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Blue Ridge once again draws vendors, visitors to Erwin

Erwin is the Mecca for fans of Blue Ridge Pottery – the pottery crafted and painted by Southern Potteries Inc. during the first half of the 20th century.
For more than 30 years, the annual Blue Ridge Pottery Show and Sale has drawn Blue Ridge enthusiasts from across the United States to Erwin. Some come to the show looking for a certain pattern or piece. Others come to sell pieces from their collections.
Such was the case earlier this month when the 35th annual show and sale was held at the Unicoi County Intermediate School. Coordinating the show, again this year, were the members of the Erwin National Blue Ridge Pottery Club. The show opened with a preview sale the evening of Oct. 2. It continued, in conjunction with the 37th Annual Unicoi County Apple Festival, on Oct. 3 and 4.
“We have 27 vendors from across the United States this year,” Larna Smith, show coordinator, said. “We have had great attendance at the show. We had 175 people attend the preview sale.”
Erwin resident Fredna Ollis and her granddaughter, Holli Ollis, were first-time vendors at the show. Like many Unicoi County natives, Fredna has a personal connection to Southern Potteries: her father-in-law, Walter Ollis, worked at the factory.
Ollis said she recently inherited more than 1,000 pieces of Blue Ridge Pottery. Not wanting such a large collection, she decided to sell pieces at the annual show.
“I didn’t have any room in my house,” Ollis said. “I just wanted to share the beauty of (Blue Ridge).”
She said her collection includes four pieces signed by the artists – a prized item for many Blue Ridge collectors.
During its heyday, Southern Potteries shipped its hand-painted product across the United States. In the decades since the company shut its doors, Blue Ridge Pottery has been discovered in antique shops, yard sales and speciality stores. Many times, those purchasing their first pieces of Blue Ridge don’t know the history behind the hand-painted plate or bowl they hold in their hands.
This was true for first-time vendors and Pennsylvania residents Jeff and Susan Beaulieu.
While vacationing in Maine, Susan found three plates at an antique show not knowing they were Blue Ridge or what pattern she was buying. Later they would discover the pattern was “Autumn Apple.”
“I kept walking back by them,” Susan said of the plates. “I just couldn’t leave them alone.”
She said the hand-painted pattern appealed to her.
“I told her we would never find the matching pieces,” Jeff said with a laugh.
As luck would have it, after the couple returned from their vacation, a delivery man stopped by their house and recommended they go to an antique shop in Westfield, Mass.
“We went in and there was a (Blue Ridge) dealer,” Jeff recalled. “The dealer had a collector’s guide.”
The couple quickly became serious collectors.
“It catches your eye,” Jeff said. “And then, when you understand the history behind it from the clay, to all the workers … Think of the artists who would sit and paint.”
Linda McKinley came from Kentucky to sell Blue Ridge at the show. She said she became aware of Blue Ridge from her grandmother who had an assorted set of what McKinley fondly described as “happy dishes.”
“When I had to set the table for dinner I would give myself the prettiest flower plate, then my grandmother got the next prettiest,” McKinley said. “My poor grandfather always got the ugliest plate – at least the one I thought was the ugliest.”
McKinley inherited her grandmother’s dishes and decided to purchase the complete sets of each pattern, then became a serious collector.
“I spent $100 back in the early 1980s and went home with a box full of dishes,” she said.
McKinley has been a vendor at the show since the mid-1980s when it was held at the YMCA building on Main Avenue.
Vern Miller was another vendor with a personal connection to Southern Potteries. Miller said his father, Ernest, as well as several uncles worked at the plant. Ernest worked as a jiggerman and was with the company for more than 30 years.
“He made cups,” Miller said. “I used to go down there and watch my dad work. I went all over the pottery.”
Miller brought a 1951 issue of “Oilways” magazine with him to the show. His father appears in the magazine at his station in the Southern Potteries plant.
Miller said his family used Blue Ridge Pottery every day during his youth.
“We had all different pieces,” he said. “None of it matched.”
Miller started his collection of Blue Ridge after attending the show 20 years ago.
“I went back home and told my wife, ‘We’ve got to buy a dinner set of Blue Ridge’,” he said.
Miller said he found his first set of Blue Ridge in Missouri. He said he and his wife, Trieva, traveled many miles looking for the hand-painted pottery.
“Whatever piece we found, we bought,” he said. “Then, we started to get more specific on what we would buy.”
Miller said he started selling pieces about a decade ago.
For collectors who didn’t make it to the show this year, more information about the show and Blue Ridge can be found at blueridgepotteryclub.org.