BIG ROCK—Walk into More Polish Pottery, and you’re likely to find three-year-old Katarina assisting her mother, Rebecca Gengler, in the pottery shop on their property.
The store sells one of the Midwest’s largest selections of traditional Polish pottery, and Rebecca imports 350 different shapes from Ceramika Artystyczna, a company in Bolesławiec, Poland, that produces artisan ceramics using traditional processes.
Though Rebecca started the shop—located in an outbuilding on the family’s five-acre property at 8S953 Jericho Road in Big Rock—just two years ago and has done little marketing, she’s had customers arrive from 34 states so far. Since the business is within sight of the Genglers’ house, it’s a family endeavor, with her four children—Alex, 7; twins Johanna and Ellie, 6; and Katarina—joining her when necessary.
“My children use Polish pottery every day,” Rebecca said. “I hope when they grow up and go to college, they will remember this as their family tradition that they grew up with.”
Rebecca is fourth-generation Polish, but she didn’t develop a love of Polish pottery until she moved to Germany with her husband, Darrin, a military police officer, after their wedding in 1998.
“We basically moved there with the clothes on our back and our wedding gifts, and we would go flea marketing and buying things in Europe,” she said. “Polish pottery was one of those things. The units would schedule trips for the wives to go shopping in Poland for pottery, and it was a whirlwind adventure. And I realized that everything is made by women and hand stamped.”
Rebecca was hooked and bought dozens of pieces, so many that when they hired movers to bring them back to the United States in 2001, the moving men who were helping them pack kept asking in disbelief, “More Polish pottery?”
The Genglers moved to Big Rock to be near her husband’s family, and she pursued a master’s degree in recreation administration at Aurora University and worked as an executive director for Homemade Gourmet.
By 2005, she knew she wanted to start her own company, but she wasn’t sure how to go about it, especially as her family started growing. When the family bought a former nursery in Big Rock, complete with greenhouses and outbuildings, she suddenly had the space she needed and seized the opportunity to share her love of Polish pottery.
At first, the business did not have retail hours, and Gengler mainly did off-site shows at farmer’s markets and craft shows, as well as selling pottery wholesale to area retailers. She wasn’t sure anyone would come out to Big Rock to buy ceramics, but when she started having a few retail hours a week, she found that people were driving long distances—sometimes from other states—to get there.
“When we moved back here (from Europe), I could never find this pottery, even though Chicago has such a large Polish population. But people will drive for long distances to get it. People have it from their moms, and they come in and register for more pieces,” she said.
“It’s kind of like our field of dreams,” she added. “If you build it, they will come just to get the pottery.”
Rebecca has been working with the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Waubonsee Community College to help her business grow, taking professional photos of her shop, developing an extensive website and creating a social media presence to help spread the word about More Polish Pottery.
As the business has grown, she’s added more retail hours at the store, which is now open four days a week and by appointment. She’s also expanded the selection to include thousands of pieces and more than a dozen patterns—so many that she’s begun using some of the greenhouses on her property, a former nursery that once sold hostas and ornamental grasses, to display additional pieces.
Katarina’s favorite pattern is burgundy berry, a design that features a ring of purple and red berries that have been hand stamped using natural sponges from the Baltic Sea, surrounded by an intricate, deep blue border. She picked out a bowl with that pattern for her cereal every morning, and she’ll show off her favorite pieces to customers.
Rebecca said that although her children are young, she’s not afraid to let them use the pottery, because the glazes are all eco-friendly, and even if they drop something, the dishes typically don’t break because they’re made from unusually dense clay found only in Bolesławiec.
“It’s world-class stoneware, but it’s practical for everyday use,” Rebecca said. “It’s actually a 400-year-old product. That area of Poland has really dense clay soil, and the density of it allows (the pottery) to be more chip resistant, and because it has a long 400-year heritage, they have perfected it so that it withstands general use. It’s stain resistant, microwave safe, oven safe and dishwasher safe. It’s meant to be heirloom quality.”
All the patterns have the traditional deep blue border that all Polish pottery features, which makes it easy to mix and match pieces and create a collection, Gengler said.
Though the pottery itself is from Poland, most of the customers who buy it are not.
“The typical people who like it are people who appreciate art and like good-quality bakeware,” Gengler said. “It’s a gift or an heirloom, and it’s not something that’s going to be found in a big box store. We sell at farmer’s markets and festivals, and we find people who say, ‘Wow, this is beautiful, and are excited to find a product that incidentally is from Poland, as well.”
For more information on More Polish Pottery, including opening hours and patterns, visit morepolishpottery.com. Gengler also sells pieces at the Oswego Farmer’s Market on the second and fourth Sunday of the month, at the 3 French Market in Morris, Ill., on the second Saturday of June and at the Sandwich Fair in the fall.