|Transcript of Interview of Melvin L. Owens|
|Interviewee:||Melvin L. Owens|
|Interviewer:||Michelle A. Francis|
|Date of Interview:||February 25, 1983|
Your family's been in pottery a long time, haven't they? I mean, like your daddy. . .
. . .and before him, too?
I don't know. That's as far as I can go, that's as far as I know.
Your mom never talked about it?
Uh, not too much about nobody, only just my daddy.
Mm-hum Do you have any pieces that your dad did?
Oh yeah. I got about three or four.
They just did stoneware didn't they?
Most, most of it.
Did your mom turn?
Was she in pottery?
She made with her hands, you know, I mean. . .
Yeah. That't all she ever worked with.
Did she make pipes?
Pipes and chickens.
What was her name, your mom?
Martha. (Tape runs as Mr. Owens continues potting)
Doesn't take long to build one of those, does it?
Oh, about three minutes.
It'd take me about 20 and it wouldn't look anything like that. How did you learn to turn? Did you teach yourself or did you watch someone?
Well, I just watched. Mostly I learned after I, after I started mostly, I just learned myself.
In fact, I'm not making many shapes now that I made when I started.
What kind of shapes were you making then?
Oh, a lot of vases.
Lot of vases? Well, if you were, started when you were 17 you said.
Oh, I was about 18, 19, somewhere along there, 18.
That would have been, what, 19. . .
. . .'37.
'37. That's when they started making that art pottery, isn't it?
Yeah, 'bout along in the '30s it started.
With that low-fired glaze? Didn't they have low-fired?
Yeah, a lot of it was. Then I went, in 19', up into the 1940s I was making salt glaze. Somewhere, well, I made salt, some salt glaze about 1943. But, then about '45 to '47, '48, along there, I made, I made a lot of it. The Second World War was going--on, now, I made a lot, right then I made salt glaze because there's some of the glazes that you couldn't get. You couldn't get tin oxide to make our bright colors.
Were you using the art, making art pottery, then firing it in salt glaze?
No, I was just making, then I went to making other, pitchers. . .
. . .churns. . .
Churns, yeah. Sort of utilitarian pieces?
I made some vase, a lot of vases in salt glaze. Mostly pitchers and jugs and. . .
Do you have a preference? In glazes?
Do you like the salt glaze best?
I like a, well I like the salt glaze. I mean I like it but. For to use on a table, I like the glazed pottery the best.
Yeah, it is pretty, a set of tableware of it.
Well, it's the, it's, I like salt glaze, maybe, you know, just to look at.
Mm-hum. It makes a pretty lamp, that salt glaze does.
People seems to like them, anyway.
I think part of that's because people like old-timey things and I think they associate. . .
Yeah, and they can't go in a department store and buy the salt glaze.
But burning salt glaze, if you have to do it with wood, it's hard!
Is it? It takes a lot of wood to do it, doesn't it?
Uh-huh. That kiln up yonder that was built, that's a salt glaze kiln up yonder. It takes about, well if you fire it 12 hours say, it takes about a cord, cord and a quarter.
And that's the problem now, with dry wood. You can't just go out here and buy dry wood when you want it. So, if you burn salt glaze now with wood, you've got to buy your wood, get your wood a year ahead. I've got wood on the shed up there that's been under there for going on 3 years now.
You're going to have to use it pretty soon, aren't you?
I, I will. I'll use it this summer. No, it'll stay under there right on and on and on, because it don't never get wet.
Were you going to use the wood for. . .
. . .firing it?
Yeah, I'm gonna burn some salt glaze, Albany slip.
This summer, if we can ever get a chance.
Then you'll use that wood-burning kiln up there to do it.
Oh yeah. Well, we burn the salt glazing in the kiln out yonder.
Mm-hum. Was that a wood-burning one, outside there?
My son wouldn't fire--that's oil--he wouldn't fire a wood kiln.
Well, he just wouldn't do it.
Too much trouble?
Too much hard work!
(Laughter) He's gonna let you do it, though.
Yeah, I fire up wood kilns. Well, if I was in the pottery business for myself, you know, just, not nobody into it, connected with it but me, I would just use electric kilns, all the kilns. Because you can buy them cheap, you get a good burn, and they're cheap, upkeep it's cheap. The two electric kilns we got back yonder, we spent less than, well in just about a year now, we've spent less, less than $35 on those kilns with upkeep, and we fire them sometimes seven times a week.
(Tape stops, then starts)
How did you used to market your pots?
Just like we do now.
Just like you do now, you mean, sales shop.
Sell here and sell it off. Just, there's not very much difference.
How did you get your customers, you know, up in the valley in Virginia.
Well, they just come through buying.
