Manatee River Pottery: A 1920s Florida Souvenir

Special to the HeraldJune 24, 2014 

When most of us think of Florida souvenirs, we think of the "snow globe" filled with water and sand, labeled "Florida Snowman."

We think hats, T-shirts and shot glasses labeled with some witty saying like "No shirt, no shoes, no problem," or those trademarked characters we all know and love (or loathe, depending upon your stance).

However, long before a talking mouse, a young wizard or screaming roller coasters lured the masses to the Sunshine State, visitors came for rest and respite among the unspoiled beauty of a landscape all but forgotten.

The first big waves of tourism lapped at Florida's borders in the 1890s. Most early tourists were wealthy Northerners arriving by rail at luxe hotels to see and be seen. Popular souvenirs of the time were silver spoons, carved walking sticks and hand-painted china, each decorated with images of posh resorts or of exotic landscapes with palm trees, alligators and birds to name a few.

They were the material culture of tourism -- a way to say: "Look where I got to go and you didn't!"

The second influx of tourism came at the end of World War I as the nation was enjoying post-war prosperity.

With the mass production of the Model T, folks known as Tin Can Tourists packed up the family, some nonperishable goods (hence the "tin can" moniker), extra cans of gasoline (there wasn't always a gas station conveniently located), and hit the road to find adventure.

They would come for the weather, the beaches, roadside attractions and to look for land to invest in. Tin Can Tourists were fond of Bradenton and, as with those who came before, they had an appetite for souvenirs of where they had been.

In 1914, Mary Ward, a fiery red-headed divorcee, had moved to Bradentown near the corner of Manatee Avenue and 26th to search for clay to work. What she found on the banks of the Manatee River was a vari

ety of blue clay which, when fired, turned a soft peach hue. The product was fired in a kerosene kiln, which never became hot enough to cure a glaze.

What the pottery lacked in function, it made up for in appearance, which meant it lent itself perfectly to rendering souvenir pieces. Vases were waterproofed by applying a varnish to the interior. With her children's feet to process the clay by pushing it through a screen, one electric potter's wheel, a few other wheels operated by foot pumps and several other local women, Mary would create one of the first souvenirs of Bradentown -- Manatee River Pottery.

Local artists would paint scenes depicting bodies of water and the local flora and fauna on the pieces. Fantastical peacocks and Spanish dancers would also make an appearance. Upon inspection the decorations are really quite beautiful and some have a rustic quality to them that makes them all the more endearing.

The original artists were locals. Some names found on the pieces are Bob Elliot, Mildred Bollinger, Frances Riggin and most notably Carrie Phillips. It is observed later in the history of the Manatee River Pottery there came a "real" artist from England -- a Mr. Ireland -- also, Henry Graack and his son, Henry Graack Jr., from Denmark by way of New York.

"Real" artist or amateur, these collectible pieces are truly works of art.

A showroom downtown

As the pieces grew in popularity, Mrs. Ward found local investors who helped support the opening of a showroom downtown on the corner of Main Street and Fourth. The showroom grew to include all sorts of Florida souvenirs such as hand-woven palmetto fans, dolls, pine-needle baskets, brushes fashioned from palmetto roots and candied grapefruit rind -- a popular novelty of the time.

In 1921, Mary sold her interest in the pottery to Mr. Graack Sr., and moved first to Orlando and then to St. Petersburg where she continued to create pottery.

The Graacks changed the name of the operation to Graack Pottery and tried for a time to market nationally through the Manufacturing Jewelers Export Co. of New York. However, in 1924, the Graacks left town and closed the establishment for good.

Reflecting on tourism, Mary Ward, local artists and the Manatee River Pottery that was our first local souvenir, a person can't help but think of how the local arts and cultural scene has been instrumental in the recent cultural revitalization of Bradenton. It was a beautiful thing then and it's become an even more beautiful thing now.

If you'd like to view a portion of our unique collection of Manatee River/Ward-Graack Pottery and reflect on the past, we welcome you to visit Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E. Admission is free. Call Manatee Village Historical Park, 941-741-4076 for details.

Phaedra Rehorn, who has a love of local history and architecture, literally learns something new about it every day. She is supervisor and curator of collections of Manatee Village Historical Park.

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