Edgefield, SC (WJBF)- Very few people think that a job they do or a hobby they have could have a huge impact on the future of a town.
This month on Your Hometown History, Kim Vickers takes a look at Edgefield County, Pottersville and a slave who, even in his time, was famous for his work.
Edgefield County is a decidedly rural area and that’s the way they like it. But, this sleepy community boasts a legacy going back more than 200 years. Mineral rich clay deposits made Edgefield County a prime location to make stoneware pottery– a tradition still upheld today.
“And so he starts using all of these types and forms and all natural glazes. And that’s the birth of Edgefield Pottery,” said Tonya Guy, Edgefield County Archivist.
Pottery as an industry came to Edegfield County in the early 1800’s. Dr. Abner Landrum saw a need for mass produced pottery after President Thomas Jefferson embargoed British goods to encourage the start of American Industry.
Tonya Guy said he built a town called Pottersville, using slave labor to run the business.
“That was big business. To be able to make pottery right here and sell it locally, instead of having to import it from England,” she explained. “And they were still importing it. You still get your finer, like Wedgewood pottery, but for your everyday ware, your utilitarian ware, for your plantations, you were getting your Edgefield Pottery.”
Edgefield pottery is known for being very large, durable stoneware pots and jugs.
Tonya’s husband, Justin Guy, is a Master Potter, who recently won the prestigious Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award for his work. He said the stoneware made in Edgefield was mostly used for storage.
“These items were made out of necessity. This was the way you survived through the winter. You stored your meat and vegetables in the jars. Put cheesecloth across the top, tied the cheesecloth around this little rim, and then paraffin wax give you the air tight seal,” Justin explained.
As the Landrum pottery industry became more successful, more people wanted to capitalize on it. But the families who owned the potteries were very secretive about how it was done. That’s how the Clay Clans were born.
“Again, if you wanted to come down, like Thomas Chandler, and you wanted to learn how to make Edgefield Pottery, you had to marry into the families in order to gain access to those recipes. Which were very very protected. So you’d see all these different families getting intermarried,” Tonya said.
The kiln in Pottersville was just over 100 feet long, making it possible to produce very large quantities of pottery. The owners couldn’t produce it alone and depended on slave labor to fill orders.
One slave in particular became famous for his work–even in his time.
“Dave the Potter. My personal hero,” smiled Justin.
“He was very well educated, we believe by the Landrums. So Dave could read and write at a time when he could have been punished, but wasn’t,” said Tonya.
David Drake, or Dave the Potter, was a slave born in Edgefield around 1801. He was well known for how large his pots and jugs were– some could hold 40 gallons of liquid. But, he was best known for the words and poetry he inscribed on some of his pieces.
“Well Dave was smart enough and educated enough and bold enough to write it on to a material that lasts. Clay,” Justin said.
Dave’s poetry was written into the pots before they were fired. They were rhyming couplets about varied topics, like the Bible, the size of the jar it was written on, and one about the buying and selling of his family members– which says “I wonder where is all my relations/ Friendship to all and every nation.”
Justin thinks it shows a bit of rebellious nature in Dave.
“But the weight of that, the constriction on Dave is what made him push back on that weight that was in his life. And because of that he became strong. And his strength is what is exhibited through these words on these great vessels that we have still today.”
Dave had several owners during his enslavement. One of them was Lewis Miles. One of the jugs with Dave’s writing suggests a special relationship between the two men.
“The joke which you mentioned, the “L.M. says this handle will break.” And it’s written right down the handle, so obviously the handle did not break, otherwise we wouldn’t have that little sparring, that verbal sparring between slave and owner, which is very, very unique window into that relationship,” said Justin.
At some point in his life, Dave lost his leg. There are several theories on how it happened. One is that he passed out drunk with one leg on a train track and a train went over it. Another, is that he suffered abuse at the hands of his owners that either caused or included the amputation of his leg.
Both Justin and Tonya are hesitant to give these theories any weight because of the amount of respect Dave carried, even as a slave.
“But neither one of those stories is base in historical documents. And neither one of them propels Dave in the light that I think he should be propelled in,” explained Justin. “I mean, I think he was a master craftsman, an amazing guy, exceedingly intelligent, and exceedingly bold to do the things he did. I don’t think these stories add to that story at all.”
“It’s mostly likely he lost it, like many people lost limbs then. You know, stepped on a rusty nail, lost it to disease. Anything from, it could be anything, diabetes, something of that nature,” said Tonya.
The work that Dave wrote on is being sold for tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, and one was recently sold for one point five million dollars.
Much of his work is in museums, including the Smithsonian. He is hailed as one of America’s greatest African American artists.
There is no record of Dave’s death and it’s not known where David “Dave the Potter” Drake is buried.
“We don’t know when he dies. But in 1873, we know, it say, the one legged Dave, the famous one legged Dave, along with his jugs and his glory, so we know he’s still known and celebrated, but he just goes kind of quietly, he just drifts out of public eye, so to speak,” Tonya said.
Edgefield Pottery was later influenced by slaves from the slave ship Wanderer, who made jugs with unique designs.
“A lot of them end up working in the potteries. And that’s where you see the birth of the face jugs. And there’s all kinds of theories as to what they are,” said Tonya.
Tonya and Justin have their own theory.
“That they were used to talk to ancestors. And they would have held something like Laudanum that helps them to dial up the ancestors.”
There is a large pot that is a comical version of a face jug, believed to have been made by Dave the Potter, making fun of them.
This is only the tip of the iceberg that is Edgefield pottery.
To learn more, just visit Old Edgefield Pottery’s website.
Hey Edgefield! That’s just part of Your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Reggie Mckie.