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Carr China: 'The Ware that Stands the Knocks'

The Carr China plant, circa 1934, shows what looks like eight kilns, though the West Virginia Encyclopedia says it had seven. Other photo references also show eight.

This is the back of the plant, showing how close it was to the Tygart River (again, with eight kiln stacks). Also visible on either side of the underbrush are large china dumping areas.

Downtown Grafton in the early 20th century showing the B&O Railroad station and to its right, the Willard Hotel.  Look for the Andrews Methodist Church, the birthplace of Mother’s Day on May 10, 1908, left of center.

The Tygart River Dam, immortalized on so many Carr China plates commemorating the opening of the dam. The Carr site was about a mile down river and around a bend from the dam.

A 1935 patent for a tunnel kiln, probably similar to the one installed at the Carr plant. For more information, see http://www.freepatentsonline.com/1988837.html.


In 1916, Thomas Carr, who was president of the Warwick Pottery Co. in Wheeling, W.V., was selected by members of the Bachmann, Speidel and Carr families to manage and oversee the pottery in Grafton, which had been built on the bank of the Tygart River in 1913 as the Consolidated Manufactories Company.

The plant was located in the Park View section of Grafton and was known locally simply as “the pottery.”

The plant (estimated to have been between 75,000 and 108,000 square feet) was built of brick, contained seven kilns and was designed to employ as many as 250 local workers as a part of an economic development project for Grafton. Consolidated Manufactories went bankrupt early in 1916, but this set the stage for what would be the Carr China Company later in the year.

Under Thomas Carr’s leadership, Carr China made vitrified china for hotels, restaurants, institutions, clubs, hospitals, steamships and the military. Its thick, rolled edge china was available in both banquet white and decorated, with underglaze line treatments, prints, crests, monograms, decals and custom designs.

After Thomas Carr’s retirement in 1923, Charles Metzner moved to Grafton from Wheeling to become the plant manager. Under his management the Carr China Company prospered. When Metzner passed away after a brief illness, W. J. Frey succeeded him and was manager for many years.

In its early days, Carr was known for the “clearness of the whiteness” in its wares. The plant used some locally-quarried clay, but most of the materials used in production were brought in from considerable distances. Quartz flints were hauled in from sources in New England, sand flints from the Berkley Springs region of eastern West Virginia, and “sagger clays” and feldspars from as far away as Florida. (A private rail siding ran directly next to the plant, necessary both for bringing supplies in and shipping them out.)

W. J. Frey’s son William became one of the Carr China Company’s most proficient designers and was instrumental in developing color applications for the china that made the products much more attractive and appealing.

In a 1934 sales catalog the company stated, “It has been our constant aim to please the trade and we trust that our efforts will be rewarded by generous and continued orders from our customers.” Over the years, hundreds of patterns were developed for the restaurant ware trade including the popular “Onion,” “RhoDendra” and “Blue Willow” designs. In addition, a very successful tan-bodied china called Glo-Tan was manufactured in a large variety of designs and patterns.

The company had a motto for its products, “The Ware That Stands The Knocks,” and based on the excellent condition of pieces that collectors have been able to find and document, the motto was apt.

A 1937 article in The Grafton News warned that the continued operation of the Carr China Company’s Park View plant was dependent on a citizens meeting to discuss the organization of an efficient and active Board of Trade, which would assist the company in modernizing the plant at a cost of approximately $65,000.

Of this amount, Carr China would contribute $35,000, and $30,000 was to come from the community as well. The article stated that “it appears inevitable that if the community does not find it possible or expedient to join with the owners in the rehabilitation effort, the Industry will be taken elsewhere” since there were at least two offers on file with the directors to move the plant.

According to the owners, the plant needed rehabilitation with modern tunnel-type kilns in order to speed up production. Quick delivery is a necessity in the ceramic industry and Carr China was reported to have lost orders because it could not handle “spot” business.

An undated news article – probably from The Grafton News – gives the details of the installation of a continuous tunnel kiln at the Carr plant by Swindell-Dressler Corp. of Pittsburgh, so it is assumed that the residents came through with the $30,000 requested for plant updates. A photo above shows a patent drawing from one of Swindell-Dressler’s tunnel kilns.

Competition from Japan and other low wage countries contributed to the decline of the pottery industry in America. However, in 1952, Wheeler Bachman, who was the owner of the plant, shut down the factory without any help from outside competitors. The story goes that he learned that plant employees would be meeting to discuss the possibility of organizing a union and in a fit of rage closed the business.

In another version of the plant's closing, according to "Images of America: Taylor County": "After World War II, plastic ware gained popularity in markets previously served by Carr China. Efforts to diversify failed and the pottery closed on July 16, 1952."

In Barbara Conroy’s “Restaurant China Volume 2,” she quoted a Claude Hawks, who visited the plant several years later: There was “unfinished product all over the place; lines of benches, where artists worked … their brushes still in the glasses … dried up jars of ink and paint … transfer patterns all over. In the room where the kilns were, the carts were loaded just like they were going to be pushed in an hour or so … so tragic.”

Although the folklore surrounding Carr China’s closure hinges on talk of the employees meeting to unionize, it is interesting to note that a Dec. 7, 1922, article in The Grafton News says that at least some of the employees were already members of the National Potters Union, which had ordered a strike that had closed the plant for some amount of time.

The article goes on to state that “immediate resumption of work at the Carr China Company plant” will start when local potters return to work directly and “those dependent upon their products for work in other parts of the plant will be taken back as quickly as the plant can be opened.” In addition, it says that “resumption of work at the local plant will mean the employment of about 200 persons who either went out on strike or were forced to suspend work when the union potters quit on October 1.”

In July 1966, the abandoned plant burned and the site became an attractive nuisance for vagrants and children. Eventually the remains were bulldozed, except for the floor and one remaining portion of a wall. The rubble was left and the site became a dumping area for some local residents.

>> Page 2 History: A Brief History of Grafton

Notes

Most of the preceding information was gleaned from the following sources:
An article written by James R. Mitchell on the history of Carr China for the website, e-WV (The West Virginia Encyclopedia);
* * An undated article written by Charles Carpenter (Carpenter’s Column), “Carr China’s Days of Eminence,” provided by the Taylor County Historical and Genealogical Society;
* * An article in The Grafton News titled “Future of Carr China Depends Upon Community Interest, Activity,” dated Jan. 29, 1937; and
* * “Restaurant China Volume 2” by Barbara Conroy.

 
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