Just Carrying on an Old Family Tradition

Written By: Judy Garrison

Enjoy a Summer Driving Tour of Northeast’s Georgia Folk Pottery Trail

The vibrant red clay of Georgia is the state’s hallmark, but it’s the kaolin clay, a white clay rock containing a multitude of minerals, that is Georgia’s largest natural resource. It is this product that transforms into the ideal mug for the morning coffee or the dish for pasta fazool. For the moment, forget the red stuff that stains everything it touches, and take note of the one that comes to life in an unexpected form with a little skill and a lot of work.

Pottery Essentials

Once upon a time, settlers and artisans discovered this material that was fine-grained and pure, and when fired, the material turned into a light gray color and withstood rough elements. From buttermilk churns to whiskey jugs, these creations and vessels provided the idea storage and preservation for foods. Essential to early settlers, pottery became an essential accessory in the home. As time passed, the vessels transformed into works of art, with shapes and styles being passed down from one generation to another, becoming an honored family tradition.

Georgia’s pottery tradition is as old as North America, dating to 2500 BC. For the Creeks and Cherokees, the containers were utilitarian as well as ceremonial. In the 1800s, Georgia folk pottery took on a style of its own as glazes were developed and the look became distinctive. With prohibition, the need for whiskey jugs disappeared. In the 1960s, the North Georgia region’s artistic vision returned and revived family traditions.

And that leads to the Folk Potters Trail of Northeast Georgia and the Folk Pottery Museum in Helen.

“The definition of folk pottery is every changing in order to encapsulate the living tradition,” states Meghan Gerig, museum director at the Folk Pottery Museum. “In short, the museum considers folk potters to be those who have learned their designs and handcrafting skills from other traditional potters, creating a generational tradition. Folk pottery was a vital profession and industry to the Northeast Georgia area from the 1800s to the 1930s.”

The containers and vessels were important for refrigeration and essential for storing and preserving food and drink. When harvest blossomed, it was the fall season that ushered in the biggest demand for containers, keeping potters busy. It became a family business, attracting customers from the community and producing a loyal following of those who valued their distinctive craft.

“Pottery was essential to survival in rural Georgia before electricity and before the popularity of plastic, glass, and metal food containers,” explains Gerig. “Agrarian folks needed pottery to survive. As utilitarian pottery became less of a necessity through the twentieth century, folk potters needed to adapt to the changing market. A large portion of the craft’s survival in Northeast Georgia is due to the ability of potters to adapt by creating more decorative pottery and consider themselves as artists.”

Distinctive Designs

It’s the face jug that spawns the most fascination.

“An interesting and mysterious component of regional folk pottery is the emergence of face jugs,” she continues. “There is no concrete explanation for their appearance; a popular tale is the demeanor of these faces were meant to scare kids away from the moonshine that was inside the jugs. Face jugs are not unique to Northeast Georgia, but potters from this region have developed particular styles and forms that are unmistakably from Northeast Georgia. Much of the tradition migrated from South Carolina and North Carolina but originated in Britain, Germany, and possibly China and Africa.

“Additionally, the tradition requires excavating clay and minerals that are native to Northeast Georgia; clay deposits are scattered above Georgia’s Fall Line and into the Piedmont Plateau. This constitutes the foundation of making pottery and glazes, and ultimately, gives way to distinctive colors and textures. Although potters have expanded to ordering glazes and clay from commercial sources, many come from a traditional folk pottery background.”

Take to the Trail

The Folk Pottery Museum in Helen makes the perfect beginning for the Folk Potters Trail. The museum narrates the story of potters within 90 miles. “Our museum houses a specific collection, displaying the story of a prolific era of pottery producing in Northeast Georgia,” states Gerig. Through didactic information, interactive environments, and an expansive collection of ceramics, it creates an educational foundation of this tradition that will aid in the understanding of potters and their processes along the trail.

At the museum, locate a full display on the trail as well as directions and information to local artisans in the area, like local legends in the Meaders family such as Jessie Meaders, Ruby Meaders Irvin, Mildred Meaders and Welchel Meaders. Each piece of ceramics speaks to a different story, and one of the oldest artifacts is the pickle jar, made by Clemmonds Quillan Chandler of White County in 1843. The southern gateway to the trail is the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville, where a display of the folk pottery highlights potters in that area.

The Northeast Georgia Trail includes the Cleveland-Mossy Creek area and the Lula-Gillsville location. At the center and the museum, pick up a copy of the trail. Access the website for detailed information and directions at snca.org.

Folk pottery represents an important part of this region’s history and culture. The tradition is kept alive at the museum and on the trail by communicating this history and the importance of the craft.

To plan your tour, visit folkpotterymuseum.com


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