HISTORY OF THE UHL POTTERY
by Mrs. Hannah Uhl Switzer
In 1929, clay was the third most valuable mineral resource of Indiana. Only coal and ore
exceeded it. In 1931 there were 101 plants in Indiana engaged in solely the manufacture
of clay products. Only nine plants manufactured pottery, ranging from sanitary and
domestic white ware to electrical insulators and earthenware. The rest of them (92)
produce heavy clay products such as brick, tile, pipe, wall capings, etc.
The major portion of the clay industry has developed within the past 30 years. Not over
40 years ago the underclays of coal bearing areas were considered a detriment to the
mining of coal. However, much is now being made into valuable products all over the
State of Indiana. The three principal factors to be considered in the manufacture of raw
materials are: (1) Accessibility to the raw materials. (2) Fuel costs. (3) Transportation
facilities. The most important thing is to be near the raw materials, particularly now,
when so much of the shipping is done by trucks.
In the coal belt of Indiana are three ceramic centers. One of these centers is the
southwestern tip along the Ohio River. The principal cities are Cannelton, Tell City,
Evansville and Huntingburg, all located on the Ohio River except Huntingburg. The
Evansville-Huntingburg area is the most diversified in the state in regard to finished
products. There are a number of plants manufacturing the clay products in this district.
One of these plants is here in Huntingburg – the Huntingburg Brick Co. There are fewer
of the plants in which pottery is manufactured. In Evansville sanitary ware and dinner
ware are made. In Huntingburg we have the manufacture of earthenware by the Uhl
We could dwell at length upon the clay resources of Indiana. However, let us bring it
down to the clay deposits at Huntingburg. The potter’s clay that is found here and is used
by the pottery is of the finest quality. The Huntingburg Brick Co. has found the clay just
as satisfactory for the manufacturing of bricks. Laboratory test show that the underclay
used by these two companies is fine in plasticity, in molding quality and has a strong
In the making of Uhl pottery nothing is added to the clay. It needs only to have the
courier sands and other foreign matters removed. The under clay beneath the Marshall
coal furnished the raw material for the earthenware. The Uhl Pottery Co. is not the only
one that has used it, but potters in New Albany, Louisville and other points along the
Ohio used it. A section of one of the clay pits here shows the following strata:
The Uhl Pottery used the sixth stratum of light gray, which of course makes it necessary
to mine deeply for the clay. The present mine used by the pottery now is located just
southwest of Huntingburg. It slopes many feet underground. The clay, after it is dug is
handed to the surface by little cars, drawn by small mule. It is then hauled to the plant in
dump trucks. Here it is dumped in outside bins where it is allowed to “breathe” for 90
days. After this it goes through a refining process and, without the addition of any
ingredients is used in the making of high-grade earthenware.
|1. Soil – 1 ½ ft. Red Loam||5. Minshall Coal – 12 ft. – Overburden – n30 - 75 ft.
|2. Sandy shale – 15 ft. Yellow||6. Light gray underclay – fine texture – 5 ft.
|3. Bluefish gray shale – 15 ft.||7. Dark Gray – underclay, sandy, granular, and contains a high percentage of colitic
|4. Mineshall Limestone – 2 ft.||grains of iron carbonate – 2 ft. plus.
The name Uhl has been connected with the pottery industry for the past century – perhaps
longer. At Lisberg. Germany August and Louis Uhl worked in their father’s pottery
where the chief article of production was roofing tile – made by hand. In 1848 August
and his brother Louis (who were mere boys) decided to seek their fortunes in the land of
opportunity, America. It was decided the elder brother August should go first and
determine whether their trade could be established over here and to look for a suitable
location. After landing in New York he went to Pittsburgh and took a boat, coming west
on the Ohio River. The boat made may stops and August took advantage of these stops
by examining the particles of clay that were showing along the banks of the river. He
finally decided to stop at Evansville, Indiana for here he found a clay that had the
necessary plasticity for the making of pottery.
After experimenting for a while he wrote to his brother Louis, and told him to join him.
When Louis arrived they established a small pottery at a site, which is now in the heart of
Evansville, Ninth and Sycamore Streets. The name of the firm was A. & L. Uhl. August
managed the business end of the industry, while Louis made the wares – which then
consisted of jugs, jars, garden vases and stone pumps.
Their business prospered from the start. However, the clay was an inferior clay to that
which makes high grade ware and they were forced to sustain losses because of it.
Therefore, it was decided that they hunt elsewhere for the proper clay. Having heard of a
good fire clay near Huntingburg, Louis Uhl went there and brought samples of the clay
from a spot close to the hill, now known as Stand Pipe Hill. After it was tested at the
plant in Evansville it was immediately decided that this was the clay they wanted and
needed in order to produce good wares. The clay was taken out in wagons and hauled to
Rockport, Indiana. Here it was shoveled into hogsheads and taken to Evansville on flat
boats, where it was again loaded onto drays and hauled to the Pottery, and there it was
dumped into the clay cellar.
