If you live in Minnesota, you’ve almost certainly encountered a clay pot from Red Wing.
Maybe it was holding umbrellas in someone’s home, or it was filled with homemade sauerkraut. Perhaps your family passed down a vase or an urn. You might have snagged one cheap at a garage sale.
Come fall, that iconic clay pottery will no longer be manufactured on a large scale in Red Wing, Minn. The building that houses the Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery factory (4909 Moundview Drive, Red Wing) has already been sold and an adjacent shop that sells the stoneware will close at the end of September. Owners Bruce and Irene Johnson said they may continue to make a few custom pieces and products and sell at other stores.
Since the late 19th century, Red Wing pottery has been emblematic of the small southern Minnesota town, which sits on a wealth of clay deposits. When Minnesota was being settled, an influx of German immigrants — who were skilled potters — and the proximity of the Mississippi River made Red Wing an ideal location for the pottery and stoneware industry to develop.
The wing logo was stamped on everything from flowerpots to crocks; however, the name, ownership and focus of the company shifted over the decades. Before the invention of refrigerators, Red Wing Union Stoneware Company produced crocks and jugs for food storage. By 1936, under the name Red Wing Potteries, the company was turning out tableware and art pottery.
Red Wing clay was even used to make the region’s first sewer pipes.
The Johnsons took over the town’s long legacy of ceramics in 2013, merging Red Wing Pottery and Red Wing Stoneware into one company. But over the last five years, Bruce has had health issues, including several bouts of pneumonia, which he attributes to the harmful effects of clay dust on his lungs.
“Clay dust is dangerous,” he said. “I haven’t been able to be [in the factory] and it’s too taxing on my wife. The plan was we were going to do this together.”
They released this statement on the company’s website:
We have spent the last 6 years trying to revive and restore these iconic brands. We have enjoyed the opportunity to learn pottery and experience working with incredibly talented artists. While the pricing pressures on hand made products of this quality are hard to compete with low-cost options, we have done a good job of keeping the trademark of these brands high quality. There are several other opportunities we have been presented with and in order to focus on some of those businesses, we need to stop industrial manufacturing of pottery. We may continue to make a few custom pieces and products, but will also entertain any interest in the business and brands.
This is not the first time Red Wing's ceramics industry has been threatened with closures. In 2013, Red Wing Pottery was on the verge of shuttering when it was purchased by the Johnsons. In 2015, Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery announced it might close as a result of a protracted trademark dispute with local ceramics collectors. (Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery settled the suit in 2016 and stayed in business for another three years.)
The Johnsons said they hope to find another buyer willing to take on the company and continue its legacy.
"We've gotten a lot of calls in the last few days, so we're hopeful, but at this point that's all there is," said Bruce Johnson. Barring a willing buyer, Red Wing pottery may become a rarer collectible than ever before.