By Mark St. John Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4783
11:02 AM EDT, May 8, 2013
Virginia Lt. Gov. William Gooch had good reason to hide the truth when he made his annual report to the British Board of Trade in 1732.
Though the Crown prohibited its colonies from manufacturing domestic goods, Gooch and other members of the Virginia government had long encouraged the industry of local entrepreneurs, including a Yorktown merchant whom he repeatedly described as the "poor Potter."
But William Rogers, an enterprising brewer whose business interests had grown to include a flourishing pottery, was anything but poor.
His bustling factory extended for more than 170 feet between Read and Nelson streets, included two brick kilns and employed a skilled workforce of indentured servants and slaves that may have exceeded two dozen people. It produced at least 23 different types of stoneware and earthenware vessels ranging from milk pans, mugs and beer bottles to decorative slipware platters.
In addition to marketing these wares in Yorktown, Hampton and Williamsburg, Rogers regularly shipped his goods to Maryland and North Carolina -- plus as far away as New England and the West Indies. The quality of the pots his craftsmen produced rivaled anything that could be found in the stoneware and earthenware factories of London.
But not until today, with the opening of a new exhibit building that straddles the archaeological remains of his workshop and kiln, has this pioneering American capitalist received the kind of public recognition that his illegal yet historic undertaking deserves.
"Yorktown is best known for its role in the American Revolution," says Rob Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America, which will publish two articles in conjunction with the completion of the $718,000 National Park Service project.
"But back in the early 18th century, this site was the economic catalyst that made the revolution happen."
Indeed, the "poor Potter's" sprawling factory in Yorktown was the largest known enterprise of its kind in Colonial British America.
But after Rogers' death in 1739 it faded so far from view that its sheer size and importance remained a mystery for more than 200 years.
Large deposits of pottery fragments provided a partial clue to the once thriving operation. So did the unusual number of surviving pots that could be found not only in the Chesapeake Bay region but along several parts of the East Coast, tantalizing historians with their unexplained similarities of material and style.
Not until utility workers began digging a trench for a new water line in the mid-1960s, however, did the lost site of Rogers' workshop and kilns become apparent. Several more years passed before College of William and Mary archaeologist Norman Barka, who led what became a landmark excavation, dug his way under a garage and uncovered the full extent of the unexpectedly substantial operation.
"It's the best-preserved example of its type in the world," Hunter says.
"And Barka deserves all the credit for making that happen."
Other discoveries boosted the long-lost pottery's profile, too, including finding the first mention of Rogers' enterprise in Lt. Gov. Gooch's deliberately misleading 1732 report.
Year after year for the rest of the decade, Gooch made the same deceptive claims, seeking to divert the Board of Trade's potentially devastating attention from one of the Virginia colony's most prosperous manufacturing concerns.
"There is one poor Potter's work of coarse earthen Ware, which is of so little Consequence, that I dare say there hath not been twenty Shillings worth less of that Commodity imported (from England) since it was sett up...," he wrote in his first report.
His account from 1739 is even more blunt, dismissing any threat to English manufacturing interests with contempt.
"The Poor Potter's operation is unworthy of your Lordship's notice... ," it says.
That same year, however, the seemingly humble artisan died, leaving an estate that included numerous buildings and lots in Williamsburg as well as Yorktown, not to mention a waterfront warehouse, two boats, a coach and numerous horses, cattle and sheep as well as nearly three dozen slaves.
Listed among Rogers' household possessions were telltale indications of a well-to-do gentleman's life, including silver serving vessels, fine furniture, framed maps and Dutch paintings in gilt frames.
Equally revealing is the inventory of Rogers' pottery factory, which reported 26 dozen (312) quart mugs, 60 dozen (720) pint mugs, 11 dozen (132) milk pans, 2 dozen (24) red saucepans, 2 dozen (24) porringers, 4 dozen (48) bird bottles, 4 dozen (48) small dishes, 3 dozen (36) lamps, 4 dozen (48) small stoneware bottles, 4 dozen (48) small dishes and 6 dozen (72) pudding pans as well as 30 cream pots.
"The astonishing thing is that these were very high-quality goods," says Jane Sundberg, cultural resource management specialist for Colonial National Historical Park.
"And that quality could be found in everything from the most common milk pans to stove tiles."
By 1970, the archaeological and documentary records of the pottery's importance had grown so compelling that the Park Service purchased the property in order to preserve it.
Workmen erected a protective metal Quonset hut over the remains of the kilns and workshop a few years later, enabling Barka to continue his archaeological work into the early '80s.
An interpretive plan for the site emerged not long afterward, Sundberg says. But lack of funding forced the park to shelve its proposal and rebury parts of the exposed ruins.
Nearly two decades passed before the $718,000 project finally received federal funding in 2002. But the wait may have enabled the Park Service and Williamsburg architect Carlton Abbott to make the most of an innovative design for the new 2,600-square-foot, barnlike building.
Straddling Rogers' kiln and a portion of his workshop like an elevated balcony, the steel and wood-frame structure enables visitors to walk completely around one of the most important portions of the site without exposing its surface to potentially destructive foot traffic. It also provides space for a series of exhibit cases as well as visual access through several large windows when the building is closed.
Staffing remains a problem. Sundberg hopes the pottery's historical and economic importance will help attract a needed corps of volunteer interpreters.
Still, she has no doubts about the power of the archaeological remains to tell the poor Potter's story once the interpretive signs and exhibits are complete -- and visitors get the chance to take full advantage of the elevated, theater-in-the-round experience created by Abbott's building.
"I think people will really like this," Sundberg says, smiling down on the ruins of the workshop and kiln.
"With the walkway around it, the site looks really great. You can see everything from this vantage point."
WANT TO GO?
A new National Park Service exhibit building that straddles the archaeological remains of the "poor Potter's" 18th-century kiln site will be dedicated at 11 a.m. today. The 2,600-square-foot structure is located between Read and Nelson streets in historic Yorktown. Admission to the public event, which includes a tour of the site, is free. The building will be open on an occasional basis only until a volunteer interpretive staff is assembled. Interpretive signs and exhibits are scheduled to be installed by mid-summer. For more info or to volunteer, contact Colonial National Historical Park at 898-3400.
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