Yeah, they just come through looking for people to buy pottery from. (Tape stops, then starts)
Can you tell me a little bit about that Royal Crown?
Royal Crown Pottery?
Yeah. I don't know, I've heard of it, but I don't know much about it.
Well, it was run started about 1942, I guess 1942. Did you ever meet Charlie Craven that turns some pottery over there around Raleigh?
No. I want to go talk to him, but I haven't met him.
Well, his daddy and mama lived right up the road, here. He worked over there. There's two, two more people up from around here that went down there and worked. Jack Kiser.
I met Jack Kiser.
You did? Well, Jack went down and worked some and Thurston Cole, now, he worked over there a little. But he's dead. But you see, I never did help make no pottery. Because I come back home and went to work, and Jack and Charlie and them didn't have a shop of their own, you see to come back to, and I just went over and helped 'em some and then I come back. I didn't.
What all did you do?
I just helped 'em on the kiln the week I was there.
It didn't last very long, did it?
No, I was trying to think. It went out of business, I would say about 1948.
Why, do you think?
Because it was completely closed down in about 1950, I mean, there wasn't anything there. Well, it could have been bad management.
Who owned it?
Was he from around here?
From New York.
Have you met A.R. Cole's girls, out of Sanford? Out on 15?
15-501 there. Well, their daddy, Arthur, A.R. Cole, see, he run a pottery business there for years and years. He went down there back in the 1930s. And where the new by-pass bypasses Sanford and all that intersection out there, that's where his shop sits.
He was there for a long time, wasn't he?
Oh, he was there for years! But, see, they moved that, and they moved the shop and the house, their house, both, out 15-501 a little ways. You can find it. You never have been out there?
Uh-uh, I haven't, but I think, it's right on.
Two daughters, one daughter fully runs it, and then I think one daughter helps her some.
What are their names?
Lord, I, I can't get it in my [unintelligible] to save my life?
So they're still making pottery.
I know 'em, been knowing 'em all of our life, but,
yeah, they's two of 'em. And Jack Kiser worked for them, for their, I mean, for A.R. And this man out of New York that built the pottery in Maryville, see, he'd, he'd been buying a lot of pottery from Arthur and he thought he could make it cheaper than he could buy it from Arthur. But he come to find out he couldn't buy it as cheap, so. . .
. . .he went back out of business.
Jack Kiser was pretty well. . .
Well, he's not been dead too long, uh, Victor's not.
No, he died in Apex.
That's sort of close to where I live, Apex is.
Yeah. He tried, they put a Montgomery Ward's sale catalog, sale office in the room, in the building, and they tried a lot of hardware and different things after he went out of the pottery business. Now he's got sons a'livin' over there.
I should go talk with them.
He's got, and I can tell you where to go to, and you can find their, his sons. Go to Moncure, to the Moncure plywood store, the plywood store there in Moncure.
I know where Moncure is. And it's so small you can't miss it.
Well, go there, they's a big, a large building there that says, "plywood store" and that boy in there I went, to school with, the boy that runs that thing. His name is Horner, his last name is Horner.
And if you go and talk to him, he can tell you right exactly where they live and everything, 'cause he's, I think he don't, I don't think he lives too far from 'em.
Mm-hum. Well, that's what I'll have to do.
Yeah, you can find 'em through him, because he knows right where to go.
Did Jack Kiser ever turn for you? MLO : No.
He turned for a lot. . .
Jim Teague turned some.
Yeah, back in the '40s, '45. And then he turned up at the Glenn Art Pottery. Have you got any record on that?
Jim Teague? Just a little bit. That it was another one of those potteries that didn't stay.
No, they didn't stay in too long.
The old kilns are still standing there, but the buildings are all fallen down. The brick walls and things are still up good, but. McSwain, in Sanford, she owns that.
What, she just owns all the land?
She owns the land and the buildings. That's my daddy's old homeplace.
Yeah, my daddy was, that's where he was born and raised, right there under them oak, big oak trees, out right back this side of the old building.
What was your dad's name?
James Henry. They called him Jim. Then the Crisco Pottery. You got any record of that?
I met Mack Crisco.
Yeah, but there's a Clyde Crisco. And his daddy, his father, they took his old shop, logs fell in and they took it up to Washington to the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian. Mm-hum. They just dismantled it?
And Clyde Crisco still lives over at the old place, the boy. Reckon he ain't a boy anymore.
Well, that's an old pottery name.
Well, when I was five to ten years old, they was just
pottery, little places everywhere around here. They was a place right down here about oh, 500, 400-500 foot from that kiln sittin' up yonder another man over there, he had a shop. Williamson.
And then, there was a Moody, about a half a mile back up here, a Moody had a shop.
