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New historical marker honors pottery’s contributions

Dozens turned out to celebrate the unveiling of the new Blue Ridge Pottery historical sign marker. The sign, which is located in the Unicoi County Courthouse parking lot on the corner of Main Avenue and Tucker Street in downtown Erwin, pays homage to the Blue Ridge Pottery’s significance in the Town of Erwin’s history. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

After just having a centennial celebration last year, the Blue Ridge Pottery Club hit another milestone with the unveiling of a historic marker that recognizes Southern Potteries Inc., which began in 1917 and had such a deep impact on the Town of Erwin.

The sign, which is now displayed at the corner of the Unicoi County Courthouse parking lot, drew a large crowd of onlookers as it was revealed during the Erwin Farmers Market on July 17.

“The great thing about Blue Ridge Pottery is the pottery closed over 60 years ago, but it’s still contributing to the economic vitality of the community, now through antiques and reselling,” said Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board Executive Director Tyler Engle. “Even though that art has sort of passed away as an ongoing business, people are really making a great living at selling and trading that pottery.”

During last year’s centennial celebration of when the pottery plant first began its operations, Blue Ridge Pottery club member Richard Riggs took note that many members felt that the 100 year anniversary and the pottery’s rich history was something that should be commemorated.

“I suggested we could get a historical marker put up and everyone seemed to think it was a pretty good idea,” Riggs said.

Riggs then began the long, arduous process of getting the State of Tennessee Historical Commission to approve the marker. According to the Tennessee government services website, only a select few markers are placed through commission funding each year and approximately 20 are approved to be placed with sponsors.

The Blue Ridge Pottery Marker was funded in part by the Town of Erwin, the Blue Ridge Pottery Club and Erwin’s Historical Society. After spending a great deal of time collecting the necessary documentation, and determining what wording on the sign would be allowed, Rigg’s efforts finally came to fruition after being approved by the historical commission.

“It was a relief,” Riggs said about last week’s unveiling. “I had been kind of shepherding it for almost a year and at times you didn’t know if it would get approved, or actually erected. It was a pleasant relief to see it there in the flesh.”

Riggs and his wife, Carol, have spoken with numerous collectors and individuals who made the pottery that reveal its sentimental and historical value with comments such as “it was our everyday dinnerware” and “mama served lunch to us on it every day.”.

“I think it’s a cornerstone for our community and something we’re really famous for,” Engle said. “Every single piece is so special and so beautiful; I think that’s what makes it unique and that’s why people love it so much.”

Because they are handpainted, Riggs reiterated the fact that each piece of Blue Ridge Pottery truly is unique. He mentioned some of the pottery known as “lunchtime pieces” that were produced by workers for their family, friends and acquaintances, some of which he referred to as more primitive art, with others rather exquisite. 

Erwin has certainly gained notoriety and recognition over the years for the pottery, which draws people from all over the country to its shows and sales each year. In fact, the pottery is what first drew Riggs and his wife to the town.

“We were getting close to retirement age and we were looking for a place to retire to,” Riggs said. “We had been looking up and down the I-75 corridor of Tennessee and we hadn’t had any success, but when we came to Erwin to the pottery show we looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, it’s a nice little town. What do you think?’.”