November 23, 2004: Headlines: COS - Peru: Pottery: Business: Belfast Village Soup: Peru RPCV Ron Garfinkle sells Monroe Salt Works, maker of alt-glazed pottery

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Peru: Peace Corps Peru: The Peace Corps in Peru: November 23, 2004: Headlines: COS - Peru: Pottery: Business: Maine Today: Peru RPCV Ron Garfinkle started Monroe Salt Works in a Waldo County barn more than 30 years ago : November 23, 2004: Headlines: COS - Peru: Pottery: Business: Belfast Village Soup: Peru RPCV Ron Garfinkle sells Monroe Salt Works, maker of alt-glazed pottery

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Peru RPCV Ron Garfinkle sells Monroe Salt Works, maker of alt-glazed pottery

Peru RPCV Ron Garfinkle sells Monroe Salt Works, maker of alt-glazed pottery

Peru RPCV Ron Garfinkle sells Monroe Salt Works, maker of alt-glazed pottery

Monroe Salt Works to move to Keene
By Jay Davis

MONROE (Nov 23, 2004): An icon of the 1970s' back-to-the-land movement in Waldo County is moving to New Hampshire.

Monroe Salt Works, which has earned a global reputation for its salt-glazed pottery, is being purchased by Tawinbi, an international company headquartered in Keene, N.H., with offices in Thailand and Denmark.

Ron Garfinkle stands inside a kiln filled with pots, still warm from a recent firing.

The Salt Works' founder and owner, Ron Garfinkle of Jackson, said the production facility in a former chicken barn in Monroe will close next month. The six retail stores in Maine and Massachusetts, including those in Belfast and Lincolnville Beach, will remain open under the new ownership.

The 40 jobs in the stores will be retained, Garfinkle said, but most of the production and office workers will be unemployed.

The company's distinctive pottery, decorated with ceramic decals or stenciled crows, moose, crows, trout and other Maine forms, has been sold in prestigious outlets including Bloomingdale's, Macy's, L.L. Bean and Henri Bendel over the years.

At its height in the 1990s, the Salt Works employed 23 people fashioning and packing pottery items from multi-colored roosters to handy coffee mugs. Garfinkle and office manager Tom Riesgo estimated 800,000 mugs have been produced locally since the business began shortly after Garfinkle's arrival in Monroe in 1972.

In recent years the retail stores, which sell both Salt Works and other pottery along with gifts both useful and whimsical, have represented a growing share of the business. The workforce at the Monroe production facility had dropped to 11 by last week.

Garfinkle, 61, said he listed the business with a broker about six months ago and recently agreed to sell to Tawinbi. Other companies were interested as well, he said, "but in the end it kind of sorted itself out." Tawinbi is a newer, smaller company that uses as an advertising premise "Scandinavian design like you've never seen."

President Thomas Abert told VillageSoup Tawinbi will purchase the designs created by Garfinkle and the stores as part of an expansion into the Northeast market. The pottery will be produced in Thailand, where two of the company's partners live and work.

Though the pottery will look like the traditional Salt Works line, he said, it will be produced by a different process that promises more consistency and less toxicity. He said the Salt Works fits well with Tawinbi's "story-based" marketing strategy. "We're honored to carry on (Garfinkle's) history. We want to be good stewards and build on his good spirit," he said.

Finished pots are ready for packing at Monroe Salt Works.

He said Tawinbi will abide by U.S. trade regulations regarding the country of origin of the Salt Works pottery that is fashioned in Thailand.

Garfinkle and his first wife, Melissa Johnson, bought a farm off the Stovepipe Alley Road in Monroe in 1972, where he built the studio that was the Salt Works' first home. He developed a line of pottery that features the distinctive pocked glaze that is formed when rock salt is introduced to a kiln at a temperature of 2,300 degrees.

His pots were sold wholesale and at retail outlets like the crafts cooperative Chosen Works, which had stores in Camden and Bangor during the 1970s and '80.

During the late-1970s and early 1980s Garfinkle spent several years in the Dominican Republic and Paraguay as a government-paid advisor helping local craftspeople as they established indigenous pottery operations.

When he returned from Paraguay with new daughter Phoebe, who was born there, in tow, he decided to give up pottery production, working for nearly a year with Lincolnville builder Jack Ruth as a carpenter.

He then decided to make pottery on a larger scale and, in quick order, several key pieces fell into place.

