Edgefield potter continues tradition

In the summer of 1809, The Augusta Chronicle printed an announcement that put Edgefield, S.C., on the map.


Local clay, it had been found, could be used to manufacture pottery that was cheaper and stronger than any other stoneware at the time.

A copy of the newspaper clipping hangs near Steve Ferrell's pottery wheel. His workshop in Old Edgefield Pottery exists because of that discovery.

"It could be considered the place where studio pottery began in America," Mr. Ferrell said.

In the early '90s, the Edgefield County Historical Society invited Mr. Ferrell to open the shop, about 25 miles north of Augusta.

He entertains visitors from around the world who come to learn of the pottery first made here. Last week, visitors from Alaska, Montana and Michigan stopped in to watch Mr. Ferrell turn pots.

"The Edgefield tradition is a unique tradition," he said, one that's responsible for the first alkaline glazes used in American pottery.

The glazes produced sturdier pots and were made from plentiful local ingredients such as lime or wood ash. The jugs were utilitarian, popular and cheap. They were often used to hold vinegar, lard or spirits, he said.

Today, pottery in the Edgefield tradition catches the attention of art collectors. One potter, a slave named Dave, is remembered for the poetry he wrote on the side of his pots.

It's surprising, Mr. Ferrell said, because few slaves at the time were allowed to read or write.

In recent years, Dave's pottery has sold for more than $50,000 and been featured at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Ferrell served as a consultant for the exhibit on Southern pottery.

Mr. Ferrell shows several pieces of Dave's pottery in his shop, but he notes that the plantation where Dave lived was just one of five potteries in the Edgefield District in the 19th century.

Though the craft flourished in the early half of the century, it suffered as pottery was replaced with screw-top jars, invented in 1858, and the tin can, which was perfected during the Civil War.

Shops such as Mr. Ferrell's aim to revive the Edgefield tradition by producing replicas of the pots and teaching about the era.

"There are forms and traditions that are being lost, but in South Carolina there's a renewed interest in our heritage," he said. "People don't want to see this art die."

The pots are just as unique today as they were then, Mr. Ferrell said.

"Most of the emphasis these days in ceramics is on the modern. It's sculpture and things," he said. "I'm a vessel maker. We're the old-timers in this world. We're interested in making beauty that you live with every day."

One form in particular stands out: face jugs.

They're an old form of Southern pottery, made like most of the utilitarian pieces of Edgefield pottery, except they've been molded with faces that Mr. Ferrell says pay homage to slaves' ancestors and African spirits.

They seem to appear earlier in Edgefield than anywhere in the South, Mr. Ferrell said.

The jugs -- sometimes called plantation pottery or ugly jugs -- get the most attention, but "they were probably one-tenth of one percent of all the pottery made here," Mr. Ferrell said. "They were objects of whimsy then and now."

Dozens will be displayed later this month in a face jug exhibit in North Augusta.

The city's Municipal Center stands atop what was the Baynham Pottery, in existence from 1867 to 1975.

"There are no two ways about face jugs. You like them or you don't. My task," Mr. Ferrell said, "has been to make them as authentic as possible."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.



WHAT: Old Edgefield Pottery

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

WHERE: 230 Simkins St., Edgefield, S.C.

CONTACT: (803) 637-2060


WHAT: A face jug exhibition and Westobou Festival event

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily Sept. 17 through Sept. 26, except Sept. 20. An opening reception is 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 17.

WHERE: Arts and Heritage Center, 100 Georgia Ave., North Augusta

COST: $5 adults, $2 children 12 and younger

CONTACT: (803) 663-9349, clayartistsofthesoutheast.com


WHAT: A clay face mask workshop for kids ages 7 to 12, including a tour of a pottery and kiln

WHEN: 9:30 to 11 a.m. or 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 22

WHERE: Enterprise Mill, 1450 Greene St.

COST: $10 material fee

CONTACT: (803) 278-1335 to register

WHAT: A face jug making workshop for older children and adults

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 26

WHERE: Enterprise Mill, 1450 Greene St.

COST: $50 material fee, including a pre-thrown jug to decorate

CONTACT: (803) 663-9349 to register