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200-year-old business could bite the dust

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By Don White

Living in a down economy isn’t having much effect on Harvey Conner. He still has a job – the same one he’s had for 44 years.

And he has enough money to go out in search of some of the products he has manufactured since he was a teenager.

“The other day, over in Nicholasville, I found a piece I made in the early 1980s and only had to give $1.25 for it,” says the 63-year-old Madison County native.

His employer, Bybee Pottery, has been in business in the tiny community of Waco since 1809.

Not much has changed in the 200 years since Webster Cornelison founded the enterprise that is now in its fifth generation of family ownership.

Unlike Harvey, who seems to enjoy talking almost as much as turning out beautiful pieces of pottery, Buzz Cornelison, 60, is a man of few words.

He runs the place now, along with his brother, Jimmy, with occasional help from their sister, Paula Gabbard.

Jimmy also serves as coroner for Madison County, and Buzz was once a member of the Kentucky-based band Exile. As the keyboard player, his talents are highlighted on the group’s No. 1-hit from 1978, “Kiss You All Over.”

He’s still keyboarding, only now it’s the one attached to his office computer. It looks very much out of place in the two-century-old, rambling wooden structure that is the workplace for only two other employees besides Conner and family members.

Near the computer hang framed portraits of great-great-great grandfather Webster and each succeeding generation of Cornelisons.

The oldest surviving Cornelison is Buzz’s dad, Walter, 80, who was a master at running the pottery wheel before suffering a stroke nearly two years ago.

Former Kentucky First Lady Phyllis George Brown was instrumental in making Bybee a name with world-wide recognition as part of her promotion of crafts produced in Kentucky.

The product can still be found around the globe, as attested to by the visitors to the unique shop about eight miles east of Richmond just off Ky. 52.

“We get people from all over,” says Conner, as he shows a visitor the process of adding color to a bowl. “Just this morning, there was a lady in here from London, England.”

Visitors who don’t mind getting a little dirty from clay dust that coats the floors, walls, and shelves are welcome to tour the entire operation. It is open weekdays only from 8 a.m. until noon and 12:30 until 3 p.m.

A less hectic and, no doubt, cleaner place to buy the merchandise is Little Bit of Bybee, a shop in the Louisville suburb of Middletown operated by a cousin of the family, Ron Stambaugh.

Besides a tour and an opportunity to buy the products at a cheaper price in Waco, visitors can also get a history lesson from employees and from sheets provided free to the public.

They learn that the clay being used is found in ample deposits on a farm about three miles from the shop. It is open-pit mined from several feet beneath the rich topsoil.

Documents have been found revealing this is the same clay mined by the first settlers of Kentucky, then taken to nearby Fort Boonesborough to be used for making crude dishes.

The clay, mixed with water, is ground in an old plug mill and stored in an ancient vault where it is kept moist and pliable.

It is weighed on old balances to secure uniformity, then thrown by the potter and shaped into the desired form.

Each piece is allowed to dry completely, then it is glazed and fired in a kiln heated to 2,200 degrees.

Emerging from the kiln, the clay, now a finished piece of pottery, is ready for sale.

This story has been told thousands of times over the years, but there is speculation the final chapter of Cornelison-family involvement may be coming to an end soon.

The next generation, which consists of three granddaughters, two of them teens and the other an attorney, aren’t inclined to continue the business.

Closing would be sad for many, but maybe not so much for Harvey Conner.

He would have more time to search for his handiwork.

 

Don White has served as editor at several newspapers in Kentucky. His Kentucky Traveler features are published throughout the state. E-mail him at: dwhite@thekytraveler.com