Founded more than 202 years ago, Madison County’s oldest continuous business has survived some tough times, including the Civil War and the Great Depression. The 21st century, however, is giving the pottery that served settlers of what was then the frontier its greatest challenge.

In February, the pottery laid off its eight employees and sold its remaining inventory. But, Jimmy Cornelison, who has work more than 30 years saving lives with the Madison County Emergency Medical Service, said he is not going to let the business die without a fight.

Bybee Pottery has been caught in “a vicious circle” over the past three years, Cornelison said. More than 50 retailers around the county that had sold Bybee’s folk-art plates, pots, bowls, mugs and other items have gone out of business.

Part of the sales decline can be attributed to the general downturn in retails sales, he said, but changing tastes of the buying public also has been a factor.

At the same time that demand has fallen steeply, the cost of materials has risen sharply, Cornelison said.

The colors that create the distinctive patterns in Bybee’s pottery come from minerals applied to the potter’s clay. Since Jan. 1, the cost of just those minerals has jumped 40 percent, he said. Other material costs have been rising as well, even as Bybee has not raised prices in more than six years.

Currently, Bybee is neither making nor selling products. When word got out that the pottery was suspending production, the inventory quickly sold out.

“People came in and cleaned us out,” Cornelison said.

The pottery does have some product that has been formed but not fired, he said.

Although he could not go into details, Cornelison appeared to be working feverously on options he hopes will keep the pottery in business.

Even if he is successful, Bybee Pottery probably will never return to the glory days of the early 1980s, he said. That is when then Kentucky first lady Phyllis George Brown promoted Bybee Pottery and other Kentucky folk-art products across the county. They were even featured in a temporary boutique at Bloomingdale’s main department store in Manhattan.

“I got my first paycheck here from my grandfather when I was 11,” Cornelison said. “Bybee Pottery is not going to close if I can possibly help it.”

The loss of Bybee Pottery would be a blow to the Madison County tourism industry, said Lori Murphy-Tatum, executive director of the Richmond Tourism Commission.

There are other potters in the county, and the city’s annual Pottery Festival in September will go on this year, even if Bybee Pottery is not in active production, she said.

“No matter what is happening at Bybee Pottery, I think Jimmy Cornelison would still be at the festival,” Tatum said. “He’d be helping in some fashion.”

If Bybee Pottery does close, it would not be first iconic craft industry in Madison County to cease operation here. Churchill Weavers, a keystone of Berea’s craft industries since the 1920s, was sold in 2007. Its much diminished operations were moved elsewhere.

“If anybody is up to the challenge of keeping Bybee going in its third century,” Tatum said, “it’s Jimmy Cornelison.”

Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson@

richmondregister.com or at 624-6622.

 

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