Haeger Potteries owner: 'It's the end of a beautiful legacy'

 
 
Updated 7/8/2016 6:04 AM
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  • Elvira Jaramillo of Elgin, a greenware finisher, has worked at Haeger Potteries for 18 years. The 145-year-old business ended operations at the end of June and is expected to close its factory store this month.

    Elvira Jaramillo of Elgin, a greenware finisher, has worked at Haeger Potteries for 18 years. The 145-year-old business ended operations at the end of June and is expected to close its factory store this month. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Martin Rangle, who has worked at Haeger Potteries for six years, operates the ram press in the company's factory.

    Martin Rangle, who has worked at Haeger Potteries for six years, operates the ram press in the company's factory. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Anita Stuehler, an employee for 34 years, glazes a piece by hand.

    Anita Stuehler, an employee for 34 years, glazes a piece by hand. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • The Haeger Potteries factory store in East Dundee is expected to close later this month.

    The Haeger Potteries factory store in East Dundee is expected to close later this month. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Bustling with busy employees and roaring machinery, the Haeger Potteries factory was too immense and too noisy for just any young child. But to Lexy Haeger Estes, it was home.

At age 5, she would tag along with her father to the East Dundee facility, asking him during almost every weekend visit to take her to the 180-foot tunnel kiln that ran the length of the building.

She would peer into the peepholes of the vast machine, mesmerized by the carts of pottery moving through the firebox ever so slowly. She watched in awe as the lamps, vases and figurines turned bright cherry red in the 2,000-degree heat -- a sign the ceramic bisque was fusing with the color and glaze that had been carefully sprayed on each piece.

Fourth-generation owner Lexy Haeger Estes stands near the kiln at Haeger Potteries in East Dundee, just two weeks before the 145-year-old company ceased manufacturing operations for good.
Fourth-generation owner Lexy Haeger Estes stands near the kiln at Haeger Potteries in East Dundee, just two weeks before the 145-year-old company ceased manufacturing operations for good. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Today, the remodeled kiln no longer contains peepholes. But positioning herself at the machine's exit, Haeger Estes could still make out the glow of the firebox and envision the transformation taking place inside.

"I thought it was so mysterious -- like magic. I still do to this day," she said. "It's like life down there."

Two weeks later, on June 30, the last cart of pottery made its way through the kiln's 15-hour-long firing process. The firebox went dark for the last time, and the final pieces ever made by Haeger Potteries would be shipped to customers or placed on the shelves in the factory store.

The closing of the 145-year-old family-owned company is shocking for collectors, disappointing for community members and heartbreaking for employees.

And for fourth-generation owner Haeger Estes, "It's the end of a beautiful legacy."

The heyday

Haeger Potteries started making bakeware about 20 years ago, though the trend increased in popularity the last eight years.
Haeger Potteries started making bakeware about 20 years ago, though the trend increased in popularity the last eight years. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

In the eyes of longtime collector John Magon, Haeger was the most influential company in the pottery industry.

Through the years, the company experimented with glazes, colors and styles, ranging from basic shapes to intricate designs. There was a time when almost every home goods and department store had an entire section of Haeger artware.

Books have been written about each era of the company's pottery, and to this day, collectors from across the country scour websites and garage sales for unique pieces.

"They made pottery for the masses," said Magon, who has been collecting and researching Haeger for 30 years. "It reached so many homes, so many people could afford it, and it's beautiful."

Before becoming a leader in the pottery industry, however, the company first specialized in making brick and tile.

Haeger Potteries' rich history dates back to 1871, when Haeger Estes' great-grandfather, David Haeger, moved to the U.S. from Germany shortly after the Civil War and opened the business on South Van Buren Street in East Dundee.

"Typically after a war of that nature, when you start to heal, the communities bond together and people find work very healing," Haeger Estes said. "I think that's part of what brought my great-grandfather here."

Later that year, the company was the first to fire millions of bricks that were shipped to Chicago to help rebuild the city after the Great Chicago Fire -- a laborious endeavor involving nearly the entire community.

The company's shift to making pottery didn't begin until the early 1900s, after David Haeger died, and his son, Edmund, found himself "suddenly propelled into the business," Haeger Estes said.

Under his leadership, the company started experimenting with rudimentary ceramics, then began adding glazes. During the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair, Edmund built a working pottery factory "that absolutely revolutionized Haeger," Haeger Estes said. "Millions of people literally saw the kinds of things we did mechanically to make the pottery."

