The new owners of Red Wing Stoneware closed Friday on the purchase of Red Wing Pottery, reuniting the two brands under one family and keeping them locally rooted.
The day after Bruce and Irene Johnson of Red Wing purchased the functional-stoneware company in November, they learned that Scott Gillmer was going to sell or close the artisanal pottery company his family had run since the late 1960s. Now they own both names.
“We are very relieved, very happy that it’s ending up with Bruce and Irene,” Gillmer said Friday. “They’re great people, and they’ve got great ideas for moving the brand forward.”
Losing the company that helped build Red Wing would have been wrenching for the southeastern Minnesota river city. In the 1860s, Red Wing Pottery began selling salt-glaze storage crocks to farmers. The company grew, eventually producing functional stone dinnerware as well, until Gillmer’s grandfather took ownership in 1967 and split the brands.
In early November, Gillmer said that he could no longer compete with big retailers and that if he couldn’t find a buyer, he would close the 32,000-square-foot retail-restaurant-pottery production facility on West Main Street.
Johnson, an entrepreneur married 28 years to his sweetheart from Big Fork (Minn.) High School, sounded confident about the future of the two brands and his family’s ability to help them flourish. “We want people to know business is alive and well for the stoneware and we want to help the pottery get back on its feet,” he said.
For seven years before the Johnsons bought the stoneware company, Irene Johnson managed human resources and finances for the company, so she knew it inside and out, her husband said. During that time, he built a successful health care analytics company that he sold to Deloitte, a Minneapolis company, in 2012.
Bruce Johnson agrees with Gillmer that the Red Wing companies can’t compete with big-box retailers, but said the “extremely well-respected brands” have a market.
“We know the world likes a handmade, quality product,” he said.
The key will be targeting and reaching consumers. Being able to promote the artisanal and functional brands together will help reach the high-end pottery market, he said.
Johnson and his wife also intend to keep the retail shop open, perhaps reopening it in January after some remodeling and repairs on the building. It was open Friday for the last time under Gillmer.
Among Johnson’s other ideas: more targeted marketing of the brands in collaboration with other local business. For example, Johnson, a self-described die-hard fan, hopes to talk to the Minnesota Vikings about issuing numbered pieces to mark the opening of a new stadium.
Changing with the times
Red Wing Pottery started when craftsmen tapped the nearby vein of perfect natural clay to create pots for storing food in the era before refrigeration. The salt-glaze pottery came in gray or tan with a rough surface and a decorative cobalt bird or flower.
At the turn of the 20th century, Goodhue County was the largest wheat producer in the nation, making Red Wing Pottery ideally situated to craft and distribute wares. But growth brought an end to salt-glaze, handcrafted pottery in favor of an assembly line with machines producing the more uniform Bristol glaze. The insignia switched to a Red Wing.
As the country became more urban, Red Wing Potteries shifted from jugs, crocks and butter churns to items for the home such as plates, vases and statuary.
When Gillmer’s grandfather started working for the pottery company, he sold the wares to national accounts of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. But the production of dinnerware shifted from the United States to Japan in the 1950s.
From 1936 until 1967, the stoneware and pottery were produced under one label. In 1967, Red Wing Potteries liquidated and R.A. Gillmer took over as the owner and president. He shifted the business from mass production into the sales room where he stocked Homer Laughlin, Pfaltzgraff, Noritake and Fiesta.
‘Stewards of the legacy’
Although the two lines are now reunited, Johnson said he expects to keep both labels. “We’ve got a lot to figure out. Whether or not there will be a third brand we don’t know,” Johnson said.
He also hopes to keep the family tradition and the close ties to the community. The Johnsons’ two grown children will play strong roles in shoring up the company.
“We’ll do our best. We really want it to be a family-owned business,” he said. “We want to be good stewards of the legacy.”