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Prairie Fire Pottery in ‘memories’ business
   
From staff and visitor bureau reports

Tama Smith considers herself in the vacation memories business, and she’s fired up about that. 

“Every day I ask myself: ‘How lucky am I to be working in the tourism business?” says Smith, “where people walk in my door smiling and happy?  That’s what vacations are about – having fun, enjoying time together. This makes my job real simple. Just add a little spin to that fun and make it happier still.”

Since the mid-1990s, the Bismarck native, and her spouse, Jerry DeMartin, have been operating Prairie Fire Pottery. They do so from a quaint products shop and spacious art studio in converted older structures in the Beach business district. Their pottery products, fired and shaped by Smith, feature richly designed color schemes (glazes) carefully created to reflect the textures and scenes of her beloved badlands. 

 “What’s really unique about our work is the colors,” DeMartin explains. “There are other potters working with high-fired stoneware. But very few can produce glaze colors as rich and complex as ours.” 

Prairie Fire Pottery fires its handmade brick kiln to 2400 degrees. “That’s an awesome heat,” DeMartin says. “It’s the same temperature the space shuttle reaches on reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Smith says summers are their time for creating and hosting steady streams of visitors, nearly 10,000 a year. They welcome visitors from all across the country, as well as foreign travelers, who have heard about Prairie Fire Pottery, or read about it on billboards or literature placed along Interstate 94.

With the help of Marty Campbell, production manager, summers will find Smith firing and glazing pottery. They take time also to conduct personal tours of the studio and kiln operations. These personal touches are important. “When you work in a handmade environment and when people are buying handmade pottery, they’re kind of buying a piece of you,” Smith says. 
 DeMartin agrees. “There’s a tangible connection between the person who makes the pottery and the person who uses it in their daily life. It’s more than just a piece of clay. People can get very attached to their pottery, especially their coffee mugs. Much like books or music, pottery reflects who we are. Both the maker and the user can be seen in the work.”

Smith is a fine arts graduate of the University of North Dakota (UND), where she met DeMartin. After UND, they moved so she could do graduate work at Michigan State University. There, she advanced as a potter, first borrowing kilns, then they built their own. After many years of traveling and selling their products at art fairs, Smith and DeMartin began to envision a stationary enterprise, back in her home state.  

“In doing art fairs, I realized there’s a core group of people who love pottery,” Smith says. “I thought If I could get back to North Dakota, find a little place, close to the interstate, where people would be traveling through on their vacations, and if I put the word ‘pottery’ out there, then all those pottery lovers would drive that mile off the interstate and come see my pottery.”

By the mid-1990s, they were looking at little communities in western North Dakota that might fit that profile. Beach was the perfect discovery. At that time, the town had vacant commercial buildings and affordable residential property. They took the plunge, purchasing an old shop in downtown Beach, where they lived, created and sold their pottery. Soon, they were able to purchase a century-old equipment warehouse, converting it to a spacious studio, where pottery firing, glazing, finishing and storing can occur under one roof. They were also able to buy a house in Beach, where they currently reside. 

Both knew marketing – especially along the busy interstate highway corridor – would be critical to their success. They invested in billboards and in brochure distribution at visitor centers and began advertising in the North Dakota Travel Guide. In the late ’90s, DeMartin began to develop a Prairie Fire Pottery website on the fledgling Internet resource. 

They know these marketing tools work, but know their personal marketing style is reaping great returns. “The biggest tool of all is word of mouth – it’s huge,” Smith says. 
The unique look of the Prairie Fire Pottery line is now imprinted on a wide array of products. These include: wall pieces, bowls, plates, pitchers, vases, planters, spoon rests, trays, tiles, wild animal tracks, vases and several other items.

Prairie Fire Pottery is at 127 East Main Street in Beach. During the summer, the shop is open seven days a week. The contact information: phone: 888-229-9496; email: info@prairiefirepottery.com; website: www.prairiefirepottery.com.

Beach: ‘mini-hub’
The community of Beach, home to Prairie Fire Pottery, is a small but vibrant community on the far western edge of North Dakota. “We’re kind of a mini-hub here,” says Deb Walworth, executive director of Prairie West Development Foundation.

 Walworth and the foundation operate as a multifaceted economic and tourism development and community promotion bureau. The county seat for Golden Valley county is experiencing increased traffic and home seekers related to the western North Dakota oil boom.
 “We had about 30 business startups in about five years and now things have settled down a bit,” Walworth says.

 Walworth says the community has a strong “buy local” attitude. The business sector has some comfortable and attractive options, including a coffee and quilting establishment, a unique collectibles shop, and, of course, Prairie Fire Pottery, which draws many visitors.

 Walworth says the foundation promotes scenic and historic day trips which use Beach as a starting point. Suggested trips include:
• Highway 16 and Old Highway 10, which afford views of Custer’s Historic Trail and the National Grasslands.
• Sentinal Butte hikes, explorations; the state’s second highest peak.
• Maah Daah Hey Trail, for cycling and hiking; several access points in the area.
 Learn more about travel opportunities in the Beach at: www.beachnd.com

 


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