MORTON — Amid the holiday chaos, a woman known as “The Pumpkin Lady” passed away without much fanfare.
Sheila Harvey, 75, died Dec. 21.
Morton resident Jan Hasty said she waited for two weeks to read Harvey’s obituary in the newspaper, but one did not appear.
“I know she was very poor and had no relatives that I ever heard about,” Hasty said. “I doubt most Mortonites even realize Sheila has passed away.”
While many Mortonites may not know Harvey passed away under hospice care, many own a piece of her pottery.
Carol Jankowski, Susan Pyles and Aaron Miller all own pieces of Harvey’s pottery and even helped her pour it at her shop, Morton Pottery.
Harvey owned and operated Morton Pottery for 43 years. She began working at the pottery plant when she moved to Morton from Decatur at the age of 22.
“When she came here, she reinvented herself. She was going to make something of herself,” Pyles said.
At Morton Pottery, Harvey worked in shipping, but she had artistic ability, so she began to learn about pouring, glazing and firing pottery.
In 1973, Morton Pottery was sold to the Rival Company, which made crockpot liners. The plant closed, but Harvey and a friend bought the rights to the Morton Pottery name and began operating the business from a garage on Morton Avenue. Harvey eventually bought out her friend and was the sole proprietor. A few years later she moved her operation to Detroit Avenue, before moving downtown on South Main Street and then to her home on East Monroe. Pyles said Harvey purchased her home on Monroe with funds she raised selling Beanie Babies in the ’80s.
“As a retailer, she was very smart and she was very supportive of what was going on in town,” Pyles said.
Pyles became friends with Harvey in the ’80s. The two women were business neighbors. When Pyles was not busy at her shop, Masterpiece Photography, she would wander down to talk to Harvey, who taught her to glaze pottery.
Jankowski and Pyles own 30-plus pieces made by Harvey, while Miller owns a handful.
It seems there was not a thing under the sun that Harvey did not mold into a piece of pottery. There were pitcher and bowl sets, animals, turkeys, plates, pie birds, eggs, nativity sets, ornaments, dishes, baby shoes, and of course, pumpkins.
Jankowski and Pyles recalled a lot of these pieces.
“Remember the turkeys? It had so many colors on it. ... It was beautiful,” Jankowski said.
“She made pumpkin houses and would write the person’s name on the floor mat,” Pyles said.
Pyles has her own personalized pumpkin with her and her husband’s name cut into the front of it, which Harvey did freehand. Harvey made more than 4,000 of these pumpkins for people all over the world, and the demand was so great, there was a six-month wait for an order.
Because Harvey worked alone, people in the community pitched in to help her from time to time.
“I can’t express to you how many molds she had, probably a basement full,” Jankowski said.
One thing Jankowski, Pyles and Miller learned in helping Harvey is just how heavy the molds were. They found it amazing that Harvey, who had a thin build, could do all the work that she did. The trio felt compelled to help Harvey.
“Her back was bad. To keep her business open, she didn’t have employees,” Jankowski said. “If she wasn’t working, she wasn’t making money.”
“Here’s an older lady who needs help and she’s a nice, sweet person. If everybody did that in the world today...,” Miller said.
Jankowski said that Harvey was very giving. She often donated her pieces for auctions and other charity events in the community.
After she moved her business to her home, Pyles said, “She would go to bed at 5:30 at night and get up at 2 a.m. and get her kilns going.”
Harvey used her garage as her factory and her dining room for painting. She stockpiled merchandise for the Morton Pumpkin Festival in the fall. That was a busy time of year for Harvey. She made pumpkin magnets and attached the green curly vines to the top of each one. Many festival attendees took home a little pumpkin.
“It’s still small-town USA, what she was doing. She really enjoyed the festival because of the people who would come just to see her,” Jankowski said.
In 2000, Harvey was named the Morton Pumpkin Festival Parade Marshal. The festival in 2016 was the first one Harvey missed since 1990. Still, friends set up her booth with her pumpkin pottery and sold practically everything.
When Harvey began having health problems, friends in the community and from Morton Rotary took her meals. They knew Harvey did not like to cook. A chiropractor, Cathy Gromer, cared for Harvey.
Even in ill health, Pyles and Jankowski recalled how funny, independent and bossy Harvey could be.
“She was still bossing me around nine hours before she passed away,” Pyles said with a laugh.
Even when she was receiving palliative care at the end of her life, Pyles said that Harvey told the health care professionals that she wanted to go home and paint her pumpkins.
“That was her identity. She was known as the pumpkin lady,” Pyles said.
“I saw her as an artist. She could have done so many other things. I don’t think she saw her potential,” Jankowski said.
Now Pyles, Jankowski and Miller treasure their pottery pieces a little more. Each piece Harvey did has the word “Morton” stamped in the clay on the bottom. Other pieces include Harvey’s handwriting, which Pyles said was very meticulous. Jankowski has an egg that Harvey inscribed with, “Carol, Jesus loves you.”
Pyles, Jankowski and Miller said they are going to think twice now about displaying and using their Morton pottery pieces because they do not want them to get broken.
“I am going to be sad that this stuff isn’t going to be made anymore,” Pyles said.
Pyles and other community members are planning a celebration of Harvey’s life Jan. 17, from 3 to 6 p.m., at Knapp-Johnson Funeral Home and Cremation Center in Morton.
Cremation rites have been accorded.
In lieu of flowers, in order to establish a scholarship in her honor, memorials may be made to Morton Community Foundation, 105 E. Jefferson St., IL 61550.
Online condolences may be left at www.knappjohnson.com.