How did y'all stay in business?
And then the Craven family, all, all them, you know, their old homeplaces up here. Charlie and Brack, Ferrell and Grady and. . .
And then there was the Owens family.
And then the Teagues.
Jim's, did you talk to Jim, where'd you talk to him, at his house?
At his house.
Well now, his, their shop stood across the road. Did he tell you where their shop stood at?
Their shop stood right across the road from his house. I remember when they was working it. And,. . .
He didn't have many people turning for him, did he?
No, he built, he built a shop. Have you met Dorothy Auman?
Well, he built the shop out here where Dorothy's daddy had, uh, C.C. Cole's pottery. He built that place, the house and all.
Goodness, I didn't know that!
Jim did. And then he sold that to Dorothy's daddy. And then there was another Moody right on about a half a mile from him on over there, old fella, Frank Moody, he had a shop. So they were just, there was a lot of shops.
There must have been a big demand.
Then my brother, my brother back up, about two miles and a half from here, he had a shop over in Randolph.
What was your brother's name?
Jonah. That was, if he had, if your brother had a shop, that must have been after. . .
Uh, he put it there in the 1920s, about 1927, '28.
Did you ever work for him?
Oh yeah! I helped him a lot back and forwards up there. Then there was a Wren brothers' pottery shop back over here in Randolph. Then there was a Cox pottery. Then there was a Suggs, and Foxes, and uh, there was just, there was just a lot of 'em. And Welch pottery. Have you ever. .
No, I've not heard, Welch is not a name I've heard of. I've heard of the Foxes. Been through the Auman's museum where they have quite a few Fox pieces.
The Welches. I guess that would be in Chatham County. I guess it would.
Did you ever hear of Rance Steed?
Yeah, I remember him.
Yeah. He was a colored man.
Mm-hum. He turned for a lot of people.
Yeah, and then there was a man by the name of Paschall Marybell that done a lot of work through here.
Who was he?
For the potteries. But then he died in Franklinville. He finally had a little shop over close to Franklinville, and died over there. He had a little shop of his own.
Was he a white man?
Yeah. He's not been dead too many years. Then there was Miller's pottery up in Randolph County. There was Richardsons and there was just, well, you could start counting and probably count up 50 if you count 'em all. But then after you got. . .
Was there enough demand for that many potters?
. . .the Aumans, Charlie Aumans, that owned the clay where I get this salt glaze clay, after you passed there, you had to go plumb away on up into, uh, Catawba County and all, Lincoln County to find 'em. The Hilldons and the Barnharts and the Cobbs and, I don't know, there was a lot of different ones of 'em in there on up there. There's still one up there. Have you ever met him?
No, uh, Craig?
Burlon Craig. He still makes, he burns in the ground hog kiln. He makes, uh, he calls it ash glaze.
What's it look like. Does it look like the same thing?
You use glass and ash, you know. No, it don't look, it don't look like it. I used to have some of his pieces, but. That's one of my daddy's jugs sitting right under yonder.
The handle got knocked off and I made a new handle and I almost mashed it. I put it back and burnt it.
You re-burned it?
I burned the handle, salt glazed it.
And then glued it back on.
No, it's, all I've got around it right now is just a rubber band holding it. I'm gonna glue it on someday. (Tape stops, then starts)
You don't have time just to come in and sit down you know. If you're gonna get something done, anything done in a day, well you got to. . .
How many kiln loads to do you a week, now?
Well, some weeks we don't even fire at all, maybe electric kiln.
But you used to do a lot, didn't you?
We burned as many as seven times in them oil kilns.
Seven times a week?
How many people did you have working for you then?
Six or eight, counting family. (Tape stops, then starts)
How long has Mr. Emmett been a potter?
Well, he started, he learned to work, making, 'bout way back in the '30s, but he.
Did you know him back then?
Oh yeah. My brother married his sister.
I guess you did know him.
That's how come I got him in the family, you know. That's how come he's helping us now. But he quit. He married and raised his family of children and his first wife died. He's been married three times.
But the second wife he married, ain't him and her never could get along. He married Dorothy's aunt by marriage, Dorothy Auman.
He married her aunt. He married her uncle's wife, the second time, but they didn't make it together. They separated. Then he married again, and, they lived together about, I don't know, 8 or 9 years, and then she died. He's 70, he'll be 'bout 72 years old in July.
Really! I wouldn't of put him that old.
That was his brother come in here asking me about the seed.
Mm-hum. Must be a younger brother.
It's the youngest one of the family. He's, uh, he's somewhere in his early fifties, I'd say, early fifties, don't it. I know when he was a 1ittle, 1ittle-bitty boy.
Well, who did Emmett learn from