Doctor Herbert Wilson and Reverend Ervin Miller, a
United Church of Christ Minister, were looking for a economic development
project for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Indians living on the Fort
Berthold Reservation. In talking with a number of Indians around New Town
they discovered that there was interest in learning to make pottery and
having a business of their own.
In November of 1966 James Walker an instructor at the
University of Wisconsin in Whitewater was contacted and joined the project.
He had worked for a summer assisting studio potter, Peter Leach, in St.
Paul, Minnesota and also attended Goddard College in Vermont to study
In January 1967
Walker was in New Town working with Dr. Wilson and Rev. Miller to get an
$18,000 grant through the Manpower Development and Training Act under the
Area Redevelopment Administration, which they received. With this grant they
began making preparations for the training program. In May 1967 Walker began
the 20 week training program which ended October 1967. Five completed the
course with three women (Sadie Youngbear, Emmaline Blake and Mary Elk)
working for Three Tribes Stoneware and two performing duties other than the
actual making of pottery.
Pottery production began in December 1967 with three
good potters from the Ft. Berthold culture, that went through the training
program, Youngbear, Blake and Elk. In about February 1968 they went from a
non-profit training program to a profit corporation manufacturing pottery
(stoneware.) To keep the plant going Walker offered the workers either back
salary or interest in the corporation and Youngbear, Blake & Elk took the
offer of an interest in the corporation and thereby owning most of the
Walker and the staff built a large walk-in kiln and
most of the other equipment from potters wheels to shelving. The large walk
in kiln was 7 feet deep, 6 feet high and 6 feet wide, had four propane
burners and would hold 1,500 or more pieces of pottery. On main street was
their retail shop where they displayed and sold the finished stoneware.
Walker bought a small kiln to heat the green ware to 1,800 degrees
Fahrenheit which took 8 hours. This first firing was to give it strength and
prepare it for glazing and final firing. The bisque (first fire) ware was
then dipped into a liquid which forms the glaze and left to dry for 4 or 5
hours. Then it was put in the large walk-in kiln for the final or second
firing. This was a long, high temperature firing (glaze baking), at 2,400
degrees Fahrenheit for about 16 hours and then cooled for 48 hours before
removing the pottery.
Unlike some pottery plants Three Tribes Stoneware
produced no bisque ware. It's final products are all glazed. They did not
use molds for any of their pottery, it was done on the potters wheel.
Originally Three Tribes Stoneware tried to use clay
from the Dickinson area, as the clay was furnished to the plant at cost, but
ran into problems because of its low melting point in the kiln, Walker said.
Washing of the North Dakota Clay, Walker said, was necessary to remove
organic matter therefore eliminating the economic advantage. Local clay was
used only for color. Clay used was high fire clay from Ohio combined with a
very plastic ball clay from Maysville, Kentucky and was imported by the
boxcar. These clays had the advantage of requiring no grinding, washing or
shifting. This was mixed with feldspar to bring down the maturing point of
the clay, silica sand to provide strength and water. If properly fired
they'll form sturdy decorator pieces or oven worthy cookware. The clay was
shipped in dry and had to be mixed with water which was done using an old
electric bakery bread mixer in the kiln shop. Each batch would yield about
400 lbs. of clay. Then the newly mixed wet clay was placed in plastic bags
of about 40 lbs. to prevent hardening. Clay was next taken to the studio for
wedging or removal of inconsistencies in texture and air bubbles or pockets
by kneading and cutting through it with a wire. This wedging process must
make the clay very even, or any pottery made from it will be defective.
jugs, cups, cookie jars, casseroles, plates, soup/cereal bowls, flower pots,
pencil pots, sugar jars, creamers, ash trays, butter dish, jam jars, tea
pots, pitchers, goblets, platters, 10 gallon sauerkraut crocks and candle
holders are some of the items
made in various sizes, colors and shapes. Some of the colors used were
browns, greens, gold, reds, creams, white, blue, grey and blacks. Some of
the pieces were etched speckled
The Three Tribes pots, in the muted, natural colors of
the barren Dakota plains, have a contemporary, almost Oriental shapes.
Some of the places that the stoneware was marketed were
in North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Nell (was married to James Walker when he managed Three Tribes Stoneware)
thought a lot of the pottery was sold on the East coast, especially New
England where they were into homemade arts and crafts at that time. 3TS had
a mail order, color photo, catalog that generated orders, mainly from
individuals. Emmaline Blake said 3TS had exhibitions in North & South
Dakota, Washington D.C. and at the University of Minneapolis.