Haeger Potteries continued growing long after Haeger Estes' father, Joseph Estes, who married into the Haeger family, took over in 1954. A second plant had been added in Macomb, and the company kept expanding the versatility of its product by hiring different designers.

Among them was C. Glenn Richardson, who worked with Haeger for 20 years starting in 1971. His daughter, Algonquin resident Suzy Newman, recalls the lamps, cookie jars and figurines he would sketch before bringing home samples of the finished product.

"I think he loved it," she said. "It's a nice family company the (Haeger) family made in the heyday, when pottery and this type of art sculpture was so popular."

The downturn

Each Haeger Potteries piece is sprayed with glaze before it goes through the 2,000-degree tunnel kiln in the factory.
Each Haeger Potteries piece is sprayed with glaze before it goes through the 2,000-degree tunnel kiln in the factory. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Years ago, Haeger Estes' parents received two offers from large companies interested in buying Haeger Potteries.

They discussed the proposals thoroughly but ultimately declined; Haeger Estes, who had dreamed of becoming the company's president since she was a child, had just started learning the ropes.

"We wanted it to remain a family business," said Haeger Estes, who took over the reins in 1979.

In time, however, the industry started changing due to overseas competition, and ceramics manufacturers nationwide were trying to weather the storm.

First, Haeger Potteries kept ahead of the curve by being innovative with new colors and products, she said. About 20 years ago, the company also started making bakeware -- a "home and hearth" trend that became increasingly popular in the struggling economy of the past decade.

"We wanted to be hopeful. We wanted to keep our people busy and working, so we tried lots of different things to keep it going," Haeger Estes said. "We thought, if we can just get over this hump, or if we can just get over the next hump, it'll change."

But the company continued struggling, she said, until the reality of its future unfolded last fall.

"We were out of options."

'They are family'

Alicia Berrera trims greenware at Haeger Potteries in East Dundee. Berrera, of Carpentersville, has worked at Haeger for 18 years. The 145-year-old company ceased operations June 30. Its factory store will remain open this month until it runs out of stock.
Alicia Berrera trims greenware at Haeger Potteries in East Dundee. Berrera, of Carpentersville, has worked at Haeger for 18 years. The 145-year-old company ceased operations June 30. Its factory store will remain open this month until it runs out of stock. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Making the decision to close was hard enough for Haeger Estes and her husband, Craig Zachrich. But it was April 4 -- the day they broke the news to each employee -- that she considers the worst moment of her life.

"They knew we had been struggling. They could see the ups and downs of the business cycles, but still, we all remained hopeful," Haeger Estes said. "When you finally have to make that decision and say those words, the crestfallen faces of these people is something I won't long forget."

Most of the remaining 50 employees had worked at Haeger Potteries for decades. Some had worked under Joseph Estes and watched as his daughter rotated through each factory job, trying to understand every last detail of the company's functionality.

For Carpentersville resident Jose Loredo, working in the casting department was his first job after he moved here from Mexico 43 years ago. For Larry Behm of Lake in the Hills, his 57-year career at Haeger has consumed his entire adult life. East Dundee resident Pat Janetski, who so badly wanted to retire from Haeger, enjoyed every day of work over the past 29 years.

Of them, Haeger Estes says simply: "They are family. This is the Haeger family."

The legacy

A staple of the Chicago suburbs for 145 years, Haeger Potteries ceased factory operations at the end of June and is expected to close its factory store in East Dundee this month.
A staple of the Chicago suburbs for 145 years, Haeger Potteries ceased factory operations at the end of June and is expected to close its factory store in East Dundee this month. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Haeger Potteries was built on a foundation of integrity, respect and honor -- values that never wavered in the company's 145 years, Haeger Estes said. She was taught that a person's word was his bond and that a company's employees are its lifeline.

"I think it's a dying breed where the owners are right in there with the employees," she said. "But that's the key to our company. Always has been."

Between the company's positive reputation and its history of beautiful artware, longtime collector Magon said he believes the Haeger pieces will become only more valuable.

"I think once the dust settles, people will come to realize how much they really miss Haeger and how much they've really made a difference," he said.

Since word of the company's closing, Haeger Estes has received an outpouring of emotion and support from community members and customers. The factory store in East Dundee, which will remain open this month until it runs out of stock, has been raided several times by fans and collectors who want to get their hands on the last pieces of available pottery.

"It's been very gratifying to be able to go out on top this way," Haeger Estes said. "I feel we've done an incredibly good, positive job. I know my ancestors are proud."


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