Red Wing Pottery, a storied Mississippi River institution that began selling farmers salt-glaze storage crocks in the 1860s, will either be sold or closed.

Scott Gillmer, owner and grandson of former president R.A. Gillmer, said he will have to shut down at the end of the year if a buyer doesn't emerge. Crushed by bigger retailers, Gillmer said he can no longer operate the 32,000-square-foot retail-restaurant-pottery production facility on West Main Street. The overhead has become too much for even the venerable Red Wing Pottery name.

"People have less discretionary income and I'm in the same boat," Gillmer said. "I"m spending more and more on health care and my children's education as a percentage of my income than ever before."

Third-generation owner Gillmer said he's had interest from a couple of possible buyers, but that whoever takes over will need to find a new means of profit. The company hasn't mass-produced pottery since 1967 when Gillmer's grandfather bought and shifted the business to showroom sales. Gillmer's aunt kept Red Wing Pottery in business by selling collectibles to tourists at the mall.

"We grew quite large when retail was good. Now that has ended," Scott Gillmer said. "I have this very large overhead and it's just not sustainable."

When his 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. In 1967, Red Wing Potteries liquidated and R.A. Gillmer took over as the owner and president. He shifted the business into the sales room where he stocked Homer Laughlin, Pfaltzgraff, Noritake and Fiesta.

'We're faced with the reality'

Scott Gillmer's aunt sustained the business with sales of tchotchkes from Dept. 56, Hummels and Precious Moments through the 1980s. When the popularity of those items tailed off, Gillmer opened a craft pottery shop where artisans made salt-glaze jugs and other items in the tradition of the original German craftsmen.

Even though the showroom is the top independent Fiesta dealer in the country, Gillmer said the salt-glaze pottery was the main source of income and the other shops haven't kept up. The Smokey Row Cafe served its last meal on Sunday.

Now it's time for another evolution. "We're faced with the reality it's not going to be our family to do that," Gillmer said. "It's time to turn the reins over."

Gillmer said the new owner will need to figure out how to make the business successful — possibly through reconfiguration of the building and the business. "We don't have the deep pockets to alter it enough," he said.

The history of Red Wing Pottery and Shops tells much of the town's story.

Started in the mid-1860s, 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 the 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. The 1967 liquidation ended production and put the company in the Gillmer family.

For Gillmer, Red Wing Pottery is business and family. His parents met when his mom worked at the mall's candy shop and his dad at the garden store. Gillmer has lived in town for 22 years and raised three children.

A gut punch for Red Wing

The loss of the Red Wing Pottery connection would be a historic punch for the town.

The crocks, jugs and dinnerware produced before 1967 are still sought by an ardent international network of collectors. Steven Brown, historian for the Red Wing Collectors Society Inc., started gathering unusual pieces with his dad as a boy in Red Wing. Many are in the pottery museum just down Highway 61 from Gillmer's business. "It was almost a ritual that girls who were to be married would make the trip to Red Wing to pick out wedding china," he said.

He collects handmade pieces such as a plate inscribed with the name of a Lutheran minister and gifted to his family as they were moving away. Even without the production, Brown said, Red Wing Pottery is "part of our civic pride that visitors will stop in there as part of leaf season."

Like Steven Brown, Red Wing Chamber of Commerce President Patty Brown is saddened by the news. "When you've had a business in your community for that long, everybody will feel the pain," she said.

Gillmer, who has an MBA, said running the business has required an entrepreneurial spirit. "Part of that, too, is knowing when to be done. For us, it's time to be done."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 @rochelleolson