BYBEE — You can buy more elegant dishes, more perfectly shaped dishes and certainly more expensive dishes. But only here can you buy stoneware that has been made by the same family in the same log shed and in about the same way since 1809.
Bybee Pottery is the last of perhaps 50 small potteries that sprang up during Kentucky’s pioneer days near the rich clay deposits of southern Madison County. Yet, as the Cornelison family celebrates its business’s bicentennial, family members fight persistent rumors that it is closing — and they wonder how much longer it can survive.
“All my life, there has been the annual going-out-of-business rumor,” said Buzz Cornelison, 60, who with his brother and sister represent the sixth or seventh generation to run the business, depending on who’s counting. “All my life, we have laughed about it. But in the last few years it has become more acute.”
Bybee Pottery faced its first big threat during the Civil War, when Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s raiders burned many potteries in the area because of their owners’ Union sympathies. Cornelison family legend has it that Bybee was spared because it employed an immigrant potter known for his outspoken support of the South.
In the early 1900s, as demand for utilitarian crocks and churns diminished, most of the remaining potteries went under. But the Cornelisons adapted, shifting their production to tableware glazed with bright, custom-made colors that are now a company trademark.
Most Cornelisons over the years weren’t potters; they hired potters. That was until Buzz’s father, Walter Lee Cornelison, took over the business and spent decades at the wheel, producing hundreds of thousands of pieces now prized for their quality.
“My great-grandfather made a kick wheel for my father when he was a little boy, and he said he had his own corner … his own clay,” Buzz Cornelison said. “Every once in a while, somebody would walk by and say, ‘Try it this way’ and show him something. That’s the way he learned to throw.”
Business got a boost when Phyllis George, a sportscaster and former Miss America from Texas who married John Y. Brown Jr., became Kentucky’s first lady in 1979. She made the international promotion of Kentucky crafts her personal mission. She even persuaded Bloomingdale’s department store in New York to set up a boutique to sell them.
Bybee was a big beneficiary of her efforts. For the next two decades, people would line up outside Bybee’s rustic workshop off Ky. 52 at 8 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, waiting for a new batch to be pulled from the big kiln.
Business has slowed with the economy, and Kentucky crafts aren’t as popular as they once were. Perhaps Bybee Pottery’s biggest blow came in November 2007, when Walter Cornelison suffered a stroke. Although he recovered, Cornelison, who turned 80 this month, can no longer make pottery that meets his exacting standards.
Now the wheel is manned by Buzz Cornelison’s brother, Jim, who also works as Madison County’s coroner; and by Harvey Conner, who started working here 44 years ago when he graduated from high school. The Cornelisons’ sister, Paula Gabbard, and two longtime employees, Brenda Cole and Rick Hall, help with other chores.
“We have had generations of families work here, and not just ourselves,” Buzz Cornelison said. “Most of the people we have hired over the years are neighbors.”
A Cornelison cousin, Ron Stambaugh, owns Little Bit of Bybee, which sells the pottery and some of his own pieces at a shop in the Louisville suburb of Middletown.
Without Walter Cornelison’s prolific work, the shop has cut back from three kiln-loads a week to two. On a recent Wednesday, the Cornelison brothers and Conner finished the hourlong process of unloading the kiln as the sun rose and the bells of Bybee United Methodist Church chimed 8 o’clock. The shop door was unlocked, but nobody was waiting outside.
Still, business isn’t bad. A handful of customers wanders in each day from all over the country to see the pottery being made and to stock up on colorful pitchers, pie plates, mugs and bowls.
“I have a cousin who put me on to Bybee Pottery; she has a whole kitchen full of it,” said Paula Dodd of Crane Hill, Ala., who stopped by while driving through Kentucky with her husband, Ed. The Dodds bought two big boxes full of pieces for their 36-year-old twin daughters. “The whole family has a lot of this stuff,” he said.
Visitors walk through the shop, past the kiln and groaning shelves of cups and bowls waiting to be fired, until they get back to the log workshop, where Conner is at the wheel. Everything is covered with a thick layer of yellow clay dust, including the floor, which has gained a few inches over the past two centuries. Tall people must frequently duck to avoid hitting the log beams that hold up the ceiling.
Conner, a skilled potter, seems to enjoy explaining the process as much as doing it. “I’d like to have a dime for every piece I’ve made since I’ve been here,” he tells a visiting couple from Louisville. “I’d retire.”
An electric motor turns the potter’s wheel, and the kiln is fired by natural gas. Clay is dug from a nearby farm with a bulldozer and backhoe. After removal of the 100 tons of clay that the pottery will use in a year, the hole is filled in and marked for the next year’s dig.
Otherwise, Bybee Pottery’s methods have changed little.
Fresh clay is run through a pug mill, which is like a big sausage grinder, to remove any pebbles or impurities. It is then formed into “logs” and stacked in burlap in a stone cellar. The only thing ever added to the clay is a little water.
After each piece is formed on the potter’s wheel, it is dried, painted with colorful glaze and fired for 16 hours in the kiln, which reaches 2,200 degrees. After cooling for 24 hours, pieces are unloaded from the kiln onto the shop’s shelves. Prices here are lower than at other Kentucky shops that sell Bybee Pottery.
Buzz Cornelison doesn’t know what the future holds for his family’s business. “There is no next generation for us to take over, unless things change,” he said.
But then, Cornelison wouldn’t necessarily have seen himself here a few years ago. An accomplished musician, he was a keyboard player with the local rock band Exile, which scored a No. 1 hit in 1978 with Kiss You All Over.
After 18 years on the road with Exile, he returned to the pottery shop where he had worked as a boy, and in his spare time, he earned a master’s degree in English literature from nearby Eastern Kentucky University. He remains active in local theater.
“There is a next gener ation,” Cornelison said. “One’s a lawyer in Chicago, and she’s not about to come back. And the other two are girls who are in high school now. They haven’t focused on what they’re going to do, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest from them (in running the pottery). And I don’t blame them.”
But don’t say bye-bye to Bybee Pottery just yet. The Cornelisons beat the normal odds of family business survival several generations ago. Their little shop seems to have luck — or at least inertia — on its side.
“As it stands right now, at this point in time, we have no plans to close,” Buzz Cornelison said. “I hope that doesn’t change.”