W.Va. Pottery Company Keeps Popular Fiesta Line Thriving
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
More now from American Made, our look at the changing face of American manufacturing. This morning, a company that's been in business for more than a century, producing dinnerware on the banks of the Ohio River in Newell, West Virginia. Most American ceramics factories closed long ago, unable to compete with made-in-Japan or -Mexico. But the Homer Laughlin China plant is still going strong 141 years after opening, employing about 1,000 people. You might be familiar with its most famous product. It's that brightly colored pottery called Fiesta. NPR's Linda Wertheimer, who grew up with Fiesta, jumped at the chance to visit the factory.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: My mother collected a warm yellow. My Fiesta is deep cobalt blue - just so you know where I stand. Fiesta is about half Homer Laughlin's business. The other half is dinnerware for hotels and the sturdy plates and cups you find a chain restaurants. Walk into the big, dim factory buildings - dusty and smelling of mud - and you might be back at Homer Laughlin's beginnings in the 19th century. People are sitting quietly in pools of light, carefully attaching handles to greenware, - that's not-yet-fired coffee cups - decorators are painting bands of color on glazed plates.
KEVIN MANYPENNY: I'm just a hand-liner. I put lines on - the orders tell me I need to put a three-thirty-second an eighth from the edge and a three-sixty-fourth a 16th below and a three-sixty-fourth verge.
WERTHEIMER: Kevin Manypenny has worked in the Homer Laughlin factory since he was a teenager. He twirls a plate, dips a brush in brown glaze and paints three delicate lines on the plate's edge. This plate is for a Boston restaurant. Manypenny finishes the plate and then tosses it onto a broad, moving belt as if he were skipping a stone across water.
Who plays catcher down the other end?
MANYPENNY: A younger brother.
JAMES MANYPENNY: James Manypenny, I go by Jim. I'm a kiln-placer. I place ware on the kiln. It's not supposed to hit the floor. (Laughter).
WERTHEIMER: He calls the ovens which fire the China kilns - spelled K-I-L-N-S, but potters don't pronounce that N. Seven out of 8 of the Manypenny siblings and their parents have worked at this factory, and there are dozens of families like theirs. Brothers founded the company - Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin - presumably a literary family. They jumped on a new fashion for whiter, more refined dinnerware. Sarah Vodrey of the area's Ceramic Museum described their beginnings.
SARAH VODREY: They were the young whippersnappers in the pottery world, and they were the ones who ended up successfully firing for kilns worth of whiteware before any of the other potteries could. And then they won a prize of $5,000, and that's what launched the Laughlin brothers into pottery production on a big scale.
WERTHEIMER: Around the turn of the 20th century, the company changed hands. The new team built a new plant on the West Virginia side of the river, and those long, low factory buildings are still in use today. Then in the '30s, the company created Fiesta - cheap, colorful, cheerful dinnerware. It was a hit even in the Depression. In 1948, Homer Laughlin really stepped up the production of plates and bowls. They designed and built their own machine inside the factory. Dave Conley, a longtime employee and unofficial company historian, calls it the big, flat automatic.
DAVE CONLEY: This is the flat automatic jigger. You've got three machines here, and each one has two heads on it. So theoretically we could be making six different items at a time.
WERTHEIMER: He said that's 3,000 dozen pieces every eight-hour shift. People who make dishes talk in dozens. You'll have to do the math. I'm giving you the history because it's all still happening - the buildings, the machine, the kilns, Fiesta and the owners are all still going. Of course, there have been improvements. Computers control the firing now. A 3-D printer speeds the design process. Ceramic engineers found a way to make glaze shiny without using lead - all done in-house.
CONLEY: The people that owned our company have always put profits back into the plant to modernize. And we've always had state-of-the-art equipment, and I call that state-of-the-art even though it's as old as it is - it's almost 60 years old.
WERTHEIMER: He's talking about the big, flat automatic. It still works. By this time, we had walked the entire 37-acre factory floor and were standing on a loading dock. But inside the old buildings, on the chilly day we were there, with fog pouring off the Ohio River and drifting into the windows, we watched the ware come out of the fire, magically transformed - creamy orange, intense red, vivid turquoise, bright pottery stacked in bins and crates piled all over the place.
BRUCE SMITH: I remember the first time I actually went to the facility and looking around, and I'm thinking, boy, am I back in the 1940s or what? I mean, even the office, it isn't all spruced up. It's the old look, and they're focused on making product and not being flashy.
WERTHEIMER: That's Bruce Smith, head of the union representing the pottery workers. He says while nothing about Homer Laughlin is flashy, the workers do make decent money.
SMITH: You know, they're good jobs, and they're making a living, being able to buy a home and raise a family and retire with some dignity.
WERTHEIMER: Both management and labor consider that an achievement.
ELIZABETH WELLS MCILVAIN: I'm very proud to have kept this business here in the Ohio Valley. It's very important to us.
WERTHEIMER: Elizabeth Wells McIlvain is the first woman to lead Homer Laughlin and the fourth generation of her family to run the plant. Her immediate family now owns most of the business. She told us that Homer Laughlin China stopped producing Fiesta for a time in the '70s. Harvest gold and avocado green didn't sell. But in 1986, Bloomingdale's department store came calling, looking for a retro China for their stores. And Homer Laughlin made a typical, practical decision - restart an old line, revive Fiesta for retail sale, along with their existing hotel and restaurant business.
MCILVAIN: We have two sides of the business. And that's helped us tremendously because it seems when one side of the business - the retail side of the business is flourishing, the hotel side is having problems, is having difficulties and vice versa.
WERTHEIMER: It helps that Fiesta has a big fan base. Collectors stand in line for hours to get into the factory tent sales. Fans meet. They swap. They critique the company's color choices, and they wait for the new Fiesta color which is unveiled each March.
MCILVAIN: They always have suggestions. (Laughter) The one year, they all wanted fuchsia, and they all arrived to Homer Laughlin to go on their tours dressed in whatever fuchsia they had. That was their silent-but-very-loud statement.
WERTHEIMER: The folks at the factory steered us away from fuchsia as next year's color - manufacturing problems, they said. But they offered no color clues. Says Ms. McIlvain...
MCILVAIN: That's a very deep, dark secret (laughter) not to be told.
WERTHEIMER: I'm Linda Wertheimer for NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.