Antiques dealer and Kirkpatrick Pottery collector Mike Isom said that in his business travels throughout the state, his hometown is recognized most for the hunting and fishing in its surrounding country.
“No one thinks of art,” Isom said of Anna.
Yet a quick scan on the Internet will show Kirkpatrick pottery pieces — handmade in Anna in an almost 50-year period throughout the last half of the 1800s — listed at anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
“Anna was the home of the two best artists to ever throw stoneware,” Isom said.
Kirkpatrick Pottery was the result of the imagination and business acumen of two brothers from Ohio, Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick.
The family had established pottery businesses in Ohio and Kentucky, but in 1857, Cornwall decided to move to Mounds City, which at the time, appeared to be the next big boom town in Illinois.
However, that boom never materialized and Cornwall went bust. In 1859, he moved to Anna and opened a pottery with his brother Wallace, this time to greater results.
C and W Kirpatrick Pottery, as the business was called, mainly marketed their product in a 100-mile radius, Isom said. Their facility was located in downtown Anna and its proximity to an Illinois Central Railroad depot opened up markets as far away as St. Louis, Chicago, New York and even the deep South.
Isom said most recent Kirkpatrick Pottery finds have actually been on the East Coast, with very little found in Southern Illinois.
In this century, the Kirkpatrick brothers are known for their whimsical folk-art pieces, such as pig flasks and snake jugs, but Isom said their bread and butter were items for day-to-day utility: drain tiles, firebrick, yard pots, tombstones and tobacco pipes.
“They made 2,000 to 4,000 tobacco pipes on a daily basis,” Isom said.
“They had a customer in St. Louis who would purchase a couple million tobacco bowls on an annual basis. They might have had a pipe-making process running 24-7,” he said.
But it wasn’t the day-to-day items by which the Kirkpatrick brothers would find lasting fame — it was their unique pieces that collectors would go crazy over.
That creativity could have been the result of the divergent personality of the two brothers, Isom said.
Cornwall was a trained bookkeeper with a head for business. He also was the mayor of Anna for three terms.
Wallace, on the other hand, was a hunter, fisherman and snake trapper.
Wallace was the brother who would travel to fairs to sell and promote the pottery with carnival barker flair, Isom said.
The brothers were both very much involved in the temperance movement, which is reflected in the themes of many of their pieces. However, their relationship with drink was very complicated.
Although they were members of local temperance societies, Isom said some of the Kirkpatrick’s best customers were taverns.
Their pig bottles, some of the most popular collectibles today, were whiskey flasks. Many appear to be calling cards or souvenirs for bars or distributors.
“They made thousands of whiskey jugs,” Isom said.
Another famous Kirkpatrick pottery piece is what is now referred to as the snake jug — containers for whiskey that had messages of temperance written on the outside.
“I guess you could say the snakes are metaphorically whiskey, devouring everything that’s hopeful or everything that’s nice,” Isom said.
When the jugs burst on the antique scene decades ago, Isom said, collectors saw them as passionate pro-temperance statements. But because they had connections with the liquor industry, Isom is not so sure the brothers were as anti-drink as perceived.
“As you look at some of these items — the satirical, over-the-top nature of some of them, the whimsy and the craziness of some of the items they made, another school of thought comes into play,” Isom said. “Were (the Kirkpatricks) making fun of the uptight, staunch temperance movement? And we don’t know.”
The brothers’ art was unique.
“Southern potters, Eastern potters made beautiful stoneware … aesthetically balanced,” Isom said. “Nobody did what the Anna potters did.”
On Twitter: @BrentStewartSI