It is almost an American tradition that enterprises begin in the garage of their founders. The first Paragon kiln, a P-13, was made in the garage of Frances and her husband, J. J. Darby, in 1948. "We were kids in our early 20s," Frances reminisced during an interview.
The kiln business came out of ceramic lessons Frances Darby took from a neighbor, who taught ceramics on a dinner table. "The lessons were a gift from my mother," Frances said. "It was after World War II, and my mother thought it was wonderful that you could make ceramics, which had been so terribly expensive during the war."
Frances' neighbor fired ware in an old gas kiln. "In those days there were so few kilns that teachers were charging $1.50 to fire one dinner plate," Frances said. "You could buy a 10" kiln or a studio kiln, but nothing in between, and I wanted a hobby kiln to fire 12" dinner plates."
So J. J. Darby, an engineer, designed and built Frances a kiln. One of the first things she fired in it was a ceramic coffee set in black glaze. She gave it to a friend for a house warming little realizing that her friend was also taking ceramic lessons. When her friend's teacher, Mrs. Marshall, saw the coffee set, the teacher wondered how the black glaze had been fired to such a brilliant finish. She fired it in a kiln her husband made?
When the Darby family came home from church one Sunday, they found Mrs. Marshall, the ceramics teacher, sitting on their porch waiting for them. Would they make her a kiln, too?
After Mrs. Marshall took her kiln home, someone called from Oklahoma City asking for one. Then someone called from West Texas. Laughing, Frances said, "The strange thing about ceramics in those days was that customers wouldn't tell anybody locally where they bought their kilns, but they didn't mind telling ceramists who lived far away." So the business spread to other states.
Six months later the Darbys leased a warehouse and hired two employees. "We were the first to make kilns with a warranty and product liability," Frances said. She worked at the new shop during the day, even bringing her baby, Michael, to the office. (Baby Michael went on to become Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy under Ronald Reagan and Under Secretary for Economic Affairs under George Bush Sr.) J. J. came in during the evenings after working his daytime job.
Paragon Industries grew by word of mouth. "We grew from one satisfied person telling another," Frances said. "And that's how every successful ceramic studio started out. It's that way in every business. You must give the customer quality." Paragon Industries didn't start advertising until the first ceramics magazine, Popular Ceramics, was published. Ceramics Monthly appeared next.
Frances Darby worked so hard that she didn't have time to worry about the business. She worked 12 to 14 hours, six days a week. Sometimes she sat up all night test firing. “I used to think that if I ever got sales up to a certain point, I’d take the day off,” she said. “When sales reached that point, I didn’t even know it, I was so busy.”
In addition, she took work home for Sunday afternoons. When she watched TV, she even did office bindery work such as stapling. "But I refused to work Sunday mornings," Frances said with a laugh.
The word 'Paragon' was attached to the case of the earlier kilns as a sculptured metal plaque. It became a handy indicator of an overfire. If a customer brought in a kiln and the Paragon plaque on the side of the kiln had sagged, France would ask, "And when did you overfire it?"
How do the kiln-fired arts of today compared with ceramics of the 40s and 50s? "Back when we started," said Frances, "there were only two jobs a woman could do: she could be a nurse or a school teacher. I was trained to be a teacher.
"So I think ceramics became an outlet for women to make money," Frances continued, "because most of them could make $25,000 a year by teaching ceramics in their homes and selling greenware, and that was very good money for a woman back then."
"Looking back, I must say that ceramists are a great group," Frances said. "People who make things with kilns are the givers of the world. They are a unique group. They enjoy making beautiful things for the people they love. They enjoy helping children. You will find few bad people in ceramics or glass. The cheats don't last long. I couldn't have met a greater group of people if I had done anything else."
"People will always need a creative outlet," she continued. "You can't work with your hands and worry at the same time. Ceramics, glass fusing, silver clay, and enameling are lifesavers to people with problems. If you have a tragically ill child and you can't do anything to help the child, the firing arts will save your sanity. They relieve your mind of that constant worry. They are such relaxing hobbies.
“The ceramic shop took the place of the corner grocery store where people could get together to talk. People who make ceramics, glass, and pottery are the givers of the world. They are a unique group. They enjoy making beautiful things for the people they love. If you've moved to a new area and you want to meet friends with a common interest, sign up for a ceramics, bead, pottery, or glass class. You will meet nice people wherever you go.”
In 1981 Frances approached John Hohenshelt, Sr, who was vice-president of manufacturing at Tonka Toys. “John, I’ve decided to sell you my company,” she said. They laughed together, but a year later he did, indeed, buy the assets of the company and form a new organization under the Paragon name.
Today, Paragon Industries, L.P. is one of the largest electric kiln manufacturers in the world. The Paragon factory has grown from a garage workshop to 72,000 square feet of manufacturing capacity in Mesquite, Texas, just outside Dallas.
Paragon kilns can be found in dusty garage workshops, basements, hobby centers, and studios the world over. To date we have manufactured over 425,000 kilns. Frances Darby, who passed away in June, 2007, would be proud to know that her company is still growing.
After over half a century, Paragon kilns have developed a loyal following. One kiln owner wrote, "Please keep building the best kilns in the world." 30-year-old Paragon kilns that were given to grandchildren are still firing, and we regularly hear from people requesting a manual for kilns made during the 50's and 60's.
Since Paragon was founded, the world has gone through momentous changes. In the coming years, who knows what the future of our industry will bring? We hope you join us in exploring that future together.
Top photo: Frances Darby teaching a kiln maintenance seminar in 1978.
2nd photo: John Hohenshelt, Sr, at the time that he bought Paragon in 1982.
3rd photo: Building kilns on the assembly line.
4th photo: Making QuikFire 6 kilns.