|© 1992 by Timothy R. Brookes|
It is highly unusual that a city should have its essential identity created by one man. In the case of East Liverpool, the situation is even more remarkable considering that the man who left his stamp on the community spent a mere five years perfecting his legacy.
The name of James Bennett and his pioneer pottery are known to even the casual student of local history. Less known, are the circumstances of Bennett's life and the factors which caused him to come to the, then, struggling village of East Liverpool.
Born in Derbyshire, England, in 1812, James Bennett was the fourth child of a Wesleyan minister who would eventually have a family of eight children. During his early adult life, James Bennett began an apprenticeship in a local pottery as a packer, often a stepping-stone to more skilled trades within the industry. In May, 1835, at age 23, Bennett left Derbyshire and his family to take the long voyage to the New World. He arrived in New York and soon obtained employment at David Henderson's Jersey City Pottery, where English-trained craftsmen were always welcome.
By July of 1835, Bennett had met, courted and wed another English immigrant, Jane Milnor Stevenson, who was six years his junior. The first two years of their married life was spent in Jersey City while, presumably, James was perfecting his knowledge of all the steps needed in the production of yellow ware and Rockingham, first manufactured in the U.S. by Henderson.
Bennett's next career move was a substantial one as he moved himself, his wife, and his entire household to the West. Circumstances at the time were less than favorable as the nation's economic system was in disarray due to the Panic of 1837. Bennett passed through Pittsburgh but the depressed state of the western Pennsylvania economy did not seem a likely spot for new business enterprises.
Traveling down the Ohio, the Bennetts eventually found themselves at Troy, Indiana, where a new pottery was being constructed by James Clews, another wandering English potter with aspirations of becoming an industrialist.
Shortly after their arrival in Troy, James and Jane's first child was born but died a mere nine days later. A second child born the following year also suffered the same sad fate. Malaria, which was prevalent in the area, caused the deaths of many of the potters and weakened James' health which was also beginning to show the effects of "potters asthma", now known as silicosis.
Clews, frustrated by the numerous difficulties of starting a pottery in the wilderness returned to England in 1838, leaving James Bennett as the manager of the clearly failing concern. About a year later, Bennett decided to abandon Troy and return to some healthier climate up the Ohio.
A stop at Cincinnati did not prove pleasing so the Bennetts continued toward Pittsburgh. Before he could reach that city, however, a sawmill operator named Pratt who operated his business in what is now Chester, West Virginia, commented on the clay available in East Liverpool. A brief inspection by Bennett determined that the lower Kittaning clays present would be suitable for yellow ware production.
East Liverpool, in 1839, was a village of less than 500 people. Anxious to expand the area's commercial prospects, several local men including Pratt, Anthony Kearns, and Aaron Brawdy, who offered to supply the clay needed at no charge, agreed to provide financial backing to Bennett's proposed operation.
Construction of a small one-kiln factory was soon commenced on the banks of the Ohio and, along with a two-story frame structure, was completed by early 1840. Bennett's early efforts were rewarded with modest success and boasted a $250.00 profit for the first year's operation. Bennett agreed to a 5-year lease for the works, which were owned by Aaron Brawdy.
Conditions were such that in April, 1841, Bennett sent to England for his three younger brothers, Daniel, Edwin and William, who were all employed in the potteries of Staffordshire. Other English potters, already in this country, congregated on East Liverpool. One of the early arrivals was Jabez Vodrey who had also spent time in the failed enterprise at Troy. By September, 1841, James' siblings had joined him in what then became known as Bennett and Brothers Pottery Co.
Business remained good, not only for the Bennetts, but also for other potters who had begun to give East Liverpool its distinctive industrial and ethnic characteristics. Local ware was sold to crockery merchants of Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and other cities. Sales of pottery to local residents were often paid for by barter which, on occasion, required that the employees be paid in grain or produce rather than cash.
Despite their limited successes, Bennett and Brothers recognized problems with their continued operation in East Liverpool. The location of their plant was constantly in jeopardy of being washed away by the waters of the Ohio, which, in fact, happened in later years. Banking facilities were minimal, thus restricting further growth. And, most importantly, the lack of a railroad connection caused severe transportation difficulties.
Thus, in 1844, an offer to purchase the Bennetts' interests by Thomas Croxall and three brothers, also of English origin, was accepted and the Bennetts removed to Birmingham on the south side of Pittsburgh where they soon constructed a new pottery. Known as the "Queensware Works", the new plant was capitalized at $47,000.00 and employed 25 men and boys.
James, 32 years old when he left East Liverpool, prospered in Pittsburgh, although exposure to the dangerous dust that caused most potters to be notoriously unhealthy led to a steady decline in his health. Despite these problems, James and Jane produced a total of eleven children of whom seven survived to adulthood.
In 1846, James was forced to retire from the pottery business due to his breathing problems. He moved to a 115-acre farm some distance from the dust and smoke of the city. The Pittsburgh pottery would continue under a brother's guidance until well after the Civil War. Jane Bennett, weakened by her many pregnancies, died in 1861. She was 43 years old. James passed away July 31, 1862, at the age of 50.
Bennett probably never recognized the importance of the events he initiated with his small, speculative venture in East Liverpool. His brief but active life, perhaps typical of the hardships faced by our immigrant forebears, give eloquent testimony of one city's debt to the founder of the industry that created an industrial giant, the Crockery City.