Old Edgefield Pottery: Legacy & Tradition Crafted by Hand
By Michael J. Solender
Local clay mixed with Southern history create earthen treasures at this storied pottery.
Slabs of freshly mixed pewter-toned wet clay wait patiently inside Old Edgefield Pottery to achieve their calling atop Justin Guy’s well-worked wheel. Guy, Master Potter in residence and Edgefield native son, is proud to carry on with a tradition of pottery making in this region that extends back more than 200 years, nearly to the founding of Edgefield County in 1785.
Guy grew up in the shadow of some of the region’s most renowned potters, discovering at a young age a desire to turn malleable glistening mud between his fingers into a career. “I grew up playing in the pottery shard piles on what used to be the plantation where Dave (legendary enslaved potter Dave Drake) spent his last few years,” said Guy. “They didn’t have waste management back in the day, so whenever a pot lost a handle, or had a crack, or was substandard for selling, they just threw it out the back door. Pottery was something I grew up with.”
When visitors happen upon Old Edgefield Pottery, only steps off Edgefield’s Courthouse Square, they discover equal parts studio, museum, and gallery, dedicated to the rich history and tradition of this longstanding American art form. Guy doesn’t need much encouragement to share lessons learned over a lifetime mastering his craft. His scholarly research and approachable style earned him an adjunct faculty role at the nearby University of South Carolina, Aiken campus.
He explains pottery in the region began during America’s infancy. Early colonists in this rural corner of South Carolina found abundant high quality, mineral rich clay deposits in addition to the agriculturally fertile soil surrounded their farms. The clay, when mixed, shaped, glazed and subsequently fired, yields almost porcelain-like stoneware.
The newly formed union eschewed British manufactured goods when President Thomas Jefferson’s taxation on these goods made tableware, storage vessels, and the like inaccessible. Local artisans seized on the opportunity to make their own.
“During Jefferson’s administration, a lot of these cottage industries spark up, and pottery was this area’s production,” said Guy. “It was strictly utilitarian, basically food and liquid preservation. There were two basic storage vessels. Meat and vegetables were stored in jars, sealed off with cheesecloth and paraffin. And whisky, honey, and mead were stored in jugs. Eventually, they branch out into pitchers and butter churns. Decorative pieces and face jugs developed later as potteries become more expansive. At one point, they have five or six potteries in our region.”
Edgefield’s most renowned potter, Dave Drake, aka Dave the Potter, or more commonly just Dave, began his pottery journey shortly after the turn of the 19th century. “Dave was born about 1801,” said Guy. “He would have learned about the age of 10 and we know he continued into his 70’s.” Over the course of his lifetime, Dave created by some estimates, more than 50,000 pieces of pottery. Most well-known are his enormous jars and jugs, some well over two feet tall and, during an early and prolific period, many were inscribed with poetic verse.
Despite being born into slavery, Dave learned to read and write. Though history is unclear as to his teachers, some speculate it was one of Dave’s owners, Abner Landrum, publisher of the weekly Edgefield Hive, that taught Dave allowing him to work as a typesetter at the paper.
According to noted Dave scholar and researcher Leonard Todd, Dave’s work has a special magnetism. “There is something about Dave’s work that draws people to it,” says Todd. “There is an attraction that goes beyond its obvious technical expertise. We see in it his longing to communicate. “We can reach out and touch his words, he’s talking to us today and we can reach out and touch his words almost two centuries later.”
Todd is the author of Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. The 2008 book explores the compelling narrative of this legendary Edgefield potter. Todd’s book shares many of Dave’s pottery poems including his first known poem, written on a jar dated July 12, 1834:
put every bit all between
surely this Jar will hold 14
Dave’s pieces are regarded for their elemental beauty, glorious green, gray and brown glazes, signature bulbous shaping, tight handles, and a slight “drunken” tilt. His work is found in museums throughout the U.S. including at the Smithsonian, Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art, Boston Museum of Fine Art, the McKissick Museum in Columbia, S.C., and others. At auction, Dave’s pots command attention with one recent sale brought $180,000 for a single jug.
“Though they were always utilitarian in nature and made as part of his work as a slave, he often imbued them with a grace that transformed them into works of art,” said Todd, of Dave’s pots. “Dave found a way to leave a kind of journal on his jars. In the damp clay that he understood so well, he wrote about the elements of his daily life—the people he loved, the biblical teachings he believed in, his moments of recreation, and, most often, the qualities of the very jars he was writing on.”
Guy, who has two pieces of Dave’s pottery on display at Old Edgefield Pottery, tells a tale of the special relationship Dave had with Lewis Miles, Dave’s principal owner during his enslavement. Miles was chiding Dave about a handle on a jug he was making, suggesting it would crack when fired. “Dave wrote on the handle of this jug, ‘LM says this handle will crack,’ said Guy, whose seen hundreds of Dave pieces during his career. “Well, 150 years after that piece was made, the handle is still on there. Dave was most productive under Louis Miles. It’s when he did most of his writings. And obviously, if he’s going to be bold enough to say to his master, ‘Well, you think this handle is going to crack. I’m going to write it down beside it here, and we’ll see after it comes out of the kiln.’ Somebody might see that as a notion of disrespect, but I think it was a nod to how understanding their relationship was.”
When asked why Dave the Potter holds such a fascination with so many today, Guy is reflective.
“We love hero stories,” said Guy. “Dave is the perfect hero. He was a slave. But he had the liberty and the freedom to create things, and to write some of his thoughts and stories onto. Everybody who’s in this business can at least quote one Dave verse,”
Cows, sheep, and hogs,
all our mules are in the bogs
“These are lovely little things that have become famous because I think they idealize the time, a time in the South when it was a good time and a good relationship.”
230 Simkins Street, Edgefield, SC 29824.
Hours: Thursday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Charlotte, North Carolina’s Michael J. Solender has been captivated by great storytelling since his youth. He now writes about arts, travel, and curious people. His writing has been featured at Southern Living, Carolina Mountain Life, the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News & Observer, Lake Norman Magazine, and others. His personal essays explore the personalities, back stories, and character behind destinations. Learn more about Michael and follow him on Twitter @MJSolender.