DIGGING DEEPLY INTO CLAY
The past and present of pottery on the Eastern Shore
by Jim Hannaford photography George Fuller
It was a stroll through downtown Fairhope, over half a century ago, that shaped the rest of Tom Jones’ life. Back then, the teenaged Tom had just relocated with his family from Arkansas and was adjusting to life in a new town – one that he would soon find had a vibrant artistic undercurrent.
On that fateful day in early 1966, he was checking out the offerings of the annual arts and crafts fair, which back then was a much more modest affair when compared to the bustling festival it has since become. Peering through a storefront window, young Tom saw an older lady using a potter’s wheel.
“I had never seen anyone making pottery before,” he says. “And something about it was captivating to me. I don’t know why, but it was.”
The woman giving the exhibition was Edith Harwell, a prominent figure in the area’s long and storied history in the ceramic arts. She and her husband Converse Harwell were already established as potters in North Carolina when they moved to Fairhope in 1938. They built a brick kiln in back of their home at the corner of Section Street and Oak Street (now the site of the Eastern Shore Art Center) and operated there as Pinewood Pottery for several decades. (The wood-burning kiln remains on the property and is listed as an Alabama historic landmark.)
Harwell’s beautifully glazed bowls, vases and mugs are widely collected today. She also has an enduring legacy at The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, where she taught ceramics for some 33 years.
After transferring from Fairhope High School – in large part because of that chance encounter in 1966 – Tom Jones became one of Harwell’s many pupils. “I was not a natural,” he says with a laugh while sitting behind his own well-worn wheel, “but she apparently saw something in me.”
If so, her instincts were correct. Jones has been a full-time potter for over four decades, with a namesake pottery studio on Clay City Road since 1976. Loyal customers ensure a backlog of work for him and his small crew, who produce thousands of decorative and functional ceramic pieces each year.
Much of the clay Jones uses is from right here in Baldwin County. It’s literally at our feet in some areas along the Bay and Fish River. This vast, naturally occurring clay deposit that’s millions of years old is a big reason why the Eastern Shore has been an active area for pottery production longer than anyone can remember.
“At one time all of the lots in Montrose and Daphne on the Eastern Shore were leased to potters,” says Donnie Barrett, director of the Fairhope Museum of History. “They used to say that everybody farmed in the summertime and worked for the potters in the winter. Everybody could make a living. It was big business.”
A 2001 University of South Alabama archaeology project (in which Barrett participated) identified 54 different potters and potteries operating in the area in the 1800s and 1900s. It also documented the remnants of nine different historic kilns.
Joey Brackner, director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture and author of the comprehensive book Alabama Folk Pottery, says the area may have the longest continuous history of pottery-making of any place in the United States.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the beginning of this rich, cultural tradition, but Native Americans made pottery here for thousands of years, and French settlers brought their techniques in the early 1700s. In the early 1800s and up until the 1940s, areas just north and east of present-day Fairhope were home to numerous kilns that turned out household necessities such as bowls, churns, crocks and chamber pots. This was before the age of plastic containers, of course, and even before containers were being made from glass or metal.
“People were using what they needed,” says Barrett. And with the potteries being located along the water, they could easily ship to the port of Mobile for further export.
But the widespread use of utilitarian pottery declined with the discovery of bacteria, according to Barrett, and consumers sought different storage methods they presumed to be safer. This gave rise first to factory-made ceramics from other parts of the country, and then to the advent of other types of sealable containers. Potters here at home began to diversify by making more decorative objects, he said. Some cranked out flower pots, umbrella stands, bird feeders and vases, while one in Daphne specialized in charcoal braziers. During the Prohibition years, enterprising Eastern Shore potters fortified their income with little brown jugs for the illegal whiskey trade.
Brick and tile, too
The same indigenous clay that was perfect for pots, jugs and vases made great bricks and tile too. The Fairhope Clay Products factory operated along the western shore of the Fish River in the appropriately named “Clay City” community for almost 70 years.
