As a child growing up in northern Thailand, Duang Hanesworth collected her family’s drinking water from giant rainwater catchment vessels that stood outside her home. Most families in her village owned at least one of these round-bodied cement containers- not unusual in a country where natural resources are painstakingly conserved and recycled.
Today, Duang lives in San Antonio, and households in her native village in Thailand are tied to the municipal water system. But the rainwater vessels Duang grew up with remain a primary source for drinking water in many Thai villages. And now, exclusively through San Antonio-based Big Grass, these gracefully formed, hand-crafted vessels are beginning to appear in gardens, on patios, and on front lawns throughout San Antonio, Austin, and the Hill Country.
Duang and her husband, John Hanesworth, began importing what they coined the “Ong™ jar” (ong refers to “storage vessel” in Thai) in 2006, when they opened Big Grass, their home and garden business near downtown San Antonio. Since then, Big Grass Ong jar sales have doubled every year, propelled by a growing appreciation for the benefits of water conservation across drought-prone Texas.
“We just thought the Ong jars were such a natural solution and aesthetically-appealing alternative to the plastic and metal collection vessels common here in the Hill Country,” John said. “They’re so utilitarian, but the beautiful shape reflects the way they’re handmade using traditional, labor-intensive production techniques. People here who see them love the shape and respond to the size, which breaks the mental barriers of what a pot can be and how it can be used.” Ong jars are made from dense cement, which prevents evaporation, and come in 425-gallon and 225-gallon sizes. They feature drain plugs, hose faucet fittings and galvanized or decorative hardwood tops. To optimize water collection, the jars can be placed under downspouts, rain chains and roof valleys.
Big Grass generally custom-stains the Ong jars to complement different Texas landscape styles, but the vessels can also be left in their smooth, dove-grey natural color.
Thomas Burke, a Houston-based physician, recently came across a Houston Chronicle article illustrating how Ong jars were integrated into a house renovation project in Comfort. He decided to pursue a similar design for his home near Fredericksburg and bought an Ong jar from Big Grass. “I worked with a local contractor to build a pad, integrate it with a cactus garden and match up some gutters to catch the whole roof,” Dr. Burke said. “This worked so well that we just got our second [Ong jar] for the other side of the house.” The Ong jar, he added, is “a truly unique product that combines conservation with an architectural element that is quite attractive.”
As part of their strongly held belief to support local artisans and the communities that depend on them, John and Duang work directly with the individuals and families that create the handmade, eco-friendly products they sell at Big Grass, including the Ong jar. They visit their overseas poducers several times a year, and that direct, personal relationship translates into quality products at competitive prices for Big Grass customers in Texas.
Thongsri, the artisan behind the Big Grass Ong jar, lives near Duang’s native village. Like many villagers in the region, he is also a farmer, but spends most of his time producing two Ong jars a day with a crew of four men. They carefully mold each container, form and smooth the cement, and then emboss the vessel with the Big Grass Ong jar logo.
Once ready for shipment, the Ong jars are delivered to a Big Grass Thai warehouse, where they are filled with the other distinctive products sold at Big Grass – furnishings, accessories, cultural artifacts, statuary, and hardscape. The jars are then loaded into a U.S.-bound container that docks in Long Beach, Calif. and are then transported by rail to San Antonio.
Big Grass is the only Ong jar supplier in the United States. John says it would be tough and prohibitively expensive to replicate these vessels in this country.
“You rarely find anyone making something handmade anymore in the United States,” he said. “To produce the Ong jars here would be very difficult because there’s a real learning curve involved. These are not mass-factory produced products, but carefully hand-crafted objects that are made to last.”