Georgia is famed for its bountiful clay resources. It is not the state's ubiquitous red clay that has been exploited commercially, but
Georgia's 450 or so known folk potters did not consider themselves artists but humble artisans, like the blacksmith or
Pioneer potters settled along the fall line and in the Piedmont where the relatively pure stoneware clay was concentrated. They established eight pottery centers: three in middle Georgia (Washington County, Crawford County, and Jugtown on the Upson-Pike County line) and five in north Georgia (Howell's Mills in Atlanta, Sligh's Mill in Paulding County, Mossy Creek in White County, Jug Factory in Barrow County, and Gillsville in Hall County). Under the influence of dominant "clay clans," each "jugtown" developed a set of identifiable stylistic traits for its wares. The handing on of shapes and handcrafting technology from one generation to the next defines the work of these small-scale, family-run shops as folk pottery (in contrast to the use of mass-production molds and machines for industrial wares and the school training and aesthetic emphasis of studio potters).
The Historical Tradition
Georgia's pottery history is one of the oldest known for North America, with ceramics from the Savannah River area dating to 2500 B.C. The Southeastern Indians who inhabited the state made cooking, storage, and ceremonial wares of commonly occurring earthenware clay whose iron impurities colored them red.
Georgia's first known potter was Andrew Duché, a Philadelphian of Huguenot stock who made experimental porcelain and apparently utilitarian earthenware and stoneware in Savannah between 1738 and 1741. His earthenware, like that of a few other early Georgia potters, would have been lead-glazed in the European fashion.
Georgia folk pottery came into its own in the early 1800s, when potters from the Carolinas introduced a distinctly regional stoneware tradition that became the norm for the state. In the North, salt was thrown in the kiln to glaze stoneware (Andrew Duché's father, Anthony, was one of the first to use this European technique in America). But in South Carolina's Edgefield district, across the Savannah River from Augusta, alkaline stoneware glazes, probably inspired by published accounts of similar glazes in China, were developed by Dr. Abner Landrum in about 1815. Prepared as a solution, these glazes depend on an alkaline substance—wood ashes or lime—to help melt the other readily available ingredients: clay and an additional silica source such as sand. The glaze turns either green or brown when its iron content reacts to the kiln atmosphere.
By 1820 Landrum associates Cyrus Cogburn and Abraham Massey were making alkaline-glazed stoneware in northern Washington County, which became Georgia's first pottery center. Some who worked there started other middle Georgia centers in eastern Crawford County (James Long and John Becham in the late 1820s) and at Jugtown, on the Upson-Pike County line (William Brown in the 1830s). By 1864 Brown's son, Bowling, and related potters had moved to Howell's Mills in northwest Atlanta.
The early twentieth century ushered in a series of changes in Georgia that nearly sounded the death knell for folk pottery as a utilitarian craft. The 1907 state prohibition shut down licensed distillers and thus cut the demand for whiskey jugs. Affordable glass and metal containers and the rise of commercial dairies eliminated the need for other kinds of stoneware vessels. And the Great Depression, when former customers often lacked cash to buy wares, was the final blow for many traditionally trained potters. A few kept their hands in clay by adopting strategies to weather these changes. In the 1930s brothers Bill and D. X. Gordy, whose roots were in Jugtown, began to develop artistic wares to appeal to a wealthier clientele, while the Merritts of Crawford County and the Hewells of Gillsville shifted to the production of "dirt cheap" unglazed garden pottery, the former with molds and machines and the latter by hand-throwing on the potter's wheel.
The Living Tradition
In 1920 Cheever Meaders inherited the family pottery at Mossy Creek;
In the 1980s, as a sideline to their semi-industrial garden pottery operation, the Hewells of Gillsville
Other notable active Georgia folk potters include Marie Rogers of Meansville, widow of Jugtown-trained Horace Rogers; brothers Michael and Melvin Crocker of Lula, who started with garden pottery but now make ash-glazed wares; and Linda Craven Tolbert of Cleveland, who has recently revived her family's pottery tradition after skipped generations by apprenticing with Gillsville's Bobby Ferguson. Ironically, it is a growing urban collectors' market, stimulated by exhibits and publications, that now supports this craft that once served the needs of Georgia's farming folk.
John A. Burrison, From Mud to Jug: The Folk Potters and Pottery of Northeast Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).
Lindsey King Laub, Evolution of a Potter: Conversations with Bill Gordy (Cartersville, Ga.: Bartow History Center, 1992).
Nancy Sweezy, Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984; reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
Eliot Wigginton and Margie Bennett, eds., Foxfire 8 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor Press, 1984).
John A. Burrison, Brothers in Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983; reprint, with new preface, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995; video, Macon, Ga.: Museum of Arts and Sciences and WMAZ-TV, 1989).
Ralph Rinzler and Robert Sayers, The Meaders Family: North Georgia Potters (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980; video, 1978).
John A. Burrison, Georgia State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.