Earthenware a Legacy of Oklahoma's First Pottery
by Ron McCoy
Affordable dinnerware and serving pieces, mugs, novelties, memorial
figures, Route 66 items, limited editions, commemoratives, souvenirs--Frankoma Pottery
has served the needs of everyday life since it's beginnings in Norman,
Oklahoma in 1933.This practical earthenware,
known for its terra cotta look and colorful glazing, has gradually
taken its place in the realm of serious collectibles.
John Nathaniel Frank, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and a
ceramics professor at the University of Oklahoma, established the
then-called Frank Potteries in a small studio in his home in Norman. His studio was equipped with only one small kiln, a butter churn for mixing the clay, a fruit jar for grinding glazes and a few other tools.
Using light cream-colored clay discovered in the Arbuckle Mountains near Ada in southern Oklahoma, he began selling his pottery on a part-time basis.
After some initial success with the pottery, he resigned his post at
the university in 1936 and, at the suggestion of his wife Grace Lee, renamed the business Frankoma Potteries,
a combination of his last name and the last three letters of Oklahoma.
At the time, it was the only commercial pottery being produced in
Oklahoma. Along with his wife, he worked full time in his
Norman studio experimenting with glazes and creating vases, decorative
pieces and sculptures.
Even though they attempted to create beautiful things that the average person could afford, the business struggled as pottery wasn't received well in the Depression years.
Enticed by the Chamber of Commerce, they moved the entire operation to Sapulpa, Oklahoma in 1938. They continued to haul clay from Ada, which required a three-day trip. The plant, then named Frankoma Pottery, was constructed in the hills in the northwest area of Sapulpa on land provided by the Chamber. Its popularity increased and, due to its location on Route 66, tourists stopped, shopped for and bought pottery. It grew into a prosperous business and in the mid 1950s, the Franks commissioned world renowned architect Bruce Goff to design their dream house in Sapulpa. It features colorful ceramic brick and tile that John and Grace Lee had themselves designed and created. The house is filled with decades worth of collecting art and travel souvenirs. The home, now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, is opened each September during the annual Frankoma Family Collectors Association Reunion exclusively to members of the Association. It is not open to the public.
The cream-colored raw "Ada" clay remained the basis of the pottery until Frank discovered that the clay in Sugar Loaf Hill near Supulpa worked well for his pieces. In the mid-fifties the company switched to the red-brick colored Sapulpa firing clay which gave the pottery a unique look of older terra cotta. Due to the color changes of the clay the final coloring and vivid glazes of his pieces also changed.
Most Frankoma glazes have names relating to nature. Native American and Western-inspired Frankoma Pottery is most recognizable in the colors of Prairie Green and Desert Gold. Other glazes include: Sky Blue, Autumn Yellow, Black, Brown Satin, Flame, Redbud, Peach Glow, Robin Egg Blue, White Sand, and Woodland Moss. Frank experimented with formulas for his glazes using rutile, a mineral containing titanium dioxide, which allows the color of the clay to partially show through the glaze.
The early wares,
especially those made with Ada clay and marked with a "pacing leopard"
(1936-38), are highly sought by collectors. The limited editions and
all wares with a Southwestern theme are becoming increasingly popular.
Also collectible are the political mugs, bicentennial plates, ceramic
Christmas cards, Teenagers of the Bible plates, and the Wildlife
series. Frankoma has enjoyed increased publicity from exposure on
various television shows, by Martha Stewart's personal
collection, in antique and collectible malls throughout the United
States and on online auctions.The pottery is still affordable and is
both visually pleasing and functional.
Frank died in 1973 and
the Frank family is no longer associated with the business. After two
fires and a bankruptcy, the plant was purchased by a Maryland investor
in the early 1990's who ran the operation for fifteen years.
Frankoma Pottery closed
and shut down its operation on December 31, 2004. Although as a
collectible, Frankoma Pottery is always in demand, the plant struggled
in recent years to increase sales of its new products and was unable to
In August, 2008, Joe Ragosta bought Frankoma from Det and Crystal Merryman who had purchased it in 2005. Ragosta plans to rejuvenate the sometimes struggling factory by streamlining the manufacturing process and cutting down on waste. Basically, he wants to build on the past with updated designs and colors. His purchase includes the factory, showroom, seven acres of property and the Frankoma brand.
One priority in
development is a new collection of Frankoma dinnerware based on a
pattern that John Frank designed over 50 years ago. It will appear on a
plate that is decidedly different with a deeper well that could be used
as a pasta dish or a soup bowl. The new dinnerware will feature a
hand-dripped paint design that will resemble raindrops and will be
Frankoma Pottery issues an annual Christmas plate. As in years past,
the mold for the plate is destroyed each year on Dec. 23 to ensure a limited
production.This is a 41-year tradition at Frankoma.
Although not a limited edition, Frankoma issued a 2007 Oklahoma Centennial plate, the first collector’s edition plate the plant has produced in 15 years. The plates, designed by Native American artist Murv Jacob, are glazed in three signature colors --- desert gold, walnut brown, and prairie green --- and are signed and numbered. The design depicts two scissor-tail flycatchers, captured in flight around branches of the state tree, the Redbud. It also displays the dates of 1907 & 2007. Production of the plates ceased at the end of 2007.
In recent years, the company has tried to broaden the appeal of the pottery line through promotions with Paula Dean on the Food Network, and Frankoma has been featured on "The Price is Right." Ragosta will add museum space to provide a place for collectors to display some of their prized Frankoma pieces.
The Frankoma Gift Store at the plant is open and daily plant tours are conducted.
The Frankoma Family
Collectors Association meets each September in Sapulpa. There are more
than 1,000 association members in 44 states. The nonprofit group is an
educational and social organization dedicated to the appreciation,
preservation and promotion of Frankoma Pottery as a collectible.
UPDATE: June 1, 2011
A bit of Oklahoma history is now gone. Frankoma Pottery, a Route 66 business icon in Sapulpa, OK, was closed for over a year and then went on the auction block on May 18, 2011. Over a thousand pieces of pottery plus showroom fixtures and equipment were sold. The 1,800 original moulds and the Frankoma name were not included in the sale. The real estate also was not part of the auction.
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