Pottery maker does not fit usual mold

Over the years, Gary Dexter has developed a personal connection with Old Edgefield pottery.

 

"It speaks to me. All these new, modern pottery processes don't say anything to me," said Mr. Dexter, of Vaucluse, who started working with Old Edgefield pottery about 15 years ago as therapy for his arthritis.

Old Edgefield pottery grabbed his attention as a child, he said, but at the time he didn't know what it was.

"As a child I grew up seeing piles of broken dishes. I couldn't imagine why anyone would break all those dishes. All I could think of was, 'Whoever did this got in big trouble,'" he said. "Now I know how they got there."

Unlike modern kilns, those used to make the first Old Edgefield pottery did not have gauges or dials to measure temperature.

Following the same methodology, Mr. Dexter built a groundhog kiln and creates Old Edgefield pottery in his shop at Enterprise Mill.

"It takes knowledge, not numbers, to create this type of pottery. You can only do it through experimenting," he said. "Every mistake I made, I learned from it. I'm still learning."

Old Edgefield pottery, also known as alkaline glazed pottery, has been "speaking" to people longer than Edgefield has existed. Historians say the process was created about 2,500 years ago in China.

It is believed that Abner Landrum, a doctor who owned a newspaper in Edgefield, brought the pottery-making technique to the area. Around 1820, Landrum began experimenting with the process after reading the writings of a missionary in China.

"He unlocked the secret of creating a glaze from a mixture of wood ash, sand and clay," Mr. Dexter said.

In the Edgefield area, and eventually throughout the South, that was a life-saving discovery.

"A lot of people were dying from lead poisoning from their dishes. The glaze that was used on the dishes, especially the pots, would get into their food. It didn't take them long to figure out that it was the lead that was killing them. Dr. Landrum had found an alternative," Mr. Dexter said.

Soon, there were about 20 potteries in the area creating Old Edgefield pottery, including the Baynham pottery at the base of the 13th Street bridge in what is now North Augusta.

Despite early prosperity, after about 100 years all the potteries went out of business.

"There were a couple of reasons why. For one, people had more options. Glass and metal quickly displaced the pottery," Mr. Dexter said. "Another reason was that of the 20 or so potteries, most of them were operated by slaves. After the Civil War, they didn't have the labor to keep them running anymore."

Now, as Old Edgefield pottery is again gaining in popularity, Mr. Dexter is on a mission to teach others how to make it.

"The sites of the broken Old Edgefield pottery are getting destroyed through development. The only way to keep the pottery alive is to teach it to others," he said.

"It's knowledge that has to be passed on."

Reach Nikasha Dicks at (706) 823-3336 or nikasha.dicks@augustachronicle.com.

 

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