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19th-century pottery site is major find

October 9, 2012 12:10 am

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Fredericksburg potter Francis Hamilton Bell's brother, Nathan Clark Bell in Kingston, N.Y., made this jug. lo100912Pottery1.jpg

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Shards found at the Francis H. Bell pottery date to the early 1800s. lo100912Pottery4.jpg

City construction inspector Rhonda Kuebler identified an early 19th-century kiln at the Amelia Square townhouses site, based on pottery shards found there.

BY CLINT SCHEMMER

Historians and archaeologists in the mid-Atlantic--and even abroad--are buzzing about a discovery in downtown Fredericksburg: the remnants of an early 19th-century pottery previously unknown to experts.

Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, a local archaeological firm, will glean what data it can later this month from a "salvage" dig at the pottery site in the Amelia Square townhouse development.

"I cannot overstate how important this find is the history of American ceramic production," said Rob Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America, the field's top journal. "There will be tremendous interest from collectors and museums, once the fragments are analyzed and published."

As the historical grapevine picked up word of what lies beneath the former Fredericksburg Hardware site, local researcher Nancy Moore jumped on the topic and pieced together much of the puzzle. Unbeknown to her, College of William & Mary ceramics expert Oliver Mueller-Heubach was also hunting for clues to the kiln.

Moore, who volunteers in the Virginiana Room at Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters, found a March 24, 1832, ad in The Virginia Herald that announced the opening of "a Stone-Ware Factory, Francis H. Bell & Company, on Commerce Street across from the Crawford Store at the corner of Commerce and Liberty Sts."

Period records and maps place that location smack dab on the Amelia Square property, Moore said.

Until recently, no ceramics expert had been certain that an antebellum pottery manufacturer had operated in Fredericksburg. The closest known businesses were in Richmond, Alexandria and on the Northern Neck.

The first clue came last summer when a backhoe operator testing soil at Amelia Square's just-cleared lot hit something hard deep underground at today's William and Winchester streets. Rhonda Kuebler, the city's construction inspector, had a look.

Kuebler, an amateur archaeologist, examined what the backhoe was digging and saw lots of pottery shards. The big mass of still-buried material would have to be removed for building foundations to get a good footing, she concluded, but otherwise paid it little mind.

"I thought, 'OK, we have kiln here,'" she recalled in an interview Monday. "But there's a lot of stoneware stuff in the ground around Fredericksburg."

Then, a few weeks ago, she bumped into old friend Taft Kiser, the archaeologist supervising excavation of Fredericksburg's new courthouse site.

When she described the shards and "kiln furniture"--clay spacers placed between pots to be fired in the kiln--that she'd seen, Kiser's eyes lit up.

"I knew finding a kiln was cool," Kiser said Monday. "I didn't know Mrs. Kuebler had just changed history."

RESCUE EFFORT

As a member of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, Kiser confirmed Kuebler's report and passed it on to the state archaeologist.

Barber's inquiries set wheels turning at Dovetail, which had privately surveyed the tract for its owner, the Silver Cos., in 2007.

Now, Dovetail is taking the lead, donating its staff time to ensure that archaeologists can explore the site before it is destroyed by construction of Amelia Square's luxury brownstones.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources may provide money for the project from its threatened-site fund. Mueller-Heubach has offered to share his expertise in stoneware.

Councilman Matt Kelly reached out to the Silver Cos. and received a commitment from Jud Honaker, president of commercial development, to allow the excavation. Kelly said the Silver Cos. has also agreed that any artifacts valued at under $10,000 will become the city's property.

"This is a unique find that has generated a lot of interest beyond just the city," Kelly said. "This is another opportunity to showcase Fredericksburg while also uncovering more about its past."

INTERNATIONAL INTEREST

Francis Bell was born in New York in 1809 into a family that was famous for pottery. He came to Fredericksburg in 1832, married Sarah B. Wood and opened a stoneware pottery. He left for Washington, D.C., in 1855 to help secure his father's military pension for his mother and stayed there until his death in 1880.

There is international interest in the American stoneware Bell produced. The salt-glazed, utilitarian ceramic--shaped into mugs, vases, urns, water coolers, chamber pots and more--was used by nearly every household in the 19th century.

Hunter, the journal editor, said he was aware of a few marked pieces of Fredericksburg stoneware that had been "floating around" in the past 20 years.

"I had always assumed these pieces had been made in Baltimore, perhaps for a Fredericksburg merchant," he said. "Now the story is different."

From London, Hunter said he was immediately excited about Kuebler's discovery, as word of it filtered across the Atlantic to experts in various European capitals.

"We are now able to fill in an important piece of the puzzle about Virginia economic history. In addition, stoneware is widely collected and considered an important decorative art," he said.

On Nov. 6, a major exhibition on Virginia stoneware will open at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hunter said Ceramics in America wants to publish a full-length article on the Fredericksburg stoneware as soon as possible.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
Email: cschemmer@freelancestar.com





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