By Bob Hansen
Bonaparte – Marilyn Thomas suspected she and her
husband were acquiring an important archeological site when the couple
purchased the old Bonaparte Lumberyard in 1992.
At the time, her husband, Donnie, was only looking for a good place to go fishing.
Just how important the abandoned yard on the Des
Moines River is to Iowa’s history became clear only when the river
jumped it’s banks and inundated the site in 1993.
Now the public has an opportunity to share the
Thomases’ sense of discovery when the fourth annual Bonaparte Potter
Tour is offered in the Van Buren County town this Saturday.
Marilyn radiates enthusiasm for the old Parker and
Hanback pottery plant as she gives a tour through the rambling brick and
fir structure built in the 1870s.
She explained their fascination with the building’s
history began when she and Donnie moved into their riverside home in May
1993, only to be flooded out in July.
Once the waters receded, the Thomases found
themselves caught up in the paperwork chase to recover a portion of their
considerable financial loss. It was then they were told by a county
official that their building was known as the Bonaparte Pottery.
That confirmed Marilyn’s suspicions, for she
remembered years earlier she and a friend would occasionally dig in the
lumber yard’s basement for Parker and Hanback stoneware pottery the
Later that year, the Thomases were contacted by the
State Historical Society and the State Archeological Office at Iowa City
seeking the couple’s permission for an archeological “dig” on the
Maria Schroeder with the State Archeological Office
said the Bonaparte site is especially important because it’s the only
one of its kind still existing in Iowa.
“It is significant because it is the only standing
pottery manufacturing site remaining in the state.” She said. “The
major building that was built in 1876 is there and is in a remarkable
state of preservation. We can even see remains of the old kilns –
including a 30-foot-high beehive kiln – used to fire the stoneware
Stoneware pottery was an important facet of everyday
life in the 19th century, long before plastic and paper
packaging. Stoneware was shaped into a variety of utilitarian uses as
diverse as drain tile and pickle jars, and is now highly prized by
Marilyn quickly gave her approval for the excavation,
and the digs began in 1994. But Donnie was somewhat . . . . . 18 min more
“I bought this place because I always wanted to be
by the river, and my plans were for al lot of fishing,” he recalls.”
So I wasn’t too enthusiastic about having a bunch of people from Iowa
City digging up my yard.
That skepticism proved well founded, for when Donnie
returned from a week at work on the road, he was shocked to find his
driveway blocked and gaping holes in his yard. The same scene of
desolation greeted him each time he returned, but the Iowa City crew were
never available over the weekend to hear his complaints.
“Finally, I asked by boss for time off and I came
home and had it out with the archeologists. I told them they had to clean
up the mess and they only responded with an
‘Oh, sure.’ Next week when I came home, the mess was even
worse, so I gave up at that point.”
Donnie should be used to the craters that appear in
his landscaped riverbank yard by now, for archeologists have been on the
site again this summer, and one of the pits they created will be shown
during the tour.
The hole measures about 5-by-8-feet and is seven feet
deep. The walls appear to be lined with cut block, but on closer
inspection, the block is actually thousands of pieces of pottery shards.
The Thomases’ property is one giant potter mine,
and their occasional freelance digging produces rare unbroken pots and
crocks that were discarded by the manufacturer. An unexcavated area
measuring 150 feet square is believed to be filled with the remains of the
But it is the old pottery building that makes the
tour most interesting. The building is a German Fachweck design structure and believed to
be one of only two in the state. It’s so well preserved that it appears
the workmen only yesterday left their stations, although the pottery
closed in 1895.
Fingerprints of the workmen’s clay-stained hands
can still be seen on the walls, and there are pencil scribblings stating
the production of an 1890 afternoon and the crew that fueled the giant
In the basement, the Thomases unearthed evidence of a
“pug mill” – a horse-powered mill that provided power to the
manufacturing processes. There are also stacks of the old clay molds and
even tools that a bored workman decorated with a 19th-century
version of a “happy face.”
Donnie Thomas is now retired, but he laments he has
yet to wet a fishing line this year in the nearby river. Instead, he and
Marilyn spend their time digging and uncovering the rich treasure their
Tours of the site will be conducted by the Thomases and by volunteers from the State Archeological Office and will begin at 11:30 a.m. There also will be a gathering at the site of stoneware collectors from throughout the Midwest for a buy-sell-and-swap meet.
This story was written several years ago and much has happened since then. Be sure to check our entire web site for current happenings and for upcoming events. We look forward to your visiting us! - Marilyn Thomas
Pottery For Sale - Following the loss of my husband and partner Donnie, is with a great deal of disappointment that I have come to the decision that I must turn this wonderful adventure over to other individuals who can devote the time, energy and resources to the pottery project that it deserves. Those who may be interested and who would like more information are invited to call Marilyn Thomas at (319) 592-3620.