|By Susan Eberman
Collectors can’t think of southwestern pottery without Frankoma Pottery coming to mind. The story behind this business, which has been a part of Oklahoma’s heritage for more than 70 years is as fascinating as the rugged pottery itself.
A new graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, John Frank moved to Norman, Okla., in 1927 to establish the first Ceramic Art Department at the University of Oklahoma. In 1933 he started his own company, following his dream to create a line of fine art ware and sculpture that people of everyday means could afford to enjoy. A year later, Frank’s wife, Grace Lee, suggested the company name should incorporate both their family name and the last letters of their state. The company officially became Frankoma Pottery in 1934.
The Franks and their new business moved about 20 miles south of Tulsa to Sapulpa in 1938, but hardship followed. Their first building, constructed in part by Grace’s father, burned down shortly after their arrival. Despite the economic hardships caused by the fire and the Great Depression, the Franks followed their vision and rebuilt.
Early sculptures not reissued after the fire included figurines, ashtrays and vases. Many pieces featured Art Deco style woman, American Indians and animals. Sculptures issued after the 1938 fire included bookends, candleholders, wall vases, face masks and plaques. Frankoma became the pioneer in colored tableware with bold designs in vibrant Southwestern colors such as Prairie Green and Desert Gold. From 1942 until 1988 Frankoma created a line of wagon wheel dinnerware that became its signature ware. Other popular dinnerware patterns include Mayan-Aztec, Plainsman, Lazybones and Westwind.
In 1968 John Frank designed a 5-ounce elephant mug as a fundraiser for the National Republican Party and it became a collectible series in 1969. Joniece Frank designed the first Democrat donkey mug in 1975. Other collectibles include 10 Teen-Agers of the Bible plates that were issued from 1972 until 1982 and Christmas plates, which were first issued in 1965. From 1955 until 1957 Frankoma also manufactured earrings, pins, tie clasps and a bolo tie designed by John Frank who had won a 1927 award for jewelry design.
Clay and trademarks help identify old and new Frankoma pieces, according to Gary V. Schaum, author of Collector’s Guide to Frankoma Pottery 1933 through 1990 (L-W Book Sales, 2004.) "John Frank experimented with many types of clay from different areas of Oklahoma," he said in a recent phone interview. "From 1933 until 1954 he used tan clay found near Ada, Okla., and pieces made with this clay are now called Ada Clay by collectors. In 1954 he switched to a brick red firing clay located a few miles from the factory in an area known as Sugar Loaf Hill. Collectors call this Sapulpa Clay Pre-1980. In the 1980s the red brick color of the clay was affected with additives and became either a light pink or a light orange. Collectors refer to this as Sapulpa Clay Post-1980. Even the color of glazes was affected by the color changes in the clay. Ada clay pieces are generally the most valuable today."
"While he was still at the University of Oklahoma, John Frank designed an OU tepee to mark pottery made there by either him or his students," Schaum continued. "This mark was used from 1927 until 1933. Collectors today regard the pieces with Frank’s initials "JNF" or "JF" the most desirable. In the summer of 1933 Frank began Oklahoma’s first pottery company. During 1933 and 1934 pieces made here were marked (1) FRANK POTTERIES NORMAN OKLAHOMA (2) FRANK POTTERIES NORMAN OKLA or (3) FRANK POTTERIES. Frankoma Potteries was incorporated in February 1934 and the first mark used was a rubber stamp of the word Frankoma. It wasn’t used for long and is rare. From later in 1934 until 1954 the company used an impressed mark Frankoma with a perfectly round O. Frank also used what collectors call the cat mark from 1934 until it was destroyed in the 1938 fire. Known as the ’Pot and Puma’ logo, his company’s first trademark was a large ceramic vase with a Taylor pacing cat in the foreground. It can be found on larger pieces. After he rebuilt the company after the fire, Frank again used an impressed Frankoma mark but this time the O was oblong and not round. This Frankoma mark continued to be hand impressed until the early 1950s when the trademark was often included in the mold along with the mold number. But some of the pieces made at this time were unmarked because their mold was never modified. John Frank often personalized pieces he gave as gifts to friends, family and special customers. His etched message and signature is definitely the most valuable mark."
When John Frank died in 1973, his artist daughter, Joniece, became president and CEO of Frankoma Pottery. In September 1983, at the company’s all-time peak of success, fire destroyed the Frankoma factory for a second time. Fortunately, John Frank had built a fireproof storage area for master molds, and most were spared in the fire. The company was reopened in July 1984, but IRS tax debts forced the closure of the business in 1990. In1991 the company was sold to Maryland businessman Richard Bernstein who made the business decision to close the company on Dec. 31, 2004. It looked like the company might end for good until Las Vegas residents H. B. "Det" and Crystal Merryman came along. For eight years the Merrymans had been producing the Merrymac Collection of whimsical, oversized ceramic dogs which have been regularly featured on The Price is Right.
"On July 1, 2005 we became officers of Frankoma, Inc., a newly created Oklahoma corporation charged with the operation of the company," Det Merryman explained in a recent phone interview. "The sale included all designs, trademarks, products and standing inventory as well as the entire 75,000 square foot manufacturing facility on a seven-acre site. "
In the mid 1950s the Frank family, which included daughters Donna and Joniece, had world renowned architect Bruce Goff design their dream house. It featured colorful ceramic brick and tile that John and Grace Lee Frank had designed and created. Today both daughters reside in this home, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places. They keep busy behind the home in their own pottery studio Frank X 2, that was once the studio of their mother, Grace Lee Frank, who died in 1996. Donna Frank wrote Clay in the Master’s Hands, an intimate account of her parents and their struggles to develop Frankoma Pottery. (Copies may be purchased directly from her.)
The sisters also started the Frankoma Family Collectors Organization in 1995. "This is a really fun group for collectors," Donna Frank said. " We have over 1,500 members in 45 states. The word ’family’ in our club name doesn’t mean it’s just for Frank family members. We consider all Frankoma collectors our cousins.
"Our convention is always held in Sapulpa, and the 2006 dates are Sept. 21-23," Donna Frank said. "
For More Information:
Frankoma Pottery, 9549 Frankoma Road, Sapulpa, OK 74066, (800) 331-3650, www.frankoma.com.
Gary V. Schaum, P. O. Box 303, Mounds, OK 74047, e-mail: email@example.com.
Frankoma Family Collectors Association, Donna Frank, Secretary, 1300 Luker Lane, Sapulpa, OK 74066, (918) 224-6610, www.frankoma.org.