Georgia is famed for its bountiful clay resources. It is not the state's ubiquitous red clay that has been exploited commercially, but more localized clays such as kaolin and fuller's earth. Most important in the story of Georgia folk pottery is stoneware clay, concentrated as alluvial deposits along middle Georgia's fall line and scattered above in the Piedmont geologic province. Wares made of this fine-grained, relatively pure clay, which fires to a light gray or tan, were tough enough to withstand rough usage on the farm.
Georgia's 450 or so known folk potters did not consider themselves artists but humble artisans, like the blacksmith or basket maker. They were in business to provide fellow farmers with such sturdy vessels as jugs to store whiskey and cane syrup, churns to make butter and buttermilk, and jars to preserve vegetables, fruit, and meat. Before modern refrigeration and the availability of glass and metal containers, these wares were essential to Georgia's agrarian lifestyle.
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).
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. In contrast to the later European approach that used a potter's wheel, kiln, and glazes, these pots were hand-built with the coil technique and pit-fired in the open. This aboriginal technology disappeared from Georgia in the early 1800s with the Creek and Cherokee removals, returning briefly in the 1990s when revered Native American potter Georgia Harris left South Carolina's Catawba Reservation to spend her last years in Paulding County.
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. At about the same time, potters of the Brock family, who likely learned the craft from Edgefield-trained Allen Gunter in Hart County, helped establish a small center at Sligh's Mill in northern Paulding County. The oldest northeast Georgia pottery center, Mossy Creek in the foothills of southern White County, began in the 1820s with the migration of potters of the Davidson, Craven, and Dorsey families from North Carolina. This was also Georgia's largest center (about ninety potters) and home of the famous Meaders Pottery, launched in 1893. By 1847 another Landrum associate, Charles Ferguson, had opened Jug Factory near present-day Statham in Barrow County and begun a dynasty that, through blood or marriage, came to include some sixty potters. Fed by potters from Jug Factory and Mossy Creek, a final center blossomed during the 1880s at Gillsville in Hall County, where the Hewells, Cravens, and Fergusons are still active.
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.
In 1920 Cheever Meaders inherited the family pottery at Mossy Creek; a year later his brother Cleater set up a shop in nearby Cleveland. As local demand for food-related wares declined, tourists and crafts enthusiasts became their main customers. In the late 1950s Cheever's wife, Arie, taught herself to throw and developed an imaginative line of colorful wares, including wheel-thrown birds and animals, to appeal to this outside market. Their son, Lanier (1917-98), who inherited his mother's artistic vision and his father's determination to keep making alkaline-glazed stoneware the old-fashioned way, took over the shop in 1967 and revitalized the tradition of jugs with applied faces. Lanier Meaders's success encouraged others in the region, including members of his family, to carry on the craft today.
In the 1980s, as a sideline to their semi-industrial garden pottery operation, the Hewells of Gillsville built a wood-burning "tunnel" kiln and revived the tradition of alkaline-glazed stoneware with which their family had begun during the Civil War (1861-65) era. Three generations of Hewells—Harold and his wife, Grace, their son Chester and his wife, Sandra, and their sons Matthew and Nathaniel—host an annual fall "Turning and Burning" festival that has helped to make Gillsville a vital pottery center once again.
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 exhibitions and publications, that now supports this craft that once served the needs of Georgia's farming folk.