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Celebrating the Past, Present & Future

Williamsburg Pottery has humble beginnings

By Rebecca Maloney Moore

Before Wal-Mart, before K-mart and before the litany of other discount chain stores popped up all over the country there was the Williamsburg Pottery Factory.

The Pottery, located in Lightfoot, VA on Rt. 60 is a unique retail experience for shoppers. For almost 70 years customers have come to shop the acres of bargains.

A younger generation of customers have no idea of the humble beginnings of this landmark business.

It all started in the 1938 when James E. Maloney, a potter by trade, sought out a curve in the road.
“Back then potters knew to find a curve in the road to set up their business. It is the best place for cars to see you both ways,” said Jimmie.

He picked this particular curve in the road because of it’s high bank which was good for displaying the ten-cent pottery and because it was in James City County. “We always got our clay from James City County. It is a very fine clay that is good to turn on the potters wheel,” he said.

A photo from the family collection, showing Jimmie Maloney in the early days of the pottery.

A photo from the family collection, showing Jimmie Maloney at the potters wheel on the Monticello Road.

When asked what contributed to his success at business? He would answer, “It’s the luck of the Irish. ” Although he would also say it took a lot of hard work to build a successful business.

Jimmie has always been proud of his of Irish ancestry. He says he comes from good hard working Irish stock. His grandfather and family came to America from Ireland in the mid- nineteenth century. They settled in Avoca, Pennsylvania a small Irish community near Scranton. Jimmie’s folks worked as bakers, morticians, furniture makers and saloonkeepers.

In the early 1900’s word was spread that the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia would offer opportunity for good employment. In fact, Newport News was touted to become the next New York City. So the Maloney family packed up and moved in hopes of a bright future. It was in Newport News that Jimmie was born on 60th street in 1912.

There were many struggles for this young Irish family. Jimmie’s dad worked as a first class machinist at the shipyard and his mother took care of the five children. They lived paycheck-to-paycheck but even in hard times Jimmie recalls having fun growing up. His fondest memories are of playing sports especially basketball with the neighborhood kids.

He also remembers his favorite uncle being generous to him. “Sometimes my uncle Henry who ran the CD Kenny Coffee Company on 28th street would give us a little money to go to the movie. Back then it only cost a nickel to buy a ticket,” he said.

After high school there was not much choice for a career. Many people wanted to become apprentices at the shipyard but there were a 1,000 people on the apprentice waiting list.

Eventually, Jimmie found a place at an establishment called Pine Dell off of Rt 5 in James City County. He worked for his room and board plus six dollars a week.

P. M. Griesenauer was his boss. Jimmie admired Mr. Griesenauer’s work ethic and he learned a lot during his time at Pine Dell. His job was a laboring position. He dug ditches and in the winter trapped for muskrat and possum.

What changed for Jimmie was when Mr. Griesenauer brought in potters from North Carolina to use the kilns that were abandoned when he stopped producing bricks. It is from those potters that Jimmie learned his trade.

Jimmie put in 10-hours of labor during the day but he used his free time to learn how to make pottery. “At night I would walk the two miles up the road with a lantern. There was no electricity. I’d use a kick wheel to make the pots. I made small stuff like ink wells and cheese jars that I sold on Jamestown Road for five-cents a-piece,” said Jimmie.

It wasn’t long after he became a master potter that Marie, Jimmie’s sister, who worked as a nurse in Charlottesville, wrote to say she had a friend that would help him set up business.

So Jimmie went Charlottesville where a well-respected Judge Dabney befriended him. Judge Dabney had property on the winding mountain road that led to Thomas Jefferson’s home. He let Jimmie set up shop on this property and even sent prisoners from the local jail to help build a kiln and a roadside shed. By 1936 Jimmie was selling pots on the road to Monticello

The little boy is Jimmie’s oldest child, Fred. The woman holding him lived in the area and is related to the man who sold Jimmie the half acre. The little boy married the niece of the woman holding him. Photo courtesy Rebecca Maloney Moore.

In Charlottesville Jimmie met his wife Gloria. “There were some girls that would pass by our small pottery shop quite often. They were on their way up the mountain to pick apples. I had one of my workers go tell them that they could make some money working with the pottery. They started work and I had the good sense to pick her (Gloria). She has been number one in helping me,” he said.

Jimmie managed to save a thousand dollars. He was making frequent trips to James City County to get the clay. It was during one of these trips he stopped in Lightfoot and worked a deal with a local farmer to buy half acre of land for $300.

With the rest of his hard earned money he built a building with two rooms in the back for his family, an outhouse, dug a 50-foot well and built a kiln.

Jimmie hauled most of his pottery back to Charlottesville to sell, however, they slowly started selling pottery seconds (pots that has an imperfection) for ten-cents in Lightfoot. “People would come by with pick up trucks and carry stuff back with them to their shop,” said Jimmie.

Still, the catalyst that boosted the business was when a man wanted to buy some pottery but had no room on his truck. His truck was full of dishes he planned to sell up north. To solve the dilemma he left some dishes on the hill and traded for some pottery. Jimmie was surprised when customers looking at the pottery wanted to buy the dishes too.

“The man with the dishes became my friend and he told me where we could get dishes in Ohio. That is what started the retail business,” he said.

Soon Jimmie brought in more family members to help and he hired some of the locals to work. “My dad resigned as civil service worker and came to live with me. He was a great Irishman who loved to tell stories. He took care of the front shop where the people came to buy,” he said.

“Things were rough in those days. We had chickens, ducks, goats, and cows. We raised our own food. People still remember the dirt floors we had in the buildings and how the chickens would get up and break the glass,” said Jimmie.

Those early years of putting long hours of hard work paid off for Jimmie and his family.
The Pottery has evolved over the 70 years in operation. Most of the family members are no longer with the pottery with the exception of Jimmie’s two grandsons, George and Erik Wright.
Gloria died in 1993 and Jimmie died in 2005. Today his second wife, Kim, is carrying on his hard work and his legacy. She knows the passion her husband had for the Pottery. Jimmy would be proud of Kim as she perseveres at growing the business and bringing the Williamsburg Pottery Factory into the future while still maintaining acres of bargains.

So what advice would Jimmie give to someone just starting up a business? “Be good to your customers, know your business well, work hard and save your money,” said Jimmie.

All quotes from Jimmie have come from various taped interviews over the years.

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