“The prehistoric Caddo Indians utilized abundant deposits of rich clays in this region to make their fine pottery vessels,” states the State Historic Marker in the mini-park on Palestine Street/Highway #19 as it commemorates a long term thriving Athens industry.
According to the July 10, 1973 Athens Review, the marker, dedicated at a commemoration that month, described details: “The modern pottery industry in Henderson County began in 1857, when Levi S. Cogburn (1812-1866), one of a family of potters from Georgia, started making cups, saucers and plates in Athens.”
Also, the industry continued even though Cogburn’s company folded shortly after his death, then was revived in 1885 by M.K. Miller as the Athens Pottery Co. The reporter in the July 10 article then described why Athens was such a great location for a pottery business, as indicated by the research prepared to establish the marker.
The reporter described the technical issues: “The Wilcox Eocene formation of the Gulf Coastal Plain, of which the county is a part, probably contains more valuable clays than any other formulation in Texas.” Also, they added, “Wilcox clays are utilized for the manufacture of refractories, brick of different grades, hollow tile and pottery including earthenware and stoneware.”
As described on the marker, these types of clays were utilized by the Caddo tribe as they demonstrated various designs and techniques. Also, even if their clay products were designed for practical uses, they also decorated the pieces with designs that today give them value.
Local state senator/judge J.J. Faulk, an early Athens historian, had some personal memories about the pottery and brick manufacturers back then. In the March 14, 1929 Athens Weekly Review, Faulk described the raw material involved. “Nearly all around Athens abounds in almost inexhaustible quantities of common and fire brick clay and we also have an abundance of pottery clay, from which various kinds of ware can be made, and is susceptible of moulding [sic] vessels to a fine polish.
He then reminisced about some local pottery makers. “When I was a small boy, during the war between the states, my mother and … I came here and bought cups and saucers from Levi Cogburn who was running a little pottery near a spring just below where the Cotton Belt railroad runs; and the ware was pretty good.” Then he described the Athens Fire Brick and Tile Co. as the “only brick company here now” [at time of writing in 1929]. It was worth about $250,000 and the president was C.H. Coleman and it has been “a paying proposition from the start.”
Judge Faulk summarized: “I believe there is room for further development on this line that will pay handsomely. In time it will be done. So for these many years we have been and are still walking over hidden treasures.”
Cogburn’s successor, M.K. Miller arrived in Athens in 1884 after he read in a Dallas newspaper about the Athens clay deposits, so he walked from his home in Missouri to Athens to look into it. The next year he set up the pottery company and moved his family to Athens to operate the new operation.
Later family member Pearlie Miller acquired the company and it became “the largest pottery operation west of the Mississippi by the early part of the century.”
The products manufactured and later sold from the Miller firm also included flower pots for the nursery and florist retail outlets.
Then the company began producing hollow tile building materials, and at one time furnished the materials used by ninety percent of construction of large buildings in Dallas, Houston, and other locations. The reporter also related: “the pottery had not lost one day’s operation except holidays since it was fired up in May, 1934.”
Another pottery company from 1882 when local farmer H.M. Morris sold his farm and established a small plant northeast of Athens to manufacture bricks. Then in 1899 C.H. Coleman, as mentioned by Judge Faulk in 1929, acquired full interest in the company.
“Much of the clay mined for bricks and building title was not suitable for pottery,” wrote the reporter.
But now, said the reporter, “instead of making bricks, they were now up to their ears in pottery, ceramics, modeling clay, floor tile, marketing standardized raw ceramic clay, prospecting for clay and such.”