The Early Dickson Pottery in Vernon

INTRODUCTION The following pages are in answer to the many inquiries I have been asked about my Grandfather's Pottery.


I might enumerate some on the Vernon Pottery as it is referred to today. Robert Dickson came to the site VIA the Des Moines River around 1850, by boat. Here he was to carry out his early training and established the first Pottery in the area. Careful study of the outlying community, and prospects for a future was to be dealt with. The south bank of the river was definitely the proper location, it offered unlimited territory for early development. First, proper clay to grind, abundant timber to cut for the kilns to burn, and most of all an unsettled territory to sell the wares that would be made. This south area would be settled first, due to its natural resources. Level, undrained land was of little value at that time.

The development explosion came fast once it started. Vernon, Iowa, was soon to be well known as a trading post from fifty miles around. My father, Charles Dickson, was born in 1860 in a large brick house overlooking the river, the home, garden, orchard and outbuildings covering one city block. To the south was the pottery, covering more than a block of what was then considered prize building sites in a fast growing town. It was a great place for a small boy to play, and get lost in the ware house where the finished jars and crocks, not to mention the then popular jugs, were stored. All too soon, his attention turned to the Vernon Academy and a thirst for knowledge and adventure. On the north side of the river a rail road was built from Keokuk, ending here for several years. The hard work around a pottery did not appeal to Charles, and after finishing school, he spent much time at the R. R. depot learning telegraphy, or to string lightning as it was called in those days. This he worked at until 1900. When the Rock Island line was built from Des Moines to Kansas City, he went along as an operator, using a box car for headquarters, just another step in settling of the west. On completion, his choice of towns to settle in was Lucerne, Mo. He came back to Vernon just long enough to marry the youngest daughter of Wm. Gaston.

I speak of the hard work around a pottery. Huge loads of clay were to be hauled and put in the grinding pit. A horse on a pole went round and round, grinding clay mixed with water until it was the right consistency to mold. A certain amount was then placed on the potters wheel which was foot powered by a treadle. The clay would thus turn on the flat wheel. The fine art was to use the hands to bring shape to the wad of clay. Again the jug was most interesting, to pull the top in the right amount, leaving one finger inside to finish the mouth, then to attach the handle with a separate piece of clay. They were then allowed to dry before glazing was applied.

During the peak years, two kilns were in operation. This was of brick construction some ten or twelve feet in diameter, built like a large bee hive with an oval top. A door was just large enough for a man to carry the dried article inside. They were lined around the outside walls, large ten gallon jars were placed first, inside it was a seven gallon size, inside that a five gallon, and so on down in size to use all available space. Once the kiln was properly loaded, with the fire pot in the center left open, it was time to start the fire for burning. This was the most delicate of all operations, to many it might seem most simple, but not so in Robert Dickson's Pottery. It must be started slow, otherwise the wares would crack and many were discarded. About two days were allowed to bring the heat to a proper degree, then the door was sealed by laying it up with temporary brick. It was now sealed from any disturbance for four days and slowly allowed to cool. A week to ten days were allowed for each kiln. With two in operation, many sixteen and twenty hour days were put in.

Many cords of wood were required, south of the river had much to offer, and many young men made their start in life with a sharp ax, and their father's team and wagon. In the late afternoon as many as ten horse drawn wagons, a cord of wood on each and four horses hitched tandem to each, could be seen coming to Vernon. Such traffic soon wore the roads into a deep dust in the summer months, hilly roads wear down most rapidly, often being eight or ten feet below land on either side. Results of heavy traffic still showed until late years when they were graded with heavy machinery and graveled as they are found today. Some of the clay was found, south of town near the Geo. Walter farm, other further south on the Wm. Gaston farm, how ever neither seemed to meet with the Dickson approval. A large part came from the Lippencot farm east of Keosauqua and in the Bend of the river. A load of clay is quite heavy so many teamsters were employed to haul the raw material. It had to be done in the dry hot summer months when no frost or much moisture was in it. So unlike hauling wood which was done with a homemade sled on the snow. By Spring the large woodlot filled to capacity, enough to run the kilns until dry weather in summer.

