By Sue Botos
Tom Barrett has had a front row seat for a lot of Rocky River history on the porch of his grandparents’ Lake Road house. He has seen the city grow from agriculture and greenhouses to a suburban community.
But what most commuters probably don’t realize, as they make their way to and from Lakewood or the eastern portion of Rocky River, is that the old farmhouse, peeking out from behind a row of tall bushes, and the surrounding structure played a significant role in that history. In the 1920s this was the showroom and production site for Cowan Pottery.
During a tour of the property, Barrett explained that R. Guy Cowan, who produced the iconic ceramics from 1912 until falling victim to the Great Depression in 1931, moved his business to Lake Road in Rocky River after the gas well at his Lakewood location dried out. In 1935, Barrett’s grandparents purchased the land, which included the house, former pottery factory and a building which was supposed to house the showroom, but ended up with an interesting history of its own.
“My grandfather started the Walter Barrett Creamery; it was like Mitchell’s. A lot of the old guys remember coming to Barrett’s for ice cream from the 1930s until the late ′40s,” recalled Barrett, adding that the creamery – which also produced milk for delivery customers – met its demise during the next decade. “In the 1950s more women had cars and no longer needed their milk delivered,” said Barrett.
Barrett also revealed that during the 1940s the building offered competition to Bearden’s, then Jackson’s. “My grandfather sublet part of the building to a diner. They had the usual hamburgers and cheeseburgers,” said Barrett, noting that a specialty “chicken in a basket” was designed to go “head-to-head” with Bearden’s, as was the carhop service.
The takeout window is still visible on the east side of the building, which now houses several small businesses, where Barrett said his grandparents met in 1942 when his grandmother applied for a 25-cent-per-hour job.
The window overlooks another structure, which, while not part of the Barrett property, offers another story, alluded to by the vent structures on its roof. Currently the River Pointe building, Barrett said this was the Rocky River Basket Co. until the 1960s. “The greenhouse owners got tired of being gouged (by basket makers), so they decided to make their own baskets,” said Barrett, who recalled how the smell of wood being cooked reached his childhood home across the street. He said one of his father’s most exciting memories is of a fire at the basket factory in the early 1940s.
“The city’s one little fire truck couldn’t handle it,” said Barrett, adding that any neighbors who happened on the scene were handed a hose to help out.
Growing up as one of six brothers, Barrett remembers a time of huge growth in the city. At St. Christopher (where he went to school), there were 54 students in one classroom. After school the streets were full of kids,” he said, adding that “Tangletown” was the best part of the city to rides bikes through.
Recalling the time before construction of I-90, Barrett talked about Lake Road traffic. “As a kid I remember hearing the semi trucks. It was a noisy place,” he said, adding that steam trains from the nearby tracks “left coal dust all over the neighborhood.”
Barrett said he spent a lot of time at his grandfather’s business and their home, part of which dates to the mid-1800s. The front portion was built around the turn of the 20th century, and according to Barrett has not changed in appearance in 100 years. While no one has lived permanently in the house since his grandparents moved out in 1958, Barrett said he has managed the property. “I take care of all the headaches,” he said. His business, the Barrett Co., which rents semi trucks and overseas shipping containers, uses the space once occupied by pottery kilns.
Noting the paint and landscaping work being done on the former Cowan showroom, Barrett said he plans to have the house ready for the Cowan Centennial event in August of next year, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the pottery. “We will try to duplicate the displays in the same rooms using the same pieces,” Barrett said, referring to a time when buyers would come from all around to view samples of the work and order pieces for retailers such as Marshall Field’s.
Looking out from the porch of the house, Barrett had mixed emotions about the tall trees, which are being cut down. “I like to keep a low profile,” said Barrett with a smile, adding that he will continue to view the city, but from behind lower landscaping.
The 22nd annual Cowan Pottery Symposium will be held May 5 from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. at the Rocky River Public Library. Speakers will include art experts Mark Bassett, Lauren Hansgen and Michael Beyer. Cost is $20. For more details, contact Carol Jacobs, Cowan Museum curator, at 440-895-3763.