Something that comes out of the ground in Maine and is made by Maine-iacs” is how Blue Hill potter Dennis Rackliffe refers to the field clay that he and family members have dug and used to create mugs, dinner plates, bean pots and other pottery for three generations.
“Come to Blue Hill and buy a piece of Maine,” Dennis quipped.
Beginning in 1968, Dennis’s father and mother, Philip and Phyllis, began producing their own pottery line from the clay extracted from a hillside on family land in East Blue Hill. The Rackcliffes previously had trained at the former, famed Rowantrees Pottery studio founded by Adelaide Pearson in 1934.
Overlooking Blue Hill Bay, Rackcliffe Pottery sits atop Greene’s Hill on Route 172 in Blue Hill. The workshop with the kiln, which is fired to more than 2,100 degrees F, is on site. In the showroom, visitors can peruse the wide-ranging pottery line from small sculpted whales to chowder cups.
Dennis and Margaret Rackliffe, who have been married 50 years, took over the business from his parents. Their daughter, Susan Keenan, works with them too. A mother of two, she began helping out at age 7.
Margaret and Susan make all of the handles and decorative elements that require a gentle touch.
Dennis’s twin sister, Sheryl Whitmore, shapes the clay seals and whales.
“She’s got more talent than I do, I know that,” Dennis said.
Although they have dug from the same hill for 37 years, the Rackcliffes’ source of clay never exceeded three feet in depth and has refilled by erosion. One truckload is enough for three years worth of pottery.
After filtering out the sand with water, the field clay dries for more than two weeks.
“I probably have 1,000 pounds of clay all the time,” Dennis said. “I go through a lot of it.”
A pug mill removes the air before Dennis can shape the material on a spinning wheel.
The potter mixes his own glazing ingredients to create colors, like blue made with black copper oxide. He sprays the pieces with glaze and lets them dry before putting them in the kiln. Blue pottery goes at the top, heated to 2,100 degrees F. The bottom is for whites fired at 1,800 degrees F.
Once cooled, the pieces are displayed in the showroom and shipped to awaiting customers.
The family supplies clay to George Stevens Academy and Blue Hill Consolidated School. For 30 years, Dennis has hauled the clay, his portable wheel and other equipment so the students can study and produce pottery.
The students’ pieces are taken back to fire at Rackcliffe Pottery. “As a matter of fact, I just took them out of the kiln this morning,” Dennis related. “I’ll blaze them up and take them back hopefully next week, before [the students] graduate.”
Margaret, known to her husband as “boss,” has always worked in pottery. Dennis used to be a mine surveyor when copper and zinc were being extracted from Brooksville’s Callahan and the Kerr-American mine in Blue Hill before their closure in 1977. Rather than follow the mining company to the West Coast, he opted to stay and work in the family business.
Almost 40 years later, Dennis says loves he loves making pottery and has no intention to stop.
“It’s enjoyable working with your family,” he said.