Now the most important teamsters of all were to back up at the ware house door with a stout wagon well lined with straw and begin to load their wares. Many large families were now settling in all directions. Demand for milk crocks, all sizes of jars for canning and pickling were needed. A wagon load of ware would be hauled as much as fifty miles south to small towns and sold for retail. Many loads were sold along the route. Customers would run out and stop the wagon, begging for a crock to put the night's warm milk in, or to can the vegetables in. And then the question, could they buy a few jugs? They were a 'most' for many of the settlers. A barn raising or a quilting bee was often being held, close by, so the teamster would put up for the night and join in the late fun when the `Ho Down' began. A full life for everyone.

In order that jars of the same size could be safely stacked, they were finished on top and bottom with a slight bevel. A fine textured hard rock some three feet square was selected, and beveled out in the center about one inch. It must be ground to a mirror like finish, then each article of soft pottery is slowly turned on it to wear away enough so it will nest on the next one. This rock was highly prized by the Pottery and must be kept clean at all times. I still have this white rock and highly prize it.

A few friends of Robert's were known to receive a personal labeled article he would make them for a wedding gift or special occasion. My parents were given a very attractive bean baking pot with lid and handle. During my early life, this bean pot was seldom not in use. As a hungry boy come home from school, it was hard to resist going to the pantry and dipping in for a spoonful of home baked beans, seasoned with salt pork and molasses. It may have been under heat more times than any article ever turned out at the Dickson Pottery. It is another one of my prize possessions.

A large part of this story has been handed down from early hearsay so it may vary in some opinions. Anything further I add is purely a recollection of my childhood. days.

I was born on what was once the Wm. Gaston homestead three miles south of Vernon. My parents settled there shortly before. Charles had seen enough rail road life and mother longed for her old home. However she did not live long to enjoy it.

As a kid it was a treat when Dad took me to Vernon and I could play around the house and gardens. The Pottery had been closed for some time so it was hard for me to get much from it or understand what went on before my time.

In the house and garden it was great fun to explore. The location was in the center of a block with the south and east doors. A north door went to the orchard and outbuildings. A picket fence formed outside boundary lines. Large and small jars of all sizes also lined the fences, of which I was offered my pick when we were to leave.

Since Robert now lived alone, I had free range. The Parlor first where I looked at boxes of pictures thru the stereoscope. Then up the long stairway and thru the bedrooms on both sides of the hall, I never did know how many, mostly empty but fun to explore. At the far end was a low door not so elaborate as most of the house. It opened hard and made queer noises so I avoided it. Well just one peak, if it was inhabited I should know but not tell anyone. A crack in the brick wall and dirty floors were enough for now. Back to the stairway and a slide down the banister. Next the living room and endless shelves of books. Surely Granddad did not know what they all said. The Bible on a small table by its self seemed to have the most use and was always open. On out to a large cold what had been a kitchen with doors opening in all directions. Better look in the big pantry, with its many rows of funny bottles and boxes. As a five year old can only reach to the second shelf, it did not take long. Now to the north door? No first the back stairway. It was steep but I must go up again today. Apparently the household help did not need such finery to get to their three bedrooms. Over to where the squeeky door led to the main part of the upstairs. It didn't open any better from this side than the other, oh well?

Outdoors and to the nice brick wood house with many polished garden tools. I must dig in dirt with some of best ones. The dirt seemed to stick on them so I pick up another but no better luck. It seemed I always left my marks for Granddad to find and he would scold me bitterly for not polishing his tools, it didn't do much good, to this day I do not clean a tool. A large grapevine spreads all over one end of the building, with clusters of white grapes now gains my attention. Boy, are they good after so busy a day. Maybe I eat too many, better scatter the skins so they won't be seen too plainly.

Just one more building to go to, we always save the best till last. On the way in comes the most elaborate of all buildings, the privy. It is of brick to match other buildings, a large door with well oiled hinges painted snow white. The roof ventilators are also painted and rotate as the wind changes. The inside is spotless, a railroad porter could do no better. The two children's places were seldom used now, only by a little grandson a few times a year. The built in covers were always closed, I must remember to do so when my stay is over. My time to choose one of the three adult holes would have to wait a few years.

Dad is now untieing the horses and calling for me to come. He looks at my choice piece of Pottery with a frown and wonders when I will ever learn what might be of some value in life.

Thank you if you have stayed with me so long.

Transcribed by Rich Lowe for the Van Buren County IAGenWeb Project - copyright 2008