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - James M. Smith digs up a lot of dirt in his quest for shards of old pottery. He takes the pieces back to his office for study, hoping to discover who made them 200 years ago.

Smith, director of the Nicodemus Center for Ceramic Studies, has become an expert in identifying pottery made in the 18th and 19 centuries in the Cumberland and Shenandoah valleys.

He is particularly adept at picking out the works of John Bell, his son, John W. Bell, and other Bell family members, the most famous and prolific potters in the region in the 19th century.


Some years the family turned out 10,000 pieces, Smith said.

Until last summer, Smith was curator of the Renfrew Museum and Park. He asked that his contract not be renewed when the museum's leadership changed hands. He took the job with the Nicodemus Center, which he helped create, along with the then-Renfrew board of directors, in 1994.

The center depends on grants, sales of reproduction promotional pottery and dues from its 50 members for funding. This year's budget is about $50,000, he said.

Smith's job and that of his assistant are part time, although he said he works full time at it.

According to its brochure, the center is a nonprofit group named for the late Emma Geiser Nicodemus, who established Renfrew and its collection of Bell family pottery. The center is trying to become a regional academic center to preserve, collect, exhibit and interpret pottery made by the Bells and other area potters.

The center has a collection of 16 Bell pieces.

The latest is a serving dish the center bought at the Snow Hill Cloister auction last year for $6,000. The Cloister, outside Waynesboro, had a collection of Bell pottery.

John Bell started making pottery in Hagerstown in the early 1800s. In 1823, he moved his operation to Winchester, Va., and ran it there until 1844.

Meanwhile, his son, John W. Bell, bought at a sheriff's sale a pottery on Waynesboro's South Potomac Street and opened up shop there. It operated until 1897.

Demand for handmade pottery started to drop at the end of the last century as more mass-produced works came on the market, along with glass and metal products, Smith said.

While much of Smith's research deals with Bell pottery, he also studies the works of other early area potters, including Daniel M. Baker of near Waynesboro, Hugh McConnell of Mercersburg, Pa., and John Bowman of Boonsboro, Md.

He believes there were as many as 10 potters in Franklin County in the 18th and 19th centuries. His goal this year is to research as many as he can.

He finds possible locations for archaeological digs through old tax records, deeds, the census and newspapers.

"We locate the current owner and get permission to dig, determine the condition of the site, see if it can be saved and decide if it should be listed on the National Register of Historical Places. When you work in the field, you never know what you're going to find. There's always this sense of discovery," Smith said.

Smith grew up in Bel Air, Md., and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the College of William and Mary. He worked for the college from 1972 to 1981, then for a preservation board in St. Augustine, Fla., before moving to Renfrew in 1985.

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