WEST KINGSTON, R.I. — The woody, narrow roads in West Kingston twist and turn — even over a wooden bridge — as they lead to a stone mill built just after the Civil War ended.
Today both that building at 494 Glen Rock Road and its 70-year occupant — young by comparison — have endured the test of time and changing fads in buying pottery. It is the long-time home of Peter Pots Pottery, whose founder bought the building in 1954, and where sales to generations of families have been made ever since.
“Customers come in and they tell you I started getting this piece of tableware or serving ware because my great-grandmother started getting it and then my mother got it and now I do it. That’s just a really cool thing to see,” said Catherine Scott, retail manager.
Helen Zartarian, 89, of Jamestown, agreed. She’s been going there for 60 years, and has passed down the tradition to her three daughters-in-law and two granddaughters.
“It has just lovely, beautiful pottery. I started buying piece by piece and have been doing it ever since, and even giving gifts often from there,” she said.
In the surrounding heavily wooded area, where bobcats and bears are sometimes seen, this nearly 4,000-square-foot stone mill built in 1867 also has a mothballed paddlewheel that visitors can see.
It provided the power to help process corn meal in a bygone age that now intersperses with contemporary life both the paddlewheel and pottery on display.
The packed retail section on the mill’s first floor also has antiques amid the hundreds of pottery pieces in Peter Pots’ signature brown and blue colors. These were the only colors used for six decades until newcomer green was introduced about 12 years ago.
The colors are like the business, they have a place in history as does Peter Pots Pottery.
This family business continues today nearly four years after its founder died and is preserved as a local landmark as much as the iconic Towers in Narragansett, the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace in Saunderstown and the Perry-Carpenter Grist Mill in Matunuck.
“For me, the pottery has a very unique design perspective,” said Scott, who has worked in the business for about five years, beginning in the pottery-making side of the house. “If it were something that we could describe as South County, I think Peter Pots Pottery kind of nailed it.”
Through a rear exit from the retail section a door opens to narrow steps in a stonewall room. Cluttered from nearby equipment that is old, used and worn, these stairs lead to an upper level.
Entering that crowded room of plaster and wooden molds, hundreds of vessels, plates and objects in one shape or another are in progress different stages. The rough and dirty factory setup includes many fans to push back heat from the hot kiln or summer weather. There is no air conditioning in this setup.
Hoses run from one room to another to bring liquid clay for the molds. Sponges and glazing tables fit among squeeze-by-only maneuvering room in this production area. It shows how the 12,000 pieces of pottery are made each year by the hands of four people doing it.
Plates, vases, decanters, specialty items, bowls, bean pots and much more also fill the shelves. There’s even a nod to another of the mill’s iconic companions — a 1.5-quart casserole dish with the Narragansett Towers on top.
Jeffrey Greene oversees these operations, which he inherited from his father, Oliver Greene. He died at 89 in 2016 and started this business as a Rhode Island School of Design student in the late 1940s.
“Peter Pots Providence was a group, including my father and mother, who set up street side shows with other RISD students,” said Greene, whose middle name is Peter and was born 10 years after this business name was chosen.
“The business name just came along as a lark. It was kind of a funny name for their little endeavor,” he added.
Both father, son and business share much in common. Oliver was a diesel engineer while Jeff later became a mechanical engineer. Father, after leaving the merchant marines, decided to attend RISD where he explored and develop an interest in pottery making.
Son went to Detroit to explore his early career as an engineer in car manufacturing, but returned to Rhode Island in 1982 to start a furniture making business that has continued since.
And then a few years ago he bought a large historic home on Mooresfield Road that was owned by Daniel Rodman who built the mill that Greene’s father purchased for his fledging pottery business.
This intertwining of history and the present doesn’t escape Jeff Greene. However, it’s less about the buildings and grounds and more around learning about his father. The two have walked same mill floors each day and touched the hand-crafted devices still used for making pottery.
“It’s like walking around in your own footsteps. It is weird having history repeat itself,” said Greene, who spent his childhood running through the store, pouring liquid clay into molds and “being dragged through country auctions” to satisfy his father’s other interest in antiques and collectibles.
“I learned more about him after he died then I ever knew while he was alive. We were close, but he never talked about various things. He made pottery in the very early ‘50s and forgot about it, and I’m just finding out about it now,” said Greene.
Stories come from customers who still visit the store and knew his father well.
“I see things I never knew he did. I learn a lot about what some of his early designs were all about. It’s just fascinating,” he said.
His father was a proud man, proud of his accomplishments and proud to keep the business going right up to the day he died suddenly of a heart attack, said Greene. He could be friendly and irascible, depending on his mood, said Greene and other customers, some of whom avoided dealing with him directly.
“He was a character. I still hear Oliver stories all the time,” Greene said, noting that his own older years has brought a new-found interest in the hidden gems of his father’s past in pottery.
As older pieces of Peter Pots Pottery become available for re-sale or are brought to his attention, Greene is buying them back, said Greene who is the last surviving family member following the deaths of his father, mother and sister.
He looked over at some pottery waiting to be fired in a large kiln at the far end of this second-floor production area. The furnace heats up to about 2,100 degrees with about 400 pieces in it each week. Once cooled and ready for sale, they join the hundreds either shipped for website orders, are available on display or inventoried for later sales or demand.
Now, though, with his father now gone, the place runs a little differently, but keeps to the same purpose of putting out pottery that people can preserve for their own families, he said.
For example, he said, the downstairs pottery showroom and sales store was an afterthought when his father was alive. Bells were hooked up to signal someone coming through the door and a staff member upstairs making pottery would go down to help the customer, he said.
“Downstairs was grubby, not organized and not a good customer experience. When we took over, we had to make that a priority” to clean up, he said, referring to his wife, Christine, and pointing to a now well-organized and attractive display of pottery, antiques and some furniture from his shop.
The employees working there make the shop run every day and without them its doors would be shuttered, Greene said.
“Everybody in here treats the place like it is their business. It’s not like they’re making huge money, either. As we do better, I try to pay everyone more. They’ve been here for years and they really care about everything to do with the business,” he said.
Carl Tuoni, does the casting, he said, while Justin Boiano is production manager and who worked side-by-side with his father. Karina Bay does sponging and smoothing of pottery before its fired and Stephanie Coffey, a former intern from Lyme Academy, “does a little of bit of everything.”
Catherine Scott is most often the new face of Peter Pots Pottery in both a new generation and drive into the 21st Century.
“We each have a hand in making this place work,” said Scott, a University of Rhode Island graduate who majored in philosophy.
“So, every time you do something you feel like you are making a difference because you are. I like working somewhere where it matters that I show up and do my job well,” she said.
The legacy of Peter Pots and family tradition stirs her emotions about the business, too, she said.
“It’s so important to families and they all love it and they cherish it. It becomes part of their traditions and their identity. It’s not just some silly consumer product, it’s actually something that people really love and means a lot to them,” Scott said.
“It is mid-century modern, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It feels very at home in this rustic surrounding. I think it captures the style and the feel of the place and it is very much like a South County design, a South County kind of thing,” she said.