Yesteryears: Benton pottery often found outside state

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published September 29, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 27, 2013 at 2:14 p.m.
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A collection of pots and vases made in Benton between 1909 and 1946 are on display at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock. Created by Charles Hyten and Arthur Dovey, Eagle Pottery’s Niloak Missionware, as the unique pottery was called, used colored clays to create a swirled pattern. The pottery was popular as vases for flowers and other utilitarian uses.

BENTON — Niloak — once it identified Benton like aluminum defined Bauxite. However, many new and younger residents of Benton and Arkansas may never have heard of the pottery that was once a major household item across the country.

You can find it easily on eBay.com, the Internet shopping site. On Wednesday, there were more than 300 pieces available for purchase at the website, priced from just less than $10 to more than $1,000.

“It is not really rare,” said Jo Ellen Maack, curator of the Old State House Museum in downtown Little Rock. “We don’t see it like we used to, but you can walk through any good flea market and find some for sale.”

The museum’s collection has 108 pieces, Maack said. Another collection is gathered at the Gann House Museum in Benton, which has opened and closed several times over the last decade.

The name Niloak comes from kaolin spelled backward. It is a type of fine-grade clay found usually in light colors that was available near Benton and was used in the production of not only Niloak pottery, but is also famous as a main component of porcelain and even has medicinal purposes.

For Niloak, the clay was used to create all types of pottery with a matte finish and was best known for its unique Mission-swirl design, made when streaks of brighter-colored clay were added to a darker clay foundation on the potter’s wheel.

The popular line of pottery was manufactured and on sale beginning in 1910, but it could be older than that. Benton native Charles Dean “Bullet” Hyten and another potter, Arthur Dovey, who was originally from Ohio, are credited with its development. Together they began production of Niloak Missionware at Eagle’s Pottery.

Another potter in Hot Springs, Fred Johnson, claimed he invented the famous swirled design while working with Ouachita Pottery in the Spa City before joining Eagle’s Pottery.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Johnson supported his claim with a 1906 photograph that showed swirl-designed pottery in Ouachita Pottery’s workshop, but the evidence was undercut when it was pointed out that Arthur Dovey was also pictured at the potter’s wheel in the photo.

Whatever its origins, from March 1910 through 1946, the swirl met with great success. The first piece was sold at Bush Drug and Jewelry Company in Benton, and the Niloak Pottery Co. was formed around Hyten and Dovey by Benton businessmen. Eagle’s Pottery continued to make less-decorative ceramics like churns and bowls until 1938, while Niloak expanded its plant on Pearl Street in Benton. The pottery was then shipped all over the country.

The company continued through hard times, only closing up shop for a short time after the end of World War I. By the 1920s, Niloak was selling again. Much of its success during that time may have resulted from a major promotional campaign of all Arkansas products by manufacturing and business associations.

Soon, the company was making

products such as lamps and flower vases, but the Missionware remained a luxury item. New designs that were cheaper to make were manufactured in shapes people could use, such as pitchers and bowls.

The end of Niloak came just after World War II. During the war, much of the pottery made by the company was used by the military for purposes including clay targets for gunnery practice.

“The pottery is still being collected, and it has its followers,” Maack said.

She added that most of the interest in Niloak seems to come from people outside of Arkansas. It is found advertised for sale by pottery and antique dealers from New Hampshire to Minnesota as this part of Benton’s past remains popular.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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