Artisan products traditionally appeal to people who are tired of the mass-produced items that serve the mass market of consumers. These products – whether they be solid wood furniture, specialty cheeses or craft beers – are made in smaller quantities with quality materials or ingredients and in designs or flavours different from the standardized selections more easily and cheaply available.
In the 19th century, in a rural area like Markham Township, artisan products were nothing special – they were the norm for farming families in need of items they could not easily make themselves. Almost every village and hamlet had at least one blacksmith and a shoemaker. Larger villages had furniture and wagon-makers, weavers, pump-makers and agricultural implements factories. On the food side of the market, cheese factories and cider mills transformed the output of farms and orchards into specialty products.
Pottery is an artisan product that has been made for thousands of years and continues to be made by small workshops and studios. Most modern pottery is produced for its artistic value, but in the past, pottery was made for everyday use, mainly for the storage and preparation of food and drink. Historically, pottery was most often utilitarian in character, occasionally with some decorative flourishes applied when the pieces were glazed. The decorated pieces are the ones most highly prized by collectors.
A small pottery on the scale of a “cottage industry” was once located at the north-east corner of Highway 48 and Major Mackenzie Drive. Today, a garden centre stands at the approximate location where Joseph Wideman once lived. If you look behind the garden centre, you’ll see a small outbuilding settling into the earth, tilted at an odd angle and covered in brush. This old structure was once a modest house that served as Joseph Wideman’s first residence in this location.
Joseph Wideman was a member of Markham’s Pennsylvania-German Mennonite community. The Pennsylvania-Germans were a significant early settler group that came to Markham and other parts of York County in the early 1800s. Their skill and experience as farmers helped build Markham Township into an important centre of agricultural production. Joseph Wideman was the son of a Mennonite minister, the Reverend Adam Van Hoben Wideman, and Elizabeth Sherk.
In the early 1860s, Joseph Wideman lived in a rural hamlet known as Almira, located in the north-central part of Markham Township. There, he operated a small pottery that was in business as early as 1863. Almira was a small community then, and remains that way today. A combination flour mill and woolen mill once formed the heart of the hamlet.
Joseph Wideman relocated to Milnesville, another Markham Township hamlet, in the mid-1870s. Very little remains of Milnesville now, and there is no sign to mark its location. It was situated on Highway 48, north of Markham Village and Mount Joy. Joseph and Annie (Hoover) Wideman rented a one and a half storey frame house owned by Samuel Reesor, another member of the Pennsylvania-German Mennonite community. The pottery continued at the new location using clay from deposits found locally near the banks of the Rouge River. Next door, David Ramer operated a brickworks.
By 1891, the Wideman family were enjoying enough financial success to allow them to buy the one-acre property they were renting from Samuel Reesor and build a new house in a more up-to-date style for the time. The older house on the lot may have then been transformed to serve as the Wideman pottery workshop. Abraham Wideman, one of Joseph and Annie’s children, assisted his father with the family business. In addition to being a potter, Joseph Wideman was known as a mechanical genius. He built mouse-traps with his unique design and was an expert in clock repair. He travelled as far away from home as Waterloo County, where his skills were well-known.
The Wideman pottery operated until 1908. When the intersection of Highway 48 and Major Mackenzie Drive was improved in the early 1960s, the Wideman buildings were moved to the north of their original locations and placed on new foundations. A few years ago, the Joseph Wideman House of 1891 was relocated to Markham Heritage Estates where it is currently undergoing restoration. The older house, a little hard to see in the field behind the garden centre, remains as a reminder of a cottage industry that supplied pottery to several generations of Markham farm families.