Six generations pour soul into Kentucky pottery
Waco, Ky. — Mustard-yellow clay dust covers the walls, the low walnut beams and the dirt floor at Bybee Pottery, where six generations of the Cornelison family have been turning, glazing and firing stoneware since the early 1800s.
Despite the constant motion of production, visitors are welcome to walk around the oldest continually run pottery operation west of the Allegheny Mountains. It could be a living history museum if it weren’t dedicated to the pottery business. And the time to see it is now: Though nothing is set in stoneware, the pottery’s long run may be coming to an end. The family’s younger generations aren’t interested in taking over the operation.
Bybee’s eight workers do everything from mixing local clay to shaping and molding it into vessels, then glazing and marking them before firing. Bybee makes about 3,000 or more pieces each week in this building that dates to 1809, and it’s a fascinating process to watch.
Visitors are encouraged to take their time and learn about the work from Cornelison family members and longtime employees who are constantly turning clay into cash.
Buzz Cornelison, unofficial historian for the Kentucky branch of the family, explains the operation that makes colorful crude stoneware in more than 100 shapes and sizes: ‘It’s something my grandfather used to say, ‘Buzz, we’ve got to sell it. Unlike a farmer, we can’t eat our product.’ “
That yellow clay also covers the hands, hair and eyeglasses of patriarch Walter Cornelison, Buzz’s father, as he bends over the pottery wheel, where he has spent nearly 60 years shaping lumps of clay into Bybee ware.
Like all family members and employees, he learned the craft on the job.
“Nobody teaches you — my father offered constructive criticism,” joked Walter Cornelison. “If they didn’t like the piece, they tore it off the wheel. It takes patience and dexterity.”
At 78, Walter Cornelison makes the largest stoneware pieces with ease and enjoys his craft. Is he ready to retire? “I see no reason to quit now,” he said.