In 1986 Garfinkle purchased a vacant chicken barn on the Bartlett Hill Road from Wesley Oliver for $8,000 and quickly tore down the two-thirds closest to the road, figuring the remaining third would handle his production facility and future expansions. The concrete slab that remained gave him an idea, so he and a handful of neighbors used jackhammers to remove the central ridge, strung fish nets on poles and created a hard-surface tennis court.

Also in 1986 the state of Maine purchased a table at the New York Gift Show, the world's largest, and offered space to a number of local businesses, including the Salt Works and a then-unknown company called Bert's Bees.

The exposure to buyers across the country brought a huge jump in orders, and the era of many hands making Salt Works pottery began.

The chicken barn headquarters is now more than double the size of the original space, 10,000 square feet of gray, sometimes dusty rooms dedicated to the production of pottery.

The process begins with the arrival of tons of clay -- 45,000-pound deliveries four or five times a year with the ingredients coming from Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The clay is mixed and then forced through a pug mill, which removes the air. The raw clay, a dark grayish brown, is then formed into plates, cups, cooking dishes and many other objects by one of four processes.

As he leads a tour of the factory, Garfinkle points out several "jigging" stations, where clay on a pottery wheel is shaped by a contoured knife guided by a worker. Plates and other flat items are formed on hydraulic presses, the plaster molds carefully copied from masters designed by Garfinkle that are made of rubber.

Clay fresh from a pug mill, right, and drying pots are stored in one of many rooms at the Monroe Salt Works.(Photo by Jay Davis)

Slip-casting, which involves pouring liquid clay into plaster molds, is used for sculptural pieces like large roosters and crows. Clay is also rolled into slabs and cut into the shapes needed for trivets, cheese trays and the like.

The basic forms are dried on shelves until the clay is a pale brown. Workers then paint them with stenciled decorations or apply decals and they are ready for firing in the kiln.

Salt-glazed stoneware pottery is fired at extra-high temperatures to vaporize the salt into the familiar pocked glaze. The intense heat also yields a chip-resistant product that can be used in washing machines and microwave ovens.

The kilns are located at the rear of the shop beneath a clear plastic roof that collapsed during the 1998 ice storm, fortunately when workers were on lunch break. The kilns, their arched interiors nearly 8 feet tall, are built of bricks that are caked on the inside with blackened salt. The shelves that separate the layers of pots are replaced each year, at a cost of $20,000; 50,000 gallons of propane are used to fire the kilns each year.

The Salt Works reflects the unpretentious ingenuity of its owner. The demise of the production facility will be hard on the work force, many of whom have been with Garfinkle for years and have made a good living.

In recent years, he said, he has recognized the difficulties of manufacturing in Maine items sold in a global marketplace. "I've thought about doing this in another country," he said, "and I could take it to any of a number of places. But I like living in Maine and would have to spend time in that other country, I didn't want to give up the Maine lifestyle."

He said his employee health insurance costs went up 45 percent this year, propane rose by 40 percent and taxes are high. "I'd say this is not a good business climate," he said.

Some of the difficulties have nothing to do with Maine, he said. "It is shameful for this country to not provide health care for its citizens. Small businesses can't afford it. We're being thwarted," he said.

Garfinkle, who lives a couple of miles from the headquarters in a rolling hayfield in Jackson, has always repaired vehicles, baled hay, plowed snow, heated with wood and lived frugally with his second wife, Mary Kaldenbaugh. He will stay put, he said, focusing on several building projects, creating art and considering new business opportunities. He has agreed to provide four new designs for the new owners and may help open two new stores and do other consulting work.

The Salt Works name and designs and outlets will live on, though the pottery will be made overseas.

"I consider it a success," he said, leaning back in a chair in his small, cluttered office that is still the "world headquarters" of his company. "It's been a business for 32 years, it put my (daughters Jessica and Phoebe) through school, I live in a nice house, I've been able to travel, and there's a national reputation for our work.

"It's cool to be in a place like Tucson and see the pottery in people's homes. It's surprising how many people I meet at least know about it," he said.

Related Links:

# Monroe Salt Works website.

# Tawinbi website.

Based in Belfast, Senior Reporter Jay Davis can be reached at 207-338-0484 or by e-mail at

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Story Source: Belfast Village Soup

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Peru; Pottery; Business



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