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Wednesday, 29 August 2007 00:00

Passion for pewter: Riverwood Pewter continues eight decades of family tradition

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By Michael Beadle

It’s been called the poor man’s silver, but its shine and durability have made it prized in kitchens and living rooms around the world.

“You can do three things with pewter,” says Ruth McConnell, a third-generation pewter artist living in Webster.

The metal alloy made of tin, copper and antimony can be spun on a lathe and shaped with tools. It can also be melted and cast into molds.

“And you can hammer it, which is what we do,” McConnell explains in her Jackson County studio.

On her workshop table, sets of pewter bowls, platters and bracelets are ready to be shipped off to all sorts of locations — a church catalogue company in Cincinnati, the gift shop at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh, and the Allenstand Craft Shop at the Folk Art Center outside of Asheville. Other pieces are being fashioned for upcoming events such as the fall festival at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown and weekend fall demonstrations at the Biltmore Estate.

Pewter became a fascination for Ruth McConnell as a child, when she watched her father hammer out plates and platters in the family’s basement along with a pair of brothers he’d hired — Ray and Dee Shook.

Back in 1930, McConnell’s great aunt Lucy Morgan, founder of the prestigious Penland School of Crafts, brought in her nephew, Ralph Siler Morgan Jr. (Ruth’s father), to start up the first pewter classes at the school. Then Morgan went off to serve in World War II and later become a physician. When he moved to Sylva in 1948, he hired the Shook brothers to help him continue the pewter business.

Many a Girl Scout in Jackson County earned her badges while hammering out 6-inch pewter pieces at McConnell’s home, Ruth recalls.

“I cut my teeth on pewter,” McConnell says. “It was just always part of life.”

While some people enjoy displaying pewter plates on the mantle or using them sparingly for holiday occasions, McConnell prefers daily use just as she did growing up.

“Use it, scuff it up and make it look loved,” she says.

American pewter doesn’t have lead in it, she explained, though other countries may still allow their pewter makers to have small amounts in the alloy. Pewter’s softer patina gives it a milder look than silver.

“It’s more mellow-looking than silver, and a lot of people like that,” McConnell says.

After graduating from school, she worked five years in her father’s medical office before moving to Rock Hill, S.C., with her husband, Charles, who took a job as a principal. Ruth stayed home with the kids and eventually got into teaching herself, working part-time in Rock Hill. When Charles McConnell took the job as superintendent of Haywood County Schools in 1981, the family moved back to Western North Carolina, where Ruth worked in the school libraries at Pisgah High School and Waynesville Junior High School and then taught home economics and career exploration courses at Bethel Junior High.

But the family pewter business came calling, so Ruth left teaching in 1988 to help her mother with the family’s Riverwood Pewter retail shop in Dillsboro. Ray Shook died in ’88, then Dee Shook died in ’96, and Ruth’s father passed away the next year. With them went more than a century of pewter craftsmanship.

McConnell could not let the family business go. She closed the retail business in Dillsboro in 2004 and started up her own studio workshop near her home, working with pewter craftsmen Graham and Clarence Robinson.

A row of family pictures line one wall of her workshop — three generations of pewter craftsmen who would be proud to see what McConnell has done to carry on Riverwood Pewter’s tradition.

The process begins with a flat sheet of pewter. These days, the sheets come from Oster Pewter in Providence, Rhode Island. Using a leather-covered wooden mallet, McConnell pounds out a shape into a mold — for example, a bowl or plate. Next, if the piece needs to be sawed — in some cases a dogwood blossom might be set into a platter dish — a pattern is drawn and cut. Then comes the buffing wheel.

“It’s the only electrical thing we use,” McConnell explains.

A metal scribe or additional mallet pounding might add in extra features. On the back side, the Riverwood Pewter name is engraved before the whole piece is rubbed gently with a fine steel wool or cloth diaper to get rid of the buffing compounds and bring out the natural shine of the metal. After the polishing, which is McConnell’s specialty, the piece is treated with a pewter wash and cleansed in hot, soapy water. Once it’s dry, it’s ready for sale.

“I guess I get dirtier than the men do,” McConnell says, looking over her blackened hands and worn fingernails. She could choose to wear gloves, but she’d rather feel the metal in her hands. “Other people can come out looking like ladies, but not me.”

To ask how long it takes to make any one piece of pewter tends to belittle the process. After all, handcrafted art ignores efficiency for timeless quality. It’s not the factory mentality of turning out as many pieces as possible. That’s one of the reasons McConnell has stuck with pewter so long. It’s the process of making something worthwhile with your hands, honoring a tradition that was once a part of many people’s lives, back in the days when you made things to last.

And while Riverwood Pewter produces a hefty quantity of bowls, plates, platters, trivets, spoons, candleholders, Christmas ornaments, napkin holders, earrings, and bracelets, it’s the care and quality that makes these pieces prized by customers and dealers throughout the country.

“I love the handmade things,” McConnell says.

For more information about Riverwood Pewter, go online to www.RiverwoodPewter.com.

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