Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Edgefield, SC

Irene read in a brochure we picked up at the McCormick Chamber of Commerce about the Old Edgefield Pottery in Edgefield, SC, a drive of about thirty miles. It was a quiet, hot Wednesday and we’d accomplished most of the cleaning and preparing we needed to do to prepare for the Lewis Family Homecoming. We drove to Edgefield through the Sumter National Forest, coming into town past several stately old houses. We turned into Simpkins street and pulled around the Potter, a metal roofed, small building on an alley which we wouldn’t have found unless we had been looking for it. Sometimes when you poke around rural and small town America you come up empty. Other times a bonanza opens and more of the world’s riches are revealed. This trip was an occasion of surprising and delightful unfolding.

We entered the pottery to find a pleasant looking young man reading a page of pictures of old pottery making tools. The small workshop was filled with old urns and pots, mostly large and marred in some fashion. There were also a few very nice pieces in the style of the old pieces. Shards of broken stoneware were everywhere, many placed together in an effort to restore the old original piece of pottery. We started asking questions, and as he realized we were really interested, the young man began to explain in detail the nature of the stoneware, the reason the Edgefield District had become a center for pottery making in the early nineteenth century, and the geology that made it possible. Ed Redman had come to the Old Edgefield Pottery to study under Stephen Ferrell, Master Potter, whose studio this workshop is.

Located south of the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountain chain, Edgefield had developed in the nineteenth century as a jumping off place for those heading west. It was a rough and ready frontier where violence in the town square was common and apparently continued into the mid-twentieth century. Wagon trains wishing not to cross the mountains began their journey westward in Edgefield, taking a route the led across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas to the west. At this time, Edgefield was on the western frontier of the almost new United States.

The right geological conditions existed and the large farms and plantations had a significant need for large containers, so a thriving pottery industry developed. A slave named Dave, who belonged to a man liberal enough to allow him to learn to read and write, made distinctive pottery on which he wrote verses, signed, and dated the work. Dave’s known pieces sell today for prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Interestingly, after emancipation he apparently stopped making pottery, or at least no signed piece exist. He is known to have lived into sometime in the 1870s. After a while, Stephen Ferrell, the master potter, wandered in and we chatted with him and a friend of his about the region and the beauty of the work.

We wandered up the alley and onto the town square, with the courthouse at one end, a confederate monument and a statue of Strom Thurmond in the center, and a group of fine old buildings surrounding it; the town square is both simple and beautiful. We walked past several old stores on which historical plaques were posted telling of gun fights in the town square, the careers of Jewish merchants in the town, and the growth of the pottery industry. In the town information and genealogical study center we were helped to a variety of brochures and saw a part of a lovely collection of Edgefield pottery. Down the street we walked into Terry Ferrell’s Antiques & the Ferrell Museum, presided over by four cats and eighty-five year old Terry Ferrell, Stephen’s dad. Terry introduced us to his cats and let us tour the antique store before conducting us to his museum in the rear of the shop. A white haired erect gentleman in jeans and a plaid shirt, Terry looks perhaps fifteen years younger than his age. He is enthusiastic about his collection of Edgefield pottery as well as a wonderful collection of old quilts. His quilts have been written about Quilting Magazine as well as others. The pottery ranges from some as old as 1820 to more modern twentieth century pieces. They are distinguished by their quality and shown to allow close up examination.

It also turns out that Edgefield is the home town of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, who for seventy or more years in state and national elective office. Thurmond is most notorious for having led the Dixiecrat walkout of southern states in the 1948 political convention. He left the Democratic Party and became a stalwart Republican. Late in his life his public stances on race moderated, but apparently his private race relations were quite different. He is noted in his home state for his kindness and benevolence. Terry Ferrell told us of the many kindnesses he had done for local people and people throughout the state during his long political career. He described Thurmond’s funeral as one of true mourning in which thousands of people lined the road from Columbia to Edgefield to honor this longest serving U.S. Senator.

We walked around the square past the courthouse and the offices of the local newspaper, the oldest in South Carolina. At the opposite side of the square is Ten Governor’s Grill. Ten men from Edgefield have served the State of South Carolina as governor. The Grill offers a simple buffet of down home southern cooking. We had shrimp gumbo, southern style green beans, delicious fried chicken, corn bread, and a delicious lemon cake for lunch. The atmosphere in the Ten Governor’s is relaxed and homey and the food simple but tasty. The County Historical Society puts out a walking tour guide which can be picked up at the Tompkins genealogical society on the square. There’s much more to see than we managed, including ante-bellum houses, an historical cemetery, the Strom Thurmond birthplace, and much more. Take a day and make a trip to Edgefield, SC.