The Freystown Dig: A Detective Story
Image 1 The Freystown Pottery

The Freystown Dig: A Detective Story

"It was a detective story. The purpose of the dig was to determine what type of ware Johann George Pfaltzgraff made. Because early redware products are rarely signed by their maker, and since we had no stoneware that could be positively attributed to Johann George, this nagging question presented a significant gap in our historical information. (Also) our early data on the Pfaltzgraffs was slim, compounded by the loss of early business records in the 1906 (Belvidere factory) fire." Polly Stetler, Pfaltzgraff Historian.

In 1989, The Pfaltzgraff Co. sponsored and mounted "Pfaltzgraff: America's Potter," a comprehensive exhibit covering the company's history and products. Opened in October of that year at The Historical Society of York County, the exhibit, and its accompanying book of the same title, caused the company to examine its evolution in the American pottery-making industry in greater detail than it had previously. The Pfaltzgraff story, for both the book and the exhibit, was the result of the combined efforts of Polly Stetler and David Walsh, Pfaltzgraff designer.

The search for Johann George's early products began with York County Tax records, city and county directories, maps, and old deeds registered at the courthouse. The hope was that if an early Pfaltzgraff pottery site could be identified, perhaps an archaeological dig would be permitted by the present-day owners of the property. Johann George's second pottery location, in the Freystown area of York County (PA), soon emerged as the most likely site for this dig.

An 1843 transaction recorded Johann George Pfaltzgraff selling a parcel of land in the small hamlet of Freystown, just east of York, to the Susquehanna and York Borough Turnpike Road Company. Further research revealed that Johann George actually owned several plots along the turnpike, and had been in Freystown since 1839. Circa 1848 he sold his remaining sites, including the pottery, to two of his sisters and their husbands, recently arrived from Germany. An 1860 map of Freystown clearly plots the pottery, three lots west of the Turnpike's tollgate. The adjacent home belonged to "H. Miller," potter son of Johann George's sister.

Following the "deed trail" forward in time, two lots emerged as the likely spots for the dig. One of the current owners was very cooperative, and so the company looked for professionals to search for artifacts on the property. Dr. June Evans, an archaeologist at Millersville University near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, happened to be conducting surveys of old industrial sites in the state. Dr. Evans was very interested and agreed to conduct the dig, using student and York Historical Society volunteers. A date was set.

But there was other research to be done. As is so often the case, one of the persons most invested in the project could not be there to witness its success. Polly Stetler was also conducting research into the Pfaltzgraffs' roots in Germany.

"I left for Germany on the evening of May 25, 1989," said Stetler. "The dig started the next day. I learned of the dig's success by telephone. I remember almost weeping with relief when June told me that they rolled back the sod and found pottery shards clinging to the roots of the grass. We had, quite literally, hit pay dirt."

Their first shovel of earth had located the pottery's dump -- where rejected pieces were disposed (strict quality control even then!).

The crew found only redware on the site. Polly and David concluded that Johann George worked exclusively in earthenware fashioned from local red clay -- never stoneware. That advance in ceramic technology would be left for his sons.