(Lincoln, CA) –A month-long series of tours of the historic Gladding, McBean terra cotta factory in Lincoln offers many memorable moments, but it is the short ride on a wooden freight elevator that most thrills many tour-takers. Introduced in 1891, just 16 years after the factory opened-and 38 years after Elisha Otis invented the modern elevator-the oversized lift takes occupants slowly from the first floor to the third, the oldest part of the factory. The volunteer operator asures riders of the safety of the equipment while everyone gasps, oohs and ahs at the wonderment of the creaky rise upward.
Claudia Renati, executive director of Lincoln Arts, says, “Most people are in awe of the elevator. They are fascinated to learn that this is the only remaining hydraulic elevator west of the Mississippi.” As to the lift’s slowness, Renati says, “The more people we put on it, the slower it is. It’s large enough to load a full-sized forklift. And it can carry up to 4,000 pounds.”
Gladding, McBean opens its 136-year-old fabled grounds and beehive-shaped kilns to visitors during “Feats of Clay XXIV” starting May 4, ending on May 30. Trained docents from Lincoln Arts Foundation will lead the tours through the facility from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays with new groups departing every 30 minutes.
Reservations are required for the $12 tours, and can be made by calling the Lincoln Arts, organizers of the event, at (916) 645-9713. Visitors must be aged eight or older. Comfortable closed-toe shoes are a must as the 90-minute tours require much walking. Some 6,000 visitors come from near and far for the annual tours. Local restaurant business thrives during the running of the tours. In addition to viewing the ceramics pieces, visitors will see an exhibit of molds, examples of architectural work done at the plant, and large photo murals of plant activities made from original glass and film negatives.
Sightseers will see an exhibit of some 80 sculptures that have been selected from the 1,500-plus entries in an annual competition of artists from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Winners of this year’s competition will be shown in creative displays, half of them in a massive obsolete 35-foot-wide “beehive” kiln, one of 18 remaining at the facility. The competition, one of the world’s most prestigious, was introduced in 1987 when the Feats of Clay celebration began.
Gladding, McBean’s major manufacturing today is clay sewer pipes. But they also do special restoration projects for worn-out or damaged artifacts of terra cotta pieces that were originally created for buildings throughout the world. In its heyday, Gladding, McBean and Co. became a leader in producing architectural facades for important buildings. Even the distinguished-looking red roof tiles at Stanford University were a Gladding, McBean product. Major creations adorn buildings, theaters and schools all over the globe.
Lincolnites are proud of the continuing history of their plant. Mayor Paul Joiner is among them. “I’ve always thought of Feats of Clay as this wonderfully unique blend of history and pop culture,” says he. “Just stepping into the buildings of Gladding, McBean transports you back to the 19th century. The sights, the sounds, the smells all carry back to the days when everything was done by hand. The days of the artisan. All about you are examples of the work of generations. Statues and fountains, gargoyles and cornices, columns and medallions from every corner of our nation.”
Proceeds from tours benefit the Lincoln Arts and Culture Foundation, supporting local art, including a summer concert series, after-school art classes, and school arts programs.
The opening of this year’s May tours was introduced with a Mardi-Gras themed, fund-raising reception for VIPs on April 30. The gala event was held amidst some of the gigantic aging kilns, and featured music, food catered by the Car Club of Auburn, a no-host wine and beer bar, and a first look at the ceramic exhibition.
Lincoln is a few miles north of Sacramento, off California highway 65. Factory tours start at the Lincoln Arts building, 580 Sixth Street in Lincoln. During Feats of Clay, many local artisans will have their works available for purchase in the gift shop.
Visit the Lincoln Arts website: www.Lincolnarts.org
- Tom McClelland