Frank L. Brown, one of Fairhope’s earliest town leaders, started making bricks on Morphy Avenue soon after the colony was settled in 1894, before moving his operation out to the riverfront property around 1916. The company specialized in an innovative, structural clay tile that was originally designed as fireproofing for skyscrapers, according to Barrett. A succession of family members, including Ralph Brown, Daphne Brown Anderson, and Ralph Jennings, continued to run it until the mid-1990s.
The oversized tiles of various shades of yellow and orange are literal, historical building blocks of Fairhope and surrounding communities, and they remain a common sight today. Many of Fairhope’s structures rely on the company’s clay sewer pipes as well.
Wild about clay
Jones says he purchases most of his clay from a wholesaler that sources it locally. Other present-day potters insist on harvesting it themselves, as their forebears did. Zach Sierke is probably the most passionate about what he calls “wild clay.” He is always on the hunt for best-quality clay to bake in the wood-burning kiln he built on his family’s property just outside Fairhope. His forays include waterfront searches on both sides of the Bay and occasionally into neighboring states, though much of the clay he uses to craft his distinctive, functional art comes from the same Eastern Shore vein that has served generations before him.
In fact, his great-great grandfather, Homer Howard was one of them.
According to the story that Sierke has been able to piece together, Howard had already worked as a potter in Indiana when the Civil War broke out, and he observed the Clay City pottery enterprises firsthand when he and his fellow Union soldiers were in the area for the lead-up to the Battle of Fort Blakeley in early April 1865. Impressed with this abundance of clay, Homer returned to this area after the war and set up his own pottery works along Cowpen Creek, a tributary of Fish River, which he ran from around 1880 until his death in 1900. He married a Cherokee woman, and they had three daughters, one of whom was Sierke’s great-grandmother.
Sierke had been aware of the family legacy for a long time, but delved into it further once he took a pottery course in college and realized he was hooked.
While most modern potters use gas-fueled or electric kilns, Sierke prefers a much older method. His kiln, known as an anagama kiln, follows an ancient Japanese tradition of using a single chamber with a firebox at one end and a chimney at the other, with no barrier in between. This method exposes the pottery inside directly to ash and flames. “You’re trying to develop a patina that has a natural, rustic beauty to it,” he says.
It’s not a small undertaking. His twice-a-year firings involve several weeks of gathering and preparing up to six cords of firewood to yield between 500 and 600 finished pieces. It’s a team effort, with help from up to 20 volunteers who assist around the clock, tending to the fire.
Sierke sees his works as remedies for a modern world trained to think of things in a throw-away, disposable fashion.
“It offers a connection to the natural world through something that is one of the world’s oldest technologies,” Sierke says. “I hope that people will get an impression of all the things that have to come together to make it.”
A sense of community
There seems to be a strong sense of community among today’s pottery practitioners. Sierke leads classes at the Eastern Shore Art Center, and a former student of his, Susie Bowman, offers lessons three times a week at her own business, The Kiln Studio & Gallery. Members there have all-hours access, so they can work on their own wares and benefit from a small library of resource materials. Bowman, an accomplished artist herself, also hosts nationally and regionally known artists for exhibits and workshops.
“You don’t come in just to make pots – you come in to learn and to grow,” says Bowman, who opened the studio and gallery nearly eight years ago.
Besides being a means of artistic expression, she says, ceramics offers therapeutic benefits too.
“It is a way to just kind of put your mind someplace else. There have been many times when someone has come in and said, ‘I have had the worst day, and I came in here and forgot all of that and just focused on the clay.’”
The history of the Eastern Shore is uniquely imbedded in clay, and the future of pottery here seems equally well set. “What you have now with all these young potters, is people who are interested in traditions,” Brackner explains, “but they are also creating forms that stand on their own as a work of art.”
We’ve made our mark in the world of pottery, holding fast to our culturally diverse, tradition-rich history of artisanship. “You just don’t see many communities these days that have wood-burning kilns,” Brackner says, clearly impressed. “The pottery tradition is something that Baldwin County should be really proud of,” he continues. “It should be celebrated.”