It seems like most towns in America have an old road which was once the primary route to the next town but has since been bypassed by a much faster highway. No longer a major commercial artery, these roads are nevertheless cluttered with businesses, malls and sad-looking homes which have seen better days. Hendersonville Road on the south side of Asheville is one such road. James and I got to know it pretty well while building the addition to our Asheville Bed and Breakfast. It was here that we found slate for our terrace and brick for the chimney. Plumbing supply stores are next to mattress stores and hardware stores abound.
On the corner of Hendersonville Road and Stratford Road, just before the turn-off to the airport is a nondescript wooden building. Covered with aluminum siding now, it was built
between 1939-1940. This is the home of Brown’s Pottery, considered to be the oldest pottery making family in the United States. James and I must have driven by this building a hundred times, not knowing its significance or how interesting it was but always commenting on how we should stop there sometime. So when we decided to have some signs made for our bedroom doors at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast, we thought of looking here.
Entering the store, one of the first things we noticed was a display of “Face Jugs“. These are fairly large jugs with narrow necks and eerie faces on them. No one really knows the origin of these vessels although it is commonly acknowledged that they are unique to the Carolina’s. (So unique that I’ve never seen one before!). I’ve heard lots of stories since:
they are the original “childproof cap” designed to keep children out of the moonshine, they were created by Africans as receptacles for spirits and even that they arose from someone’s playful vision of faces on jugs. Like so many things in these mountains, the truth is probably a mix of fact and story. In any case, it was an interesting introduction to Charlie Brown and Brown’s Pottery.
After we looked around the showroom, Charlie took us back into the “factory”. I put it in quotes because it’s only a factory in the sense that here is where he works and fills his orders. On this day he was making moonshine jugs for a local beer festival. It takes him less than two minutes to turn one of these pots, so he is able to fill orders for 100 or more in less than one day (not including time in the kiln). He told us that his father put him on the wheel when he was two year’s old and he has been doing it so long it is instinctual for him. Here is a video of Charlie making a pot.
Charlie is the 8th generation of potters in his family. From the mid-1700’s to now, the Brown family has been making Southern Folk Pottery in an unbroken line. It was Davis Brown who brought the family to Asheville in 1924 and within a few years he had so many people working for him that the company could field their own baseball team. The family has gone on to produce many well-known potters and Charlie’s works are on display at the Smithsonian Museum as well as other fine art museums. They are considered to be among the finest examples of heritage art in the country. Charlie is aided by his wife, who does the finishing on the works, and his two sons who will be carrying on the tradition into the 9th generation!
In addition to made to order items for local businesses, Charlie makes a line of what he calls “French cookware”. These brown ceramic pots can withstand high temperatures and when used for bread baking result in an amazing crust. Charlie researches each piece carefully, even going so far as taking cooking classes himself so he understands the needs of the chef. He has local bakers and cooks test the pieces for him before he puts them on the shelves for sale. He was working on a brie baker when we were there and he even asked me if I would like to test some for him.
One of the things James and I have discovered is that talking to dedicated craftspeople is one of the slow pleasures of exploring Asheville and the mountains of Western North Carolina. And Charlie is happy to talk with customers and show them his works. He may even take you in back and turn a pot or two while you watch.
You can visit Brown’s Pottery Monday-Saturday between the hours of 10AM- 5PM. Items are also sold in Asheville at Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade