They’re looking for the familiar maple-leaf insignia, or maybe one more cheese crock or mug to add to their collections.
Every day, it seems like the crowds are growing bigger at the tiny Western Stoneware pottery outlet store in Monmouth, Ill., located on U.S. 67 about a 45-minute drive south of the Quad-Cities.
Much like the Isabel Bloom craze in the Quad-Cities, collecting products from the 100-year-old Western Stoneware plant has been a long-held tradition in the Monmouth area. The plant has provided steady jobs and emotional ties for generations.
Now, the era is coming to an end.
Production will end Friday at the plant, where competition from foreign pottery makers has become too much to bear, said co-owner Jim Hutchins of Monmouth, who has owned the plant since 1990 with Steven Schwab of Chicago.
“It’s very sad,” Hutchins said. “We’ve been trying to fight it off, but we’ve just had a steady erosion of business over the past several years, and it’s a result of the imported product. We just can’t compete with it.”
Right now, the plant and outlet store have about 40 employees combined. But in the 1990s, there were between 125 and 130 workers who ran the pottery-making machines and sold the products.
Western Stoneware once was considered one of the largest employers in the Monmouth region, and many people grew to love the plant’s mugs and crocks and other pottery that often came with a maple-leaf insignia, Mayor Rod Davies said.
Local collectors weren’t the biggest customer base for Western Stoneware, though. The company’s Web site shows Western Stoneware has produced ceramic products for Jack Daniel’s, American Dairy Association, General Mills, General Foods, Pet Foods, Philip Morris, H.J. Heinz, Pillsbury, Nestle, McCormick Distilling, Prairie Farm Dairies and Martha Stewart Living, among others.
Western Stoneware also had some contract customers in certain industries that bought liquor jugs, cheese crocks and other pottery geared for various uses.
However, there are fewer smaller regional retailers because of consolidations, and the “great big companies” remaining already outsource many of their products offshore, Hutchins said.
“So it’s easy to outsource house wares, too,” Hutchins said. “Our business was quite good. It started going south in 2001, 2002.”
Knowing what difficult decision was in store for his business, Hutchins said he watched closely as the Quad-City’s Isabel Bloom company announced it would move all production overseas — and then changed its mind two weeks later.
Hutchins doesn’t foresee that kind of turnaround for Western Stoneware, he said.
“I don’t think so, unless a white knight rides in,” Hutchins said.
In the past few weeks since the initial announcement, city officials and economic development leaders have worked furiously to find someone to take over Western Stoneware and retain jobs.
The mayor — a lifelong Monmouth resident — said the city has visited with at least four prospects so far, working with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to pass on information about incentive programs. No one has given a “definite commitment,” the mayor said.
Facing the inevitable, the city finally sent a group of various social service officials to the plant last week, where they counseled employees about relocating.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to keep them or not,” Davies said. “There are a lot of people concerned and asking. It’s unfortunate that just that collector market alone is probably not enough to keep it going, with the really stiff foreign competition that they face.”
Plant manager Dave Bates of Monmouth has worked 10 years at Western Stoneware. He doesn’t know where he’ll go when the plant closes.
“There aren’t that many places to go down here anymore,” he said.
Customers come out of the woodwork
Although production will end, the outlet store will remain open while supplies last, and demand definitely is on the rise.
Lines of people have been filling the outlet store near the corner of U.S. 67 and U.S. 34 in Monmouth, and Hutchins said it’s been difficult keeping the shelves stocked.
“The store isn’t geared up for the kind of traffic we’ve had since we had the announcement,” Hutchins said.
The community’s 100th anniversary celebration of Western Stoneware’s presence in Monmouth — scheduled June 10 — also will continue, despite the company’s closing, Monmouth Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Angela McElwee said.
A committee has been planning the event since last spring, and the announcement about the factory’s closing came as a shock, McElwee said.
In the aftermath, the chamber is selling commemorative license plates honoring Western Stoneware, but it’s too late to buy the commemorative pitcher, mini crock and mini jug designed especially for the 100th anniversary. The chamber has sold out, and the remaining orders will be refunded in full, McElwee said.
“We feel bad for the people losing their jobs, and losing part of our history here in Monmouth,” she said.
Collectors also are mourning the loss, including Monmouth native Lynne Waddell.
The 58-year-old East Moline resident said her parents, Russell Waddell and Bonnie Briggs, met in the 1930s when they both worked at the Monmouth pottery plant. As her mother painted baby buggies and little booties made of pottery, the pair fell in love, Waddell said.
“They had a special little whistle they whistled to each other to let them know they loved each other,” she said.
Waddell grew up with Western Stoneware stories and rare pottery pieces, which she now has in her own home. When she goes to antique sales, she often picks up pottery and looks for Western Stoneware’s maple leaf insignia.
As an Isabel Bloom collector, too, Waddell said her emotions have been on a roller coaster ride over the past few months with the companies’ announcements — especially this one.
“It really saddened me,” she said. “It brought back a lot of memories. You always associated Monmouth with Western Stoneware.”
“I think Western Stoneware at one time had thought about closing and they changed their minds, too,” she said. “But I doubt it this time.”
Kay Luna can be contacted at (563) 383-2323 or email@example.com.
What: The 100th anniversary celebration in honor of Western Stoneware’s tradition in Monmouth
When: Begins at 8 a.m. June 10, with an auction at noon
Where: Downtown Monmouth
Activities/events: The event includes a swap meet and sale, hosted by the Collectors of Illinois Pottery and Stoneware Club; an appraiser’s booth; live pottery demonstrations; antique booths and displays by local pottery artisans. A special auction will include several hundred items from the display rooms at Western Stoneware, including a piece from 1929 and others from the 1940s and on. All items soon will be available for viewing on D. Herb Burns Auction Services Web site at www.topauctions24-7.com/burns.
For more information: Call the Monmouth Area Chamber of Commerce at (309) 734-3181.