News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 21, 2014
Lowell Hill Pottery to move to new location, eventually
Rowantrees Pottery reproductions to continue

Throwing pottery at Lowell Hill

Geoff Miller throws a piece of pottery at his Union Street studio.

Photo by Faith DeAmbrose Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Faith DeAmbrose

While the kiln may need to sit dormant for a time while potter Geoff Miller gets his feet under him in a new location, fear not: the Rowantrees reproductions—and the traditions they embody—will not be gone from sight for too long.

Miller received word that he needed to vacate the original Rowantrees shop on Union Street by November 15, allowing him to at least finish the 2014 season. “I am not giving up, or going away,” Miller said in a recent interview. “I just need to find a new home.”

Miller, who has occupied the space rent-free since creating Lowell Hill Pottery in 2010, said, “just to be clear,” he “knew that this day was coming” and was preparing for an eventual move.

Conceptually, Miller plans to create a studio at his Penobscot property.

Realistically, he is not quite ready for that to happen.

“I have a Kickstarter campaign in the works; we just finished making a video,” said Miller of the global crowd-funding platform of the same name. He hopes to raise in excess of $150,000 to fully realize his dream of creating a studio worthy of recreating and reviving original Rowantrees pottery, as well as creating some pottery lines of his own. The campaign has not yet gone live.

Rowantrees in Blue Hill history

Rowantrees Pottery started in 1930 as an idea by Adelaide Pearson and began in the Union Street home she inherited from her grandfather, Woodman Wheeler Newton. She named it Rowantrees after “the [rowan] trees that grew at the side of the road in front of the house,” according to written accounts from historian William Hinckley.

Rowantrees began as a sort of cooperative, said Miller, where members of the community could come and create art of their own. In 1934, a kiln was built on the property and pottery became the focal point.

In 1935, Pearson was looking for a pottery teacher and was joined by Laura Paddock. The two then embarked on a world tour to learn about the art of pottery from England to Asia. Upon returning from the trip, a standard was established and work began in earnest to create what is known today as the Rowantrees line of pottery.

In Pearson’s day only local materials, including clay and native rocks, were used. “The discovery and procurement of many of the basic materials was often a tremendous effort,” wrote Hinckley in Bits of Local History. “Rock from an old magnesium mine at top of Blue Hill Mountain had to be carried down in knapsacks, and diatomite, the accumulation of a deposit of the silica shells of diatoms over the past eons, was dug from the edge of Noyes Pond. The old residue of past copper mining concentrator processes and the gangue from former mining efforts was gathered. Various kinds of granite were collected and brought to the plant in some quantity, as were other materials that were either found useful or used for experiments that were successful.”

The studio, on the second level, still contains built-in drawers all labeled with words such as “magnesium” and “granite.”

The people of Rowantrees and the shift to reproductions

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s employment figures ranged from about seven to 15. Peak production was believed to have occurred in 1947, “when it was reported that the pottery was producing about 50,000 pieces a year with employment at about a dozen people in the shop and five wheels turning regularly.”

Pearson died in 1960, and from that time until 1975, the business was run by Paddock.

The pottery employed many local people, some of whom went on to open their own pottery businesses, including Frank Day who left in 1947 to start South Blue Hill Pottery, which he operated until his retirement in 1975, and Philip and Phyllis Rackliffe who both left in 1968 to open Rackliffe Pottery, which is still a family-owned business located on the Ellsworth Road.

Other employees included Mary Wessel, Blanche Butler, Ethel Stover, Doris Nevin, Gerald Robinson, Gordon Robbins and Sheila Varnum.

Varnum was given the business and its physical assets by Paddock in 1976 and ran it, alongside her husband Alton, until her retirement in 2008.

From 1982 until 1990, Geoff Miller was employed by Rowantrees and learned the craft of throwing pottery. He and Sheila Varnum began negotiating a way forward for Rowantrees in 2008, and eventually settled on Miller creating reproductions of original Rowantrees designs. “There were some changes that I absolutely felt I had to make,” said Miller, which strayed from the original Rowantrees formula. Miller said he could not use local clay because of the expense and had to change the glaze recipe, which contained lead.

Slowly over the years, Miller has begun to revive Rowantrees pieces that had become obsolete, including the “petal cups.”

He is also working on a line of products under the Lowell Hill name.

What the future holds

Miller has a small studio in his home, but no place, at this time, for a kiln. Once he constructs a studio he will have a space for year-round creation. Currently Lowell Hill Pottery only operates seasonally due to weatherization constraints in the Union Street studio.

He said he will discuss the idea of possibly renting kiln space from other area potters until he can get one up and running, but until then he is working to reduce the current inventory so he has less to move and capital for the future.

Pottery can also be ordered online after the studio closes. For more information, visit lowellhillpottery.com.