by Judy Gonyeau
So many of us have seen these tiny treasures mounted to a piece of strong paper and displayed on the counters of drug stores, small shops, and even a few gas stations across the U.S. Dogs, ducks, horses, cats, and teeny tiny mice called to many children as precious little items to buy and collect. They were priced at only a few dollars and took up only a little space, but the quality of the pottery, its design, and the painting and finish on these detailed little creatures would engage many in play for hours. Today, these highly collected pieces line the shelves of many serious collectors.
The Rocky Road to Business
As told in the John Renaker Memoirs, his route to starting a good business following the days of the Great Depression and World War II was one taken with a great deal of diversity and determination. Diversity in the jobs he took to support him and his family from a young age and then as he attended college and started a family with his wife Maxine Hagen, and the determination to meet the demands of all of the jobs—large or small, industry or service positions—with a strong ability to catch on fast.
Following what was now his family’s dream, John and his father-in-law Ole Hagen built their first small factory in Monrovia, California in 1946 that included living quarters for their family to keep costs in line. They started out making plates, bowls, and similar utilitarian wares.
Building the original manufacturing facilities literally from the ground up (as with the creation of their first kiln from a hodge-podge of materials that would have a hard time passing OSHA standards today) required a lot of chutzpah. Luckily, John knew where to turn for guidance, thanks to the many contacts he made across his large swath of jobs. He found the raw materials and the skilled workers to help the business stand on its own two feet. They had as many as eleven buildings and as few as one as they traversed the ever-changing economic tide over the course of their existence.
Why the Change to Miniatures?
As the economy was just beginning to lift, John Renaker and his family were able to pool skills, resources, a few dollars here and there, and a strong family of craftsmen to bring what would be one of the tiniest pieces of giftware to the public. Prior to sizing up in business, they sized down their figurines.
John had noticed a small duck Maxine created for a group of Camp Fire Girls who were making a tour of the factory. Maxine was a Leader and created a little duck as an example to show how pottery was made. John then noticed it made a huge impression and was an immediate success, leading the Renakers to start a line of small animal figurines. They very quickly made them to the exclusion of all else, and the true mission of Hagen-Renaker was established.
The 1950s and 60s brought a demand for goods resulted in the import of cheap Japanese goods to keep pace with the Baby Boomer growth spurt in the U.S. Many of the pieces created were unlicensed copies of items made in the U.S. H-R continued to keep their manufacturing and finishing practices in California and in 1966 opened a new and more efficient plant to keep pace with the changing times.
In 1980 H-R took over the Freeman-McFarlin pottery company in San Marcos, CA, and continued to introduce new product lines that included a stoneware line and a specialties line. When it came time to retire in 1996, their oldest daughter Susan Renaker Nikas took over the company and continues to run it in San Dimas, CA.
Most recently, a pottery located in Nashville, Tennesee has been licensed to also produce H-R figurines. They take great pride in using original molds, locally-sourced clay, and having everything down to the stickers produced in the U.S. If you visit Hagen-Renaker Tennessee on Facebook, you will see the care and reverence they use in handling the molds and the pride in the finished products as they continue making these favorites of miniature collectors everywhere.
Variety Is King
According to the website hagenrenakerhorses.com, the diversity of the several lines developed by the company grew over time and included their first line of miniature animal figures, a larger line called Designers Workshop, a line of over 100 figurines for Disney® that were made from when Disneyland opened in 1955 through 1960 (Mr. Disney noted that he felt they were the finest 3-D figurines he had ever seen), a group of “gruesome” figures called Little Horribles, the Zany Zoo, and Black Bisque animals. But this is not the total number of sub-divisions of the many miniatures offered, as many are collected by artist, by style, by size (there are miniatures and then micro-mini), by timeline, location of manufacture, by breed of horse or dog, and more.
Each piece is individually painted by decorators using a finished sample to copy, but there was a range of acceptable colors and features to be hand-painted or airbrushed for each individual named piece. Molds were used for different characters; the painted stallion may be a chestnut stallion under another name. This kept collectors coming back for more of the same mold in all its varieties.
Each artist would start with a series of sketches and then sculpt different versions of an animal or creature for consideration. Often more than one would be placed in production. Little cat sitting. Little cat standing. Little cat with one paw up. Who could resist a little cat in any of these forms?
For collectors of Hagen-Renaker Pottery (H-R), the artists who created these figurines and more are at the heart of their success. Helen Perrin Farmlund, Maureen Love (Calvert), Nell Bortells, Tom Masterson, Will Climes, Robert McGuinness, and, of course, Maxine Hagen-Renaker formed a creative force that reflected their love and dedication to the business through their whimsical and beautiful pottery pieces.
Maxine Hagen-Renaker: According to the Hagen-Renaker website, Maxine was a lover of animals and wildlife conservation. And, while she is quoted as saying “John was pleased with some crude little figures I had made with some modeling clay, and he encouraged me to make models of little birds and animals;” Maxine stayed active in the company and consulted on new designs and production after her and John’s retirement in 1996 until her death in 2003 at the age of 89.
Helen Perrin Farmlund: Farmlund first started working for the Renakers as a decorator, but was soon recognized my Maxine for her talent and many of her designs became the foundation for the very early miniatures by H-R and set the tone for those yet to come.
Maureen Love Calvert: Perhaps best loved for her equine design expertise, Love’s work is highly collectible. She was a well-known artist and started at H-R as a decorator, but quickly demonstrated her prowess in the realm of design and sculpture. Her attention to detail lead to a true representation of an animal’s anatomy while her love of nature gave each one personality.
Nell Bortells: As with other artists at H-R, Bortells was an educated artist with a creative streak of her own. As she put it, “I studied all the Masters, but the art that came out of me had to make me laugh.” As the creator of the Horribles line she applied her sense of humor to each piece.
Tom Masterson: Many of Masterson’s pieces are revered for their simple design and rendering, making them a collectible worth looking for, and having some value. Some of his designs are well-liked for their extremely small size, and his realistic pedigree dog line is not to be missed.
Will Climes: As happened at many pottery companies, artists would work for their own business as well as lending their skills to other businesses. Such was the case with Will Climes, who went on to design many of the H-R Disney pieces.
Robert (Bob) McGuinness: Designer of the ever-popular H-R Nativity Set and treasured Fairies, Sue Renaker Nikas notes “I paired his human riders with Maureen’s wonderful horses to make the Girl with Sleigh, Barrel Racer, and Jumping horse and rider. When he came to me seeking work he was an established artist and I asked for a Nativity set; not believing he could do it. He brought back such beautiful pieces I was convinced. I sought pieces from him all during the 1990s and early 2000s.”
“I am just pleased to honor my mom and dad by keeping their project going. My mom once said that we make a product that has given a lot of people fond memories and something that has never harmed anyone. Now that I am old and look back, I realize that I could never do what my parents did but I am also pleased that I can paint, do books, figure out shipping, and keep the business going for myself, my work-family, and our collectors.”