Coaxed From Clay

From the red earth of the midlands, the creators of  Old Edgefield Pottery created a lasting legacy, leaving their unique fingerprints on the history of South Carolina.

Beneath the feet of those who live in Edgefield County, SC, there is a substance that has long bound the region together. It holds its rivers within the grasp of slippery red walls, and it swirls amidst rainwater rushing through nearby fields and forests, painting everything it touches with a rusty patina. It does not always endear itself to the population; adhering to bicycle tires and boots with great tenacity, it leaves evidence of its presence in tire tracks on otherwise pristine driveways and in footprints across freshly-mopped floors.

But in the hands of Native Americans known to have molded it thousands of years ago into cooking pots and storage vessels, the red clay was a valued gift from the earth. Shards of porous, unglazed earthenware created 2,000 years ago, mottled by the embers of cooking fires, have been found in the area. The methods creating them are thought to be the oldest North American art form still in use today.

In the more recent history of the 19th century, new hands from a far continent would sculpt Edgefield clay, placing it in the heat of a thousand fires to forge another unique art form—one that would shape a culture, and create an identity for those whose fingerprints remained etched on its surface.

“The earth has music for those who will listen.”  The lyrical words were written in 1955 by Reginald Vincent Holmes, but it is a sentiment that was a reality for those brought to the midlands of South Carolina 150 years earlier—those who listened and coaxed from the clay a symphony of graceful form and practical function, creating a distinctive stoneware known as Old Edgefield Pottery.

Old Edgefield Pottery was birthed around 1810, when Dr. Abner Landrum constructed the first pottery factory in the Edgefield District, now known as Edgefield County. Taking advantage of the red clay, kaolin, sand, pine, and minerals naturally available nearby, and the talents of gifted, enslaved African-American artisans, Landrum’s factory was the first in the country to succeed in the commercial production of stoneware. Around it, he built a village of approximately 150, appropriately named Pottersville. There, huge wood kilns, stoked to extremely high temperatures, produced strong, water-tight pottery.

The lead glazes of the time made the vessels deadly for both those who created them and those who used them to store food or potables. Around 1820, Landrum began experimenting with a Chinese celadon alkaline glaze. Landrum’s success in creating the alkaline glaze for stoneware made at his Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory revolutionized the manufacturing of the clay-based art form, bringing a unique signature to pottery produced in the area.

Of those producing the pottery, historians estimate that 75% to 95% of Edgefield’s stoneware was created by enslaved African-American men and women. By mid-century, other pottery factories sprang up in the Edgefield District, and the area became well-known for its well-made, durable, and inexpensive stoneware. Kilns up to 100 feet long, requiring 10 tons of wood per day, began to dot the landscape of Edgefield. They were built by the likes of Landrum, Lewis Miles, Thomas Chandler, and Collin Rhodes, names now synonymous with the art form. Sadly, most of the artisans remain nameless, although there are those whose style alone makes them stand out. The work of one enslaved man known as Dave the Potter has most famously come to represent Old Edgefield Pottery.

Born around 1800, and thought to have had as many as five owners in his lifetime, it is thought that Dave, having lost one of his legs in an accident that made him unfit to work as a field hand, was taught to write and read the Bible by one of his first owners, Harvey Drake. Later, as a freedman following Emancipation, Dave took his first owner’s name. It is presumed Drake taught Dave the art of making pottery.  

The pottery of David Drake was unique in many ways. Many of his vessels were large jugs and churns of a size and strength to hold large quantities. The largest known jar is nearly three feet tall, capable of holding almost 40 gallons. In the early 1840’s, under his ownership by Lewis Miles, Drake’s beautifully crafted work began to be inscribed with bits of poetry or Bible verses and signed and dated, a privilege almost unheard of for enslaved artisans. “I saw a leopard and a lion’s face/then I felt the need of grace,” he wrote in his elegant script on one vessel, signed and dated August 7, 1860. The dates on his work have been instrumental in helping to trace his movement between the various pottery factories.

Drake has also been credited with the creation of Face Jugs, which originated in the Edgefield District following the injection of over 100 slaves from the coast of Angola, illegally brought from Africa by Wanderer, a luxury racing schooner turned slave trading vessel. There are many theories behind the exaggerated features depicted on Face Jugs. Some have interpreted them as bridging the gap between enslaved African-Americans and the mysterious Kongo region of their ancestors. Others speculate their significance to be as vessels for medicinal brews such as laudanum or opium, and their use as religious or burial markers, since many have been found on gravesites.

