Memories of a Van Briggle master potter
Fred Wills grew up on a farm in Rush. His brother joined the Navy in World War II, and Fred might have done the same except for a heart murmur that kept him
After the war, Wills farmed with his brother for a year, then moved into Colorado Springs to live with his sister. In 1947, He was looking for a job - actually thought he was close to getting hired at one place - when his Uncle Otis, who worked at Van Briggle Pottery, told him about an opening in casting.
Wills had never created pottery and didn't know a thing about it. “I thought, 'I'll work there till the other job comes through,'” he said in a recent interview. Then with a laugh, recalling his subsequent 41-year career as a Van Briggle master potter, he added, “That other job never did come through.”
Not that it would have mattered anyway. Little time was needed at Van Briggle before he realized he'd found his calling. Casting wasn't very creative - just pouring clay into molds - but every chance he got he would practice on the potter's wheel, making pieces. “I fell in love with the wheel,” he said.
It was the start of his 41-year career as a Van Briggle master potter. With the help of Clem Hull, a Van Briggle master potter from 1946 to 1965 who became a good friend, and “an old-timer named McDermott who had been there before the war,” Wills was soon a regular part of the pottery's creative side. “I was demonstrating for tourists by my first summer,” he said, proudly.
It was a crucial time for the business, which was still located in the original pottery near Colorado College built by Artus Van Briggle's widow (after the internationally acclaimed Colorado Springs potter died in his mid-30s in 1904). Owned then by the Lewis family (who later sold to the Stevenson family, which still owns it), the pottery had actually been closed during the war, Wills said, and only reopened in 1945-46.
But there must have been some pent-up demand because the business picked right back up again. According to Wills, sales were “pretty steady for a number of years,” only starting to slacken in the '80s and '90s.
For most of Wills' years there, his job involved supervising construction, doing some of the fancier work - one of his specialties was braiding handles - and occasionally coming up with new designs, such as the big lamps with special shades that Van Briggle made in the '60s and '70s. On his original pieces, Wills signed an “FW” on the underside.
He also sometimes made pottery just for fun, like a cookie jar with two faces - happy on one side for when the jar was full and sour on the other for when it was empty.
A technical problem he helped solve was the discrepancy between two types of clay. In the mid-'50s, Van Briggle had bought out the Dryden Pottery and continued to carry its product line. The Dryden clay was so different from the Van Briggle that neither could use the other's glaze. Finally, around 1970, Wills and another Van Briggle employee, Joe Jezek, developed a new clay that would work with either glaze.
Moving all operations to the old roundhouse off 21st Street in 1968 turned out to be good for business, he recalled. All the employees got involved in the transportation effort because in the interim there was no production. “I moved a lot of things in my truck,” Wills said.
This was hardly unusual for Wills, who was usually the earliest arrival at work, even operating the snowblower when that was needed.
Married in 1947, he and his wife Betty had five children. Two of the boys tried throwing pottery as teenagers, but eventually went into other careers.
Though he retired in 1987, Wills, now 81, still makes pottery sometimes in his garage, using a “kick wheel” that the pottery loaned him. He also drops by the plant sometimes, but not many are left anymore from his days, he said.
One occasional pleasure these days is going out on the Internet's eBay site and finding pieces that he or Clem Hull made. Recently he bought one of his own lamps - without telling the buyer that he was “FW.” The lamp now resides in the living room of the house he and Betty have shared on West Platte Avenue for 46 years.
He doesn't doubt he could find more if he looked on a regular basis, having averaged 2,000 pieces a year during his tenure at Van Briggle. “That's why I don't go out on eBay that often,” he laughed.
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