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 pottery making.
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 business.
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.
Bowls, vases, 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 designers pieces.
The Three Tribes Stoneware, Inc. Building
Photo courtesy of Jan Barr
Front row: Tumbler by E. Blake, vase by S. Young Bear, cup by E Morsette, cup by E. Blake. Back row: Bowl by E. Morsette, teapot by E. Blake, vase unsigned, but was made by James Walker and given to Jeanette LaRock, Bowl - unsigned.
Photo courtesy of Jim and Jeanette LaRock
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.
Three Tribes Stoneware, Inc., Produced 2003 by Pat Schimke for the 2003 NDPCS convention. Out of print.
Collector's Encyclopedia of Dakota Potteries, Copyright 1996 by Darlene Hurst Dommel, Collector Books, Paduca, KY. Out of Print.
Earth, Water, and Fire - The History and Uses of North Dakota Clay, 1998 Spring/Summer Issue North Dakota History - Journal of the Northern Plains, Volume 65, No. 2 & 3. $10.50 postpaid to State Historical Society of North Dakota, 612 Boulevard Avenue, Bismarck, ND 58505. 701-328-2666