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Nearly ‘100 percent’ Red Wing

Louise Schleich and her late husband, Jerry, started with a $40 pantry jar and built their collection into the Schleich Red Wing Pottery Museum in Lincoln, Neb. That museum’s 5,000-plus pieces are now in Red Wing.

A Nebraska couple with a passion for Red Wing pottery and stoneware accumulated more than 5,000 pieces over 30 years and turned their collection into a museum in Lincoln.

But Louise and Jerry Schleich knew that Nebraska was only a stopping place.

“Jerry always said he wanted it to come home to Red Wing,” said Larry Peterson, president of the Red Wing Collectors Society Foundation and project manager for the new museum.

Jerry Schleich died in 2005, and two years later his widow announced that she would be giving it all to the Red Wing group.

A comprehensive collection that spans the nearly 100 years of Red Wing pottery history, the Schleich collection began with a simple 3-pound pantry jar. Louise Schleich paid $40 for it in the 1970s when the piece caught her eye in an antique shop.

Like Red Wing collectors across the country, the couple began picking up more pieces. Art pottery, dinnerware and cookie jars found their way into the collection. They also acquired a huge collection of paintings, prints and original drawings by Charles Murphy, a famed wildlife artist as well as a well-known Red Wing pottery designer.

“They had an incredible collection of catalogues, research materials and photographs,” as well, Peterson said.

“Their goal was to collect one of everything Red Wing made. I think they’re probably at 98 percent, if not closer,” he said.

The foundation’s existing museum in Red Wing has some items the Schleichs did not have, he noted. “Our goal is to reach 100 percent” when the two collections are merged.

Many of the pieces from the Schleich museum are one-of-a-kind.

“A lot of them are lunch-hour pieces, and there are some extremely rare pieces — vases and things no one has ever seen,” Peterson said.

Items range in size from a 1/8-pint mini-jug to a 70-gallon jug that was made for display at the Minnesota State Fair in 1923.

Red Wing Union Stoneware Co. made three of the huge jugs; only this one is known to still exist. The jug was found partially buried in a barn on a Nebraska farm. Legend has it that a collector of steam engines was given the jug or purchased it for 50 cents when he came to Minnesota to buy an engine.

When Jerry Schleich acquired it at auction, the cost was more than the couple paid for their first home.

The Schleichs opened their museum in Lincoln in 2001.

Although it was listed as one of the top 10 things to see in Nebraska, Peterson said, “Their museum was only open by appointment.” A benefit of bringing all that pottery and stoneware to Red Wing is that “This will allow more people to experience the collection.”

Their huge collection of printed material and photos will be made available to researchers in the library of the new Red Wing Pottery Museum.

“It’s hard to place a value” on the collection, Peterson said. Officials estimate the inventory at $1.5 million, but consider it priceless. “It could never be duplicated today.”

Foundation members have no doubt that when the two collections are merged and the new museum opens this summer, it will be a huge tourist draw.

“The No. 1 reason people come to Red Wing is the pottery,” Peterson said. “This is a huge gift to Red Wing. It will be a destination for people all over the United States.”