John and Agnes Almquist’s high-fired stoneware takes many forms including urns, vases, candlesticks and birdhouses. Wood firing and exclusive glazes create one-of-a-kind effects. Photo by Laurelle Walsh

John and Agnes Almquist’s high-fired stoneware takes many forms including urns, vases, candlesticks and birdhouses. Wood firing and exclusive glazes create one-of-a-kind effects. Photo by Laurelle Walsh

Owners will continue throwing pots

 

By Laurelle Walsh

Agnes and John Almquist have built a business and a life in the Methow Valley by producing and selling their own line of traditional American folk pottery, practicing the art that first brought them together on the opposite side of the United States four decades ago.

Their artisan shop – Almquists’ Old Time Pottery – has long been a destination stop for visitors to Winthrop, and, if comments on the Almquist Pottery Facebook page are to be trusted, families across the country have been actively collecting sets and pieces of their signature red stoneware for several generations.

But, to the sorrow of many loyal customers, the little shop on Riverside Avenue will be closing on Jan. 5.

“It’s for our physical well being,” said Agnes, referring to the demanding work involved in running a production pottery business.

“We need to cut back,” said John. “Forty years is enough.”

However, they emphasize, they will not be giving up pottery, just the store. “We will continue making pots. This is just a new chapter for us,” said Agnes.

While acknowledging that they don’t have a definite plan for future sales of their work, the Almquists say they are considering marketing their wares at farmers markets or selling wholesale, “but doing as little shipping as possible.” They may also invite people to kiln openings at their Castle Avenue studio after they fire batches of pots in the wood-fired kiln, John said.

 

The ware

Since the beginning, the Almquists have used red stoneware clay to create hand-turned plates, cups, bowls, crocks and pitchers following the Southern tradition of “utilitarian, functional and practical” ware, they say.

For many years, “before our joints gave out,” they laboriously mixed their own clay to better control the consistency, John said. Twenty-four tons of dry clay would last them around two years, he estimates.

Now the clay comes pre-mixed from a supplier, but they still prepare their exclusive glazes by hand, mixing mineral oxides, brown glass frit, Mt. Saint Helens ash and powdery white Nespelem silt to achieve their trademark brown-speckled buckwheat, blue, green or white finishes.

In order to offer an affordable line of pottery, their regular production ware – “our standard product” – is made in quantity and fired in an electric kiln. Each piece is hand-painted by John with motifs such as flowers, pine cones or birds. “We can match our dinner plates today with those we made 15 years ago,” said Agnes.

To create pieces with more unique character, two to four times a year the Almquists load the wood-fired kiln behind their studio with large vases, platters, urns and birdhouses, which, after firing at high heat, emerge with one-of-a-kind oxidized finishes. John built the modified groundhog kiln using bricks that came from the boiler of Twisp’s old Wagner Mill.

 

The origins

In 1973, 25-year-old John Almquist made the journey from Tacoma to rural North Carolina to begin a pottery apprenticeship at Moore County’s historic Jugtown Pottery. There he met 19-year-old Agnes Chabot of Wilton, N.H., Jugtown’s other apprentice that year.

“It’s the oldest continuous pottery producing area in the United States,” owing to its naturally occurring local clays, a place where shard piles dating from the 1600s and even more ancient Native American artifacts have been found, according to John.

Agnes had gotten her start in pottery thanks to a teacher, Isobel Karl, at the High Mowing Waldorf School where she went to high school. John’s introduction to pottery came at Tacoma Community College and Central Washington University.

They apprenticed at Jugtown for one year, married, and moved to the Methow Valley where they started Almquists’ Old Time Pottery with John’s brother Frank, and his wife, Donna, in 1974. They later returned to Jugtown for a second stint when their daughter Sara had just turned 3.

They opened the store in its current location with partners Nancy and Rhys Court in 1975. “We’ve had the same landlord [John Lester] all these years,” said Agnes. She credits their many employees over the years with helping them build the business. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

“We’ve never had to do anything else,” remarked John, gratified that they were able to raise two children in Winthrop while doing what they loved.

These days their grandchildren get off the school bus in front of their home – a remodeled apple pickers’ shed dating from 1949 – to create the next generation of pots in the Almquists’ studio.

All items at Almquists’ Old Time Pottery, at 235 Riverside Ave. in Winthrop, will be on sale from Thanksgiving to closing day, Jan. 5. The store is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Orders may also be placed by messaging them on their Facebook page, Almquist Pottery.

 

Customer comment

A sampling of commentary on the Almquists’ Facebook page:

• Kathy Crase: “I raised my family on a set of your dishes that I purchased in about 1985. Never have tired of them and we are all amazed at how they survived! Love them just as much now as I did almost 30 years ago.”

• Shelly Boekenoogen: “We have a 31-year family tradition of skiing in the Methow Valley each winter, and part of that tradition has been adding to our pottery collection each year. Our family has somewhere around 125 pieces that we’ve collected over the years. Our now-grown children are also adding to their own collections.”

• Tracey Hirt: “We have been collecting your pottery for the entire 14 years of our marriage.”

• Joan Miller: “My husband and I have been married for 30 years, so for the 30 years of bliss we have been collecting Almquist pottery.”