Catawba Valley Pottery of North Carolina
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Updated-4-25-13 Pottery Available For Purchase
Catawba Valley Pottery: A Brief History
In the early 1800's, a young potter named Daniel Seagle began creating lead glazed earthenwares for neighboring farmers to use in canning and food and drink storage. No one knows how he learned the craft, but possibly from his father, Adam. Daniel was born just east of the Appalachian mountains in a fertile valley region of North Carolina. Today, it's called Catawba Valley where the river of the same name runs through it - Catawba River. There, in the banks of the river, was some of the finest clay available for pottery making.
Using these clays, Daniel began making the transition from earthenware to stoneware around 1830. This type of pottery was more durable than the low-fired lead glazed earthenware; not to mention safer for food preparation. He employed the use of alkaline glazes on the pottery which consisted of wood ashes, silica(sand), and clay. Mixed with water, applied on the pottery and fired to temperatures exceeding 2500 degrees F, it produced a very glossy, runny, greenish glaze. This type of ash glaze, which is still being used today, is what has defined Catawba Valley pottery for over two centuries.
Daniel Seagle was very creative and a perfectionist. His large bulbous jars and small-based jugs testify to a skilled hand and a trained eye. Whether intentional or not, Seagle set a high standard by which other potters, both historical and contemporary, must be measured.
Among others, Daniel taught his son, James Franklin, the trade. In turn, James taught John Leonard, who taught his son, Lawrence Leonard, who taught Jim Lynn, who taught Burlon Craig.
Around 1940, the local potters began leaving the trade. Due to cheap glass containers, improved refrigeration, and the coming of large grocery stores, the demand for the old forms began to fade. Burlon Craig seemed to be the last of the old potters; and with him the tradition would surely end.
In the late 1970's, a resurgence of interest in the old forms began. Perhaps due to the bicentennial and the disappearance of the rural past, people began searching for a remnant of history. This resurgence began to attract others to take up the trade. Charles Lisk began making pottery in the Catawba Valley tradition around 1981. Then came Kim Ellington. Joe Reinhardt took up the trade after a heart condition forced him out of the brick-laying business. Steve Abee began in 1992, utilizing the shapes, glazes and ground-hog kiln that have defined this pottery since the 19th century.
How it's made
Most of the folk potters of the North Carolina Catawba Valley region have anywhere from two to four kiln openings a year. These Catawba Valley potters are as follows: Burlon Craig, Charles Lisk, Joe Reinhardt, Steve Abee, and Kim Ellington. These few folk potters insist on creating their wares using nineteenth century methods of pottery making.
Each potter uses dug clay from local sources. If the potter is fortunate enough to find a pure source with no small quartz rocks or impurities, the clay can then be mixed in their home-made "pug mill" or clay mixer. If there are quartz rocks in the clay, the clay has to be dried completely and then put in a hammer mill to pulverize the rocks.
The hammer mills used by most of the potters were once used by farmers from their area. The hammer mill, usually powered by a tractor, would beat or crush hard dried corn kernels into a fine powder. This powder was then used as food for the farm animals. Since farming over the years has decreased, the use of these machines has decreased as well, but for the potter, these machines are very well suited for hammering dried clay.
After the clay has been hammered and mixed in the clay mixer, the clay is put into plastic bags to age. Some potters age their clay for weeks, others for a few days. Whatever time period is chosen, the clay must be allowed to age for maximum workability of the clay.
When the clay has aged, it's then ready to "turn". This is the step that the potters spend most of their time trying to master. Some potters believe the skill level can be measured by how big the pots are and how thinly the pots are turned. The thinner a pot is, the lighter it is. With a large 10 gallon jar or jug, weight is very important. If the pot is too thick, it would be very heavy and hard to lift, especially when filled with liquid. So, how do potters make these big jars and jugs? They turn two separate cylinders and stack them together.
To make a 5 gallon jug, the potter starts with a 12 pound ball of clay. The clay is centered on the wheel by repeatedly pushing down and then pulling up while the pottery wheel is spinning. The potter then makes a hole in the clay by pressing his hand down through the center of the clay; thus making the clay resemble a cylinder.
