Saturday, April 5, 2014


The first Saturday in April we drove to a small town in Berks County called Robesonia. You've read other posts about our trips there to the famous Porch Sale of legendary Pennsylvania German redware potter and collector Lester Breininger. After Lester's death in December 2011, three of his former employees, Curt Pearson and his brother Thilo Schmitz, and their father Scott Madeira started Robesonia Redware, pretty much around the corner from the old Breininger Mansion, and that was were we went for an event featuring their annual crop of Easter bunnies, eggs, and the like, and the first anniversary of their permanent home, a storefront on the main street of Robesonia.

We began by cruising eastward on U.S. 22, past what was once a favorite restaurant, now a pile of rubble following a disastrous fire; past the first Pennsylvania state historical marker ever placed, way back in 1946, the year I was born (for the Hanover Resolves -- look it up!); Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County; then into Berks County until the road ended and we were forced on to I78 toward Allentown and New York City.

Our exit was the second one we came to, at Bethel, a little crossroads town with a promising new antiques store on the square. We want to get back there sometime and see what old junque they have that we don't need. Turning right there, we were now on Pa. 501 south, passing some through some beautiful farm country and small towns, finally hitting a traffic light at U.S. 422 at Myerstown.

There stood a sight for sore eyes -- the Kumm Esse ("Come eat") Diner, scene of memories of Porch Sales past. We always stopped there for breakfast after the sale. Many times we had friends or relatives with us and enjoyed the tales told around the table about "the plate that got away," or who traded what pieces on the lawn, or who was kind enough to snatch up a piece for which another had been searching.

The Sienna pulled up right to the door of the Kum Esse.

Susanne ordered a liverwurst sandwich. Don't say it! I already know. What kind of person orders a liverwurst sandwich? Even worse, it was accompanied by a cucumber and onion concoction in a white creamy dressing.

Being more sensible, and even though it was about 2:45 p.m., long after breakfast time, I ordered a cheese omelet and home fries. What a smart selection, if I do say so myself. The omelet was fine (maybe one more egg would have made it better) but the home fries were the best I have ever had. They were sliced very thin and browned thoroughly. And nice and hot. I'd go in and order them for a snack if I lived closer.


It was only a few more miles east to Robesonia on U.S. 422. We passed markers for Charming Forge, Charles A. Schulze, and the Tulpehocken E&R Church. On our right at Womelsdorf was the homestead of Conrad Weiser, famous interpreter and peacekeeper between the colonists and Native Americans in the 18th century. Then came the sign welcoming us to Robesonia.

We entered the store with trepidation, fearing the wave of nostalgia that was certain to overcome us; the sensory overload of gleaming glaze on colorful pottery; and the price tags!

This piece -- staring us in the face as we entered -- is enormous, maybe 24 inches across. The clay weighed 25 pounds before it went into the kiln. The decoration is a combination of sgraffito and slip painting, using traditional motifs of birds and flowers, prominent among them the tulip. I was in love.

Most of the pieces are in the traditional Pennsylvania German style. Some are actual replications of early pieces. A few are more modern and a little jarring to the eye -- our eyes, that is. Remember, we are trying to break out of the "early American" mold, but its grip is strong.

This one closely resembles the original 18th century piece.
We had just seen this pattern in an old piece in an antiques store.
I have a Breininger piece similar to this, a gift from my daughter.
My collection of redware looks much like this.
Potters Curt and Thilo posed for this - against their better judgment.
(They are modest about their talent and thus the spotlight.)

  A View of Robesonia Redware store from John Robinson on Vimeo.

After a few turns around the room and some pictures taken, we ventured into the "back room," where four other craftspeople had set up show. Susanne was thrilled to see a display of hooked rugs, the kind that you hang on the wall or lay on a table. Small. But beautiful. Susanne has recently taken up this craft and has hooked two pieces so far. She is always happy to see another crafter with whom she may commune. She and Janice Sonnen had a lively chat. Janice also makes "penny" rugs from felt, something made by women in the second half of the 19th century to pretty up their surroundings -- "chust for nice" as I have read elsewhere.

Hooked rugs galore!
Susanne loves Janice's work.
A fine example of the penny rug.
Meanwhile, I looked at the tin from Handwerk Tin (they had a little stylized Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz") and ironwork from Furnace Creek Forge. Next, a collection of small houses from 1860 Wood Company. (You know how I am about houses and about things in miniature.) The houses are made by Terry Boyer, and his wife Judy makes lovely pictures from pressed flowers.

A log house and stone cottage.
A thatched-roof New England house.

A stone barn with wooden hay loft.
Judy Boyer works on a pressed flower project.
Terry and Judy were among the artists that I had selected in 2001 to represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on the White House Christmas Tree, at the invitation of Mrs. Bush. The request for four ornaments representing historic buildings came through the Governor's Office and, happily, was assigned to me as Press Secretary for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Interestingly, the Bush Center (presidential library) just a few years ago re-created the 2001 tree in Dallas at Christmas time.

Being a frequent visitor to craft shows, I knew a number of artists who could make what the White House wanted. I sent out email invitations (Judy told me she has kept every email they received -- the first one just days before September 11.) The White House required that the ornaments not exceed a certain size or weight and later that they be sent directly to a facility where all White House mail was being examined in light of the terrorist attacks.

At that time, it was not certain if the artists would be invited to the White House, as planned, to view their creations on the trees and, of course, to meet the President and Mrs. Bush. The White House was closed to visitors and might not be open in time for Christmas. So, I arranged -- as sort of a consolation prize -- for the four artists to meet at the Pennsylvania Governors' Residence in Harrisburg and present their creations to First Lady Kathy Schweiker.

There the artists were offered coffee and tea in the Erie Room and a chance to present their ornaments and speak with the First Lady.

( r.) Mrs. Schweiker, PHMC Executive Director Brent Glass, moi, and one of the artists.

After the event, I took the ornaments to the Commission mail room to be wrapped, insulated, and coddled as UPS delivered them into the hands of a Republican administration. You can see photos of the tree with at least one item from Pennsylvania -- a model of President James Buchanan's home in Lancaster.

While the White House was not open to the public by December, the artists were able to enjoy their reward, an evening at the White House. Unfortunately, the poor schlub who made all this happen in Pennsylvania was not invited, even though the next year he tried to wangle an invitation directly from the White House chief floral designer. Perhaps they had checked my voter registration card.

I did this search for craftspeople for several years until the White House moved away from this sort of decoration, and I count it as among my happier duties as press secretary. (Incidentally, one year Lester Breininger made a gold finch out of clay when the theme was birds. He thought long and hard before deciding whether to participate, because he was vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq.)

Well, I digressed mucho, didn't I?

Returning to the main sales area of the store, we finalized our purchases of eggs and bunnies, paid the damages, and hopped (get it?) back into the car. The trip home was uneventful but pleasant, basking in the memory of all that redware in one place and only forty-three miles away.