There is no question, however, as to the value of Dave the Potter’s work in today’s market. A 2012 article in the New York Times reported an offering by Charlton Hall Auctions in West Columbia, SC, of an 1858 stoneware churn by Drake with the inscription, “This is a noble churn/fill it up it will never turn,” estimating its value at $100,000 to $175,000. The churn sold for $130,000.

Records indicate that Drake died a freedman some time in the late 1870’s, leaving behind a lifetime of beautiful reminders of his creative hands and enduring spirit. Pope Francis recently observed, “We are all jars of clay, fragile and poor, yet we carry within us an immense treasure.” Paradoxically, it is through Old Edgefield Pottery’s iconic jars of clay that the immense treasure within a generation of enslaved artisans has been preserved for all the world.

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Rising From the Ashes

Once a curious boy with his feet firmly planted in Edgefield clay, Master Potter Justin Guy’s childhood passion for shards of pottery brought him full circle to The Phoenix Factory.

Tucked into a side-street just behind Edgefield’s public library, the double doors of The Phoenix Factory stand open to the morning sun. Master Potter Justin Guy, who steers Old Edgefield Pottery and was appointed by the Edgefield Historical Society as Director of Pottery Initiatives, is mid-story when Chandler, a Welsh Corgi lad of great vocal talent, rolls onto his back, interjecting grunts and deep sighs of punctuation into the conversation. “Would you rather tell the story?” his master asks, laughing at the dog’s determined efforts to get attention.

Old Edgefield Pottery is a comfortable space that Guy describes as “half museum, half working pottery.” One side of the small studio is lined with vintage pottery, some complete, others mere shards of vessels that have helped write the history of a small town, and the history of a young boy who knows it like the back of his hand. Growing up nearby, Justin was somewhat of an expert on Old Edgefield Pottery before he had been alive an entire decade, having spent a large portion of his short life teasing shards of pottery from the clay of his home.

He recalls a group from a visiting university calling to ask if they might speak with Justin Guy. “Yes,” his father replied. “But you do realize he is only eight years old, don’t you?” They were aware, and his dad handed him the phone.

Though his parents bought him a potter’s wheel when he was thirteen, few ever imagined that the boy carrying bits of old stoneware in his sandy pockets would one day carry on the 200-year-old customs of the very potters responsible for the stoneware’s creation.

Those shards were the inspiration for the pottery Guy turns on a kick-foot potting wheel in the building restored by his joint efforts with the Edgefield Preservation Association, the Edgefield Civic League, and Edgefield Cultural Arts and Tourism. Aptly invoking a vision of rising from the ashes, the studio opened in 2016, taking the place of the previous Old Edgefield Pottery, which opened in 1992 and closed in 2015.

The young potter says that he forgot all that he learned in college in exchange for the skills he learned as an apprentice under Master Potter Stephen Ferrell, who retired from Old Edgefield Pottery in 2011. Guy is a wealth of information, relating the fascinating history of the region conversationally as he steps to a large container of local clay, scooping out and weighing a large block. His ability to bring the past to vivid life is a testament to the depth of knowledge he possesses of Edgefield’s heritage, liberally laced with rich and raucous events and characters.

The clay seems to relax in Guy’s hands, almost as though recognizing his touch as he throws it onto a hard surface to release pockets of air. His ease at the wheel belies the skill required to shape the perfectly symmetrical vases, pitchers and bowls from the clay he digs from local sites, the location of which he holds close to the vest. Almost magically, the shape of a tall, thin vessel emerges. It takes only a few quick motions to form the spout of a perfect pitcher, which will later be glazed and fired.

Sure to be treasured for many years for its timeless beauty and durability, Guy’s work pays homage to the artisans of the past, and his respect for those men and women is apparent in each vessel he creates. Edgefield is hallowed ground for those who understand the struggle and sacrifice of those whose hands first worked the clay, and there is no better ambassador for Old Edgefield Pottery than Justin Guy.

Located at 230 Simpkins Street near Edgefield’s Town Square, The Phoenix Factory is open Monday through Friday from 9:00am to 4:00pm, and on Saturday by appointment.

By Susan Frampton