At this time all of the ware was made by hand. It was turned by hand on kickwheels. A
potters wheel must keep continually rotating. The kickwheels were made to turn by
pumping back and forth of a lever. The levers were pushed with the left foot of the
operator, as he turned the piece of ware. A ball of clay was thrown as a flat disc and no
tools were used, other than the operator’s two hands, a sponge and a flat piece of wood,
called a “rib”. In this way all sorts of shaped were created – many shaped pitchers, vases,
jugs, etc. The inside was covered with a natural slip glaze, which was obtained from
Albany, N.Y. (Albany slip glaze is the only deposit of its kind known in this country. It
has all the requisites for the making of a good acid proof mahogany colored glaze.)
After the ware was thoroughly dry it was put in the kilns, which were shaped like a large
bottle. Large pieces of hickory and oak wood were used for the firings. When the kiln
had reached the temperature of 2200 degrees Fahrenheit, common coarse salt was
dropped into the kiln from small holes on the top. The intense heat melted the salt and
the fumes of this attacked all exposed surfaces of the pottery. After the kiln had cooled
the ware carried a very pretty and practical glaze.
The business continued for a number of years and in the year 1879 Louis Uhl bought the
interest of his brother, August, and took his son, George, as a partner under the firm name
of Louis Uhl & Son. After several years while this partnership continued my father (also
named Louis Uhl) was given a position in the office of the firm. Not long after he
entered the business his father, Charles Uhl, bought the interest of his brother, George.
The Uhl Pottery Company was then formed. In 1908, after the death of my great-
grandfather, Louis Uhl, it was decided that the manufacturing plant be moved to
Huntingburg, where the clay deposits were located.
My father, then a young man of 25 was delegated to the task of erecting and
establishing the plant. The plant that stands now is the same one that was built then –
with of course, additions and improvements as the business grew. So far in this history of
Uhl Pottery no mention has been made of the women and their help. My mother, then 25
with three small babies must have felt like a woman of the pioneer days – and she was no
The work, the grind, the ever constant plugging and pushing necessary to the building
and development of a new industry is one of my memories. I was a baby when Dad and
Mother came here and the Pottery was built, but I remember so clearly the many changes
that has come. It has been only within the last 17 years that the large ware - big jars and
jugs have been turned by machinery. Before that we children (and, of course other
visitors) never tired of watching the turner turn by hand the large sized jugs and jars. In
the warehouse at the Pottery, now, is a sixty-gallon jar and a thirty-gallon jug, turned by
John Ross, one of the finest hand turners of large ware this country has ever had. Those
two pieces, of course were turned merely for the purpose of experimentation - to see how
large a piece he could turn. I watched John Ross turn a 80 gallon jar and what a thrill I
got when I saw him stand on a barrel to finish it as the piece grew in height. Now, of
course; through the aid of machinery, large pieces are not unusual. Although the plant
was in Huntingburg the main office remained in Evansville, under the management of
Charles Uhl, my grandfather, assisted by his younger brother. After my grandfather’s
death, my brother, Bob, took his place in the business in Evansville. Finally, in 1932, the
office was moved to Huntingburg and a retail store and warehouse remained in
Not only has the fascination of pottery and it’s making taken a grip on the Uhl men, but it
has also filled the hearts of the Uhl women. We all love it, but it is Jane Uhl, my father’s
sister, who has inherited the art of designing and making it. She accomplished some very
fine things with her knowledge and ability of pottery making.
The Uhl Pottery Co. of today makes 900 different articles and ships the ware all over the
United States and into Canada. Eighty-eight years ago August and Louis Uhl started
their modest little firm, and through many years of slow but constant growth and careful
management the art of pottery making has been uppermost in the minds of there
During these years, however, the “going” was not always smooth. Many times they were
ready to give up and quit the business entirely. For at times they were making barely
enough for an existence. However, there is a certain, almost hypnotic, fascination in the
trade. In fact, among the pottery people there is a saying, “Once a potter, always a
potter”. As a matter of fact a number of them did leave the business, but the majority of
them stayed with it, as I have shown.
An interesting story, often told in connection with this is one of a Mr. Bray, the finest
hand turner that has ever been connected with the Uhl Pottery. He worked many years
for my great-grandfather, Louis Uhl. In 1903, he was hired by a wealthy man at the
World’s Fair in St. Louis. Here he demonstrated the art of hand turning, after which he
gave lessons to those who wished to take it up as a hobby. This man, a very clever
intelligent person possessed a great power over the clay. He came back to the Uhl
Pottery and resumed his work. However, my great uncle finally laid him off, and he tried
many other jobs, but was not satisfied and finally came to my father, who was then a part
of the business. He begged him to take him back. He said, “Louie I don’t care if there’s
no money in it. You don’t have to pay me, just put me in some little corner out of the
way with my wheel. The feel of the clay draws me; it’s like a poultice. It’s my first and
only love”. He got the position, and the things he turned out were amazing. Mr., Bray
and his art and his love for that art is a legend in the history of the industry.
We love this ancient trade of our ancestors and it is only natural that we now take great
pride in the progress it has made.
(The above article was given by Mrs. Hannah Uhl Switzer of Evansville, Indiana at a
recent library district in that city.) Article taken from The Huntingburg Independent,
Friday, June 4, 1937