With one hand inside the clay and the other outside of the cylinder, the potter pulls the clay higher and higher until it has reached a height of about 16 inches. The top diameter of the cylinder is measured and the cylinder is set aside. Now the top of the jug will be turned. The potter starts with 6 lbs. of clay and centers it just the same as before. This time, instead of turning a cylinder, he turns a cone-shaped pot with no bottom. He then takes the top cone and places it on the bottom cylinder shape making a large jar.
The potter presses the pieces together at the seam while the pot is slowly spinning on the wheel. While the pot is still spinning, the potter uses his hand inside the jar to push out from the inside to give the desired shape to the jar. After the shape has been achieved and while the jar is still spinning, the top of the jar is pushed in until the top is shaped like the top of a bottle. A handle is later added to complete the 5 gallon jug.
They also employ the use of the traditional alkaline ash glazes which has been used for more than 150 years in the Catawba Valley. The glazes are made from three basic ingredients: wood ash, powdered glass, and clay. These ingredients are collected from various sources.
The wood ash is usually collected from the potters' wood burning stoves that heat their shops. The clay used is simply the same clay that is used in making the pots themselves. Unwanted or discarded glass is collected from neighbors and friends. The glass is then pulverized by hand until the chunks of glass are about the size of a quarter. The glass is then put into a glass pulverizer where the glass is reduced to a fine powder. Some potters use their hammer mills to pulverize the glass as well as their clay.
Some pulverizers are hand-made and powered by water. These water-powered pulverizers resemble a "see-saw". On one end is a square wooden trough, on the other, a short metal spike pointing downward. The "see-saw" is put under a small waterfall near a creek where water pours into the wooden trough. When the trough becomes full, the "see-saw" is raised, the water is dumped out through an over-flow, and the spike on the other end of the "see-saw" comes crashing down into a metal box filled with glass chunks. This process is repeated approximately every 10 seconds. Eventually, the glass is pulverized into a fine powder.
After the ingredients are processed and sifted, they are mixed with water to a perfect consistency. This is a critical step, for if the glaze is too thick or too thin, it will cause the pottery to crack as it is being dipped into the glaze mixture. Almost all of the pottery created by Catawba Valley potters is green-ware glazed. In other words, the pottery has not been fired before glazing. The pottery is very fragile at this state. It could be compared to having the same characteristics as an aspirin.
When the green-ware pottery is completely dry and the glaze mixture has been mixed to the right thickness, the pottery is dipped and spun in the glaze to get an even coat inside and out. The pot is pulled out of the solution and turned upside down to let the excess glaze drip off the pot. The pot is then set on the shelf to dry, which takes about 4 days. This process is repeated until all the pottery has been glazed (usually about 200 pieces).
Probably the most important element in the production of folk pottery is the firing process. As mentioned before, these potters of the Catawba Valley region of North Carolina all have very large wood-burning kilns called "groundhog" kilns. It takes about 1 to 2 cords of wood to fire a load of pottery, depending on the size of the kiln. (A cord of wood is a stack 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long).
The best wood for firing pottery is Southern yellow pine. The best source of yellow pine is from local sawmills' unwanted wood scraps or "slabs". These slabs are the outermost part of the tree that can't be used for lumber. The slabs are cut into 4 foot sections, stacked, and allowed to dry for at least 3 months. After the wood has dried and the pottery has been glazed and dried, the pottery is ready to be loaded into the kiln.
Each piece is handed in, one piece at a time, and carefully positioned on the ware bed of the kiln. In front of the ware bed is the fire pit. Here is where the fire will slowly be built up over a period of 8 to12 hours until the heat is so intense that the flames shoot out of the chimney up to 10 feet high. When the kiln has reached its desired temperature (about 2600), the kiln is sealed and permitted to cool for at least two days.
After the kiln is cooled enough, it is opened to see the results of the long, grueling process. The pieces are then stored until the date of the kiln opening, which is discussed in History of Kiln Openings.
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