A little clay history: Catch it while you still can this year

By: Carol Feineman, News Messenger Editor
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For out-of-towners driving for the first time through downtown Lincoln on Highway 65, the Gladding, McBean clay factory might seem a little jarring. At least it was for me when I caught my initial glimpse of Lincoln six months ago. I didn’t see anything aesthetically pleasing behind the pipes stacked near Seventh and G streets, the old sheds visible from those same streets and the handful of chimney pipes popping through the old roof. Instead, I considered the 20-acre property an eyesore. That’s because I hadn’t yet taken three Feats of Clay tours around both the perimeter and the inside of the Lincoln institution. Now, when I’m near G or neighboring streets these days, I marvel at the intrinsic beauty of the terra-cotta factory. This factory produces fire brick, roof tile, chimney pipes, sculptures and ornamental garden pottery used in historic buildings, hotels and civic buildings around the world. I would welcome even more visits to this local landmark but there are only four more days left this year for Feats of Clay tours. Tour A showcases the architectural terra-cotta restoration, kilns and juried art show. Tour B showcases the finished products, packaging inspection and fitting areas. Five reasons to take the Feats of Clay’s tours of Gladding, McBean on Seventh Street, running through Sunday: 1) The Gladding, McBean tour is educational. Today’s staff creates handmade terra-cotta pieces with the same manufacturing process used in the late 1800s. 2) Since May 12, 1875, the factory has been a Lincoln mainstay. 3) The tours are fun. They must be, if I’ve gone back three times in a three-week period. 4) You don’t have to dress up. In fact, jeans and sneakers are preferred, which makes for a better walking tour. 5) Tour fees go toward arts activities for community members in Lincoln and Sheridan. There’s history everywhere you step inside that building, still standing majestically for 134 years in downtown Lincoln. And Gladding, McBean is the oldest and continuously operating business today in Lincoln. “Last time we checked, we were one of the three top sales-tax generators in the city,” said Dan Cross, Gladding, McBean’s director of engineering service. The factory is closed to the general public 11 months of the year. But thanks to its highly benevolent partnership with Lincoln Arts, Gladding, McBean has opened its doors for almost five weeks annually the last consecutive 22 years to help raise funds for the nonprofit arts organization. The public has four more days this year to visit Gladding, McBean, via the Lincoln Arts docent-led tours. Since the tours start at the Lincoln Arts building, a half-block away from my office, I’ve been able to see full tour buses. Space is limited so if you’ve put off taking either Tour A or Tour B this year, you should reserve your space right now by calling Lincoln Arts at 645-3341. “We wanted to see the tour for years because of the basic history and the artisans,” said Clark Mehr of Penn Valley, which is a good hour’s drive to Lincoln. “Also, the beehive kilns there are just spectacular.” Mehr, who attended both Tour A and Tour B with his wife, has visited other clay factories across the country because their son is a professional potter near Redding. The Gladding, McBean visit stands out, in Mehr’s opinion. “I would certainly recommend the Lincoln tour to anyone who wants to take a day trip to see American history,” he said. Fortunately, Lincoln residents don’t have to take a daytrip. Gladding, McBean is in their backyard. Know and Go: Know and go Residents have 36 more opportunities this year, which equals eight tours every day today through Sunday, to visit Gladding, McBean. n Tour A or Tour B, is $12 per person. n A special photo tour from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. n Sunday only is $25 per person. n Call Lincoln Arts at 645-9713 to make reservations.