Over 60 years ago, Blue Mountain’s future turned on the potter’s wheel. By Ned Morgan.
Many a yard-sale table has groaned under the weight of bluegreen-hued Blue Mountain Pottery. Perhaps due to over-familiarity, BMP’s reputation suffered locally for many years. Yet since the factory closed in 2005 – a victim of cheap imports and a higher Canadian dollar – BMP has experienced a rebirth. It’s collected around the world, the most prized set capable of fetching thousands at auction. It’s on display at the Royal Ontario and Gardiner Museums, and featured on a Canadian postage stamp.
With raw-material clay dug from Ontario’s Blue Mountain slopes and later from the Shelburne region, BMP was a “100-Mile” industry long before the concept came into vogue. The pottery and Ontario’s largest ski resort were closely connected. In fact, BMP rescued Blue Mountain Resort from financial trouble in the 1950s.
Blue Mountain Vice-Chairman George Weider says the resort his father Jozo Weider founded in 1941 began to flounder a decade later. “We did not have snowmaking in the 1950s and the business struggled. The pottery played a key role in our financial survival.”
An accidental discovery led to the creation of the first pottery in 1953. “We were expanding the mountain aggressively all the time,” says Weider. “Usually there was a trail being bulldozed.” Workers constantly turned up clay and a refugee from Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia named Dennis Tupy – working as a dishwasher at the resort – commented that it looked like the clay he used to make pottery back in the old country. Jozo Weider stood within earshot. “A lot of people would have just let that go by,” says George Weider, “but Jozo was always an opportunist, an entrepreneur, tremendously creative… so he jumped on the idea.” Fortuitously, Tupy was a talented mould maker who held a diploma from a renowned Czech ceramics institute. Weider and Tupy wasted no time building kilns and beginning production: mainly bowls, vases, jugs and ornamentals including stylized swans, horses and deer. The early work used a “flow glaze” technique, the bluegreen shade reportedly an attempt to mimic the colour of Blue Mountain in the summer months.
BMP was a “100-Mile” industry long before the concept came into vogue
This glaze became the signature, though early glazes also included plum, blue and rainbow. George Weider worked in the pottery as a teenager in the 1950s. “When we put pottery under high heat and used drip glazes, they produced a variegated pattern. No batch was entirely the same because they reacted differently. The items had an individuality about them. That was part of the charm. You were really buying a piece of Blue Mountain.”
The production outgrew its original facility in the basement of the Ski Barn (a multi-use building that served as an apple storage, lodge and ski shop) and relocated to a building in Craigleith on Highway 26, then later to a factory in Collingwood.
In 1965, Jozo sold the company to finance expansion of the resort. George Weider underlines the wisdom behind this move. “The resort business was the one to keep. The resort produced an experience rather than a product. And it’s not so easy to break into the resort business whereas in China or anywhere you can produce cheap ceramics.” Weider also cites the difficulty of obtaining local clay today due to Niagara Escarpment Commission regulations and lead pollution as further reasons why it’s just as well his father sold the business.
BMP continued production under various owners for 40 more years. In addition to the 1950s staples moulded by Dennis Tupy, the company segued into dinnerware and lamps and expanded its menagerie of Canadian animal figurines while applying mocha, slate, gold, red and other glazes. The late ‘60s saw studio lines such as the large vases hand-thrown on a wheel by award-winning Italian designer Dominic Stanzione and a matte-glazed Noah’s Ark Collection including an orangutan, rhinoceros, fish, tiger, owl and Noah himself, all in an eccentric, fine-lined style recalling Mayan sculpture. A complete Collection (13 figures on wooden stands plus the wooden ark) is surely BMP’s chef-d’œuvre.
Blue Mountain Pottery is collected around the world, and ceramics-obsessed UK is a hotspot. Lincolnshire-based collector Alan Crofts obtained his large collection from eBay and also finds items at antique fairs. Crofts launched a BMP in the UK web site, he says, “with a view to helping other collectors to identify and differentiate between true pieces of BMP and other Canadian potteries.
“I’ve watched the value of BMP climb steadily over the last few years,” Crofts adds. Next time you see that yard sale table crowded with BMP, it wouldn’t hurt to examine it carefully. Some of those little pieces of Blue Mountain might fetch enough at auction to buy yourself a season pass.
Check out the Blue Mountain Pottery Collectors Club.