Back in 1974, when a local teacher asked John Platt to help with a history demonstration for school kids, he didn’t have any particular expertise in 19th-century Indiana pottery.
He was just an art teacher with a master’s in ceramics. But Platt, who taught at Geyer Middle School in those days, did some research and contributed what he could. The kids seemed to enjoy the demonstration, and he did, too.
“The next year, they decided to do it again.” This time, a committee planning the local Bicentennial got involved, and the Johnny Appleseed Festival was born.
Platt is the only one of the original five historic arts demonstrators who still participates. Most of the others – “there was an herb lady, and a wood chip carver,” all of whom started out considerably older than the 75-year-old – have since died.
In the intervening 43 years, he’s come up with his own interpretation of “period pottery” – crocks, pitchers, pie plates and other pieces of decorative but functional kitchenware.
He’s gotten good enough at it that he sometimes finds his pieces for sale in antique shops. It’s tempting to identify himself as their creator, to match his signature to the one scrawled on the bottom of the piece. After all, he jokes, he’s “somewhat of an antique” himself. But he prefers to remain amused and anonymous.
At the Johnny Appleseed Festival, Platt calls himself simply “the country potter,” and that is an apt description. Though he teaches art appreciation at Indiana Tech since retiring from Wayne High School, he lives in southeastern Allen County, making pottery in a small, primitive-looking shed in his backyard. .
THE POTTER'S CRAFT
“This is my den of inequity, so to speak,” Platt says. He moves slowly and carefully, in part because of his arthritic back but also because it’s a crowded space, with three kilns and pottery on every available surface, including the kick wheel he once used to demonstrate pottery-throwing techniques in the days before electricity.
These days his back hurts him too badly to operate the kick wheel. His son and daughter-in-law, both art teachers at Northrop with a pottery business of their own, have taken over demonstration duties at the festival. Platt dresses in his period costume and is available to answer questions.
“He’s 43 years old, and he’s been doing pottery for 43 years,” John Platt III says of John Platt IV, who’s basically the same age as the festival he grew up participating in.
Platt’s Pots are the elder artist’s period pieces; the younger generation, which makes and sells more contemporary pieces, runs a studio called Platt’s Pottery.
Everything the elder Platt makes is designed to be used, including the jugs with the scowling faces sculpted into the finish.
“Those are my ugly jugs,” he says. “Those used to be made in the South.”
The personified grumpy old men cast in clay were supposed to scare kids away from jugs containing potentially harmful substances such as liquor or medicine.
Though Platt’s pots are historical in design, his designs more closely resemble those found in 1800s Pennsylvania than Indiana.
“Indiana potters didn’t decorate very much,” he says. He likes to joke that “by the time they got to Indiana, they were worn out.”
You might guess, given the clay found in most northeastern Indiana soil, that he could dig his material right from the ground. But the clay around here is better suited for making bricks. Platt’s clay, which is an off white, is mined in southeastern Ohio.
The decorative finishes he uses are mineral-based. Cobalt goes on pink, turns brown as it dries and ends up blue after it’s fired in the kiln. This is what he uses on most of his pie plates, pitchers and candlestick holders. Mined in western Africa, it costs $60 a pound. Luckily, he only uses about a tablespoon at a time.
His ugly jugs are decorated in a brown finish he calls Old Bennington, which is a terra cotta iron-based recipe. At one time he also used an albany finish, but these days there is no more albany to be found.
“They mined it out,” he says. “To my knowledge, there is no more in all the world.”
WHAT MAKES A DEMONSTRATOR
In addition to being a longtime demonstrator, Platt has served on the Johnny Appleseed board for many years.
“I only deal with the demonstrators,” he says. “These days I’m lucky if I can get 40 people.”
While many artisans bring old-fashioned crafts to sell, demonstrators show the process involved in making things the way local settlers would have.
“My basketmaker makes baskets; my spoonmaker makes spoons,” he says. This year his broom-maker, from southern Indiana, was selected to represent the state during a “Make America Great” event at the White House.
“Broom-makers,” says Platt, “are few and far between.”
Though he has many memories of the festival, especially given that his family has always been involved, one year in particular stands out.
“It rained so hard it was unbelievable,” he said. “But there were so many people, and so many umbrellas, that you could walk the festival from end to end and not get wet.”