Stan Wahl of Pierre was driving by the site of the new Beck Motor Co. facility at the intersection of Fourth and Garfield one day when the new dealership was still under construction and saw something that made his eyes grow large – a vein of pure clay that had been exposed by the earth-moving equipment.
Scouting for good quality clay is all in a day’s work for a man whose retirement hobby has grown into a business.
The Becks were good enough to give him as much as he wanted, and that has kept Stan, of Stan Wahl Pottery, equipped for now with enough material to go on crafting his wares as he closes in on a milestone – his 3,000th pot. His pots sell for as little as $25 or as much as $300.
“Probably the most popular ones have been in the $25 to $50 range,” Wahl said.
But Stan Wahl Pottery is probably different from any other pottery company you’ll meet in that it’s distinctly low-budget and no-frills.
“My wheel is the bottom of a spice rack. I bought it at Walmart for $3.48,” says Wahl.
And his kiln?
That’s part of a 55-gallon barrel loaded with 30 pounds of charcoal.
But out of this low-overhead operation Wahl, who retired from Riggs High School in 1996 after a career as a business teacher, gets pots that are distinctly beautiful. That’s why his colleagues while he was still at Riggs urged him to start selling them.
Craft of the Ancient Ones, and the Arikara
Wahl said his interest in pottery began in 1994 after he visited a museum at Mesa Verde National Park and learned how the people known as the Anasazi made their pottery.
“I made up my mind that when I got back to Pierre, I was going to try that,” Wahl said.
But the Anasazi – a Navajo word for an earlier people group that is often translated as “the ancient ones” – were not Wahl’s only influence. When he started making pottery in 1995, he also studied the Arikara, the tribe that had villages along the Missouri in what is now South Dakota before Europeans arrived.
Wahl, whose own roots are German, has always been fascinated with how American Indians adapted to their environment.
Though he’s guessing at some of the techniques, he’s deliberately aiming at Arikara style in some aspects of his pottery.
He uses local Pierre clay. Each pot is hand coiled with a rope of clay. He gets the beautiful black and brown color by throwing horse manure on the hot coals, which creates smoke that blackens the pottery. He also uses crushed granite mixed with clay.
He’s cooked with his pots just to see how well they work.
He makes pots with a flat bottom and pots with a conical point to them – and that experience has taught him something about why Native Americans made pots with a point. The design distributes the heat evenly up the sides of the pot better than a flat-bottomed design.
But some things elude him. Stan Wahl is convinced that the Arikara had a better process than he has come up with because he has fragments of Native American pottery that are presumably very old, yet still in good shape. He doubts his own pots would weather the ages so well.
Wahl also paints designs on his pots, something not every tribe did. For the paint he uses clays of various colors – many of them supplied by friends and relatives from different states. He has experimented with clays from Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas and elsewhere – quite a lot from South Dakota. The painted-on designs take on new colors once the pots have been fired.
“There’s clay all over,” says Wahl, who notes that it’s also possible to make pots out of gumbo, though the material is very difficult to work with.
Wahl said his business background has come in handy once he launched Stan Wahl Pottery in his retirement.
“I do love to sell. That’s kind of a natural,” Wahl said. “If I wanted to push it, I could sell more.”
For more information about Stan Wahl Pottery, contact Stan at 106 W. Fifth St., Pierre SD 57501. Or call him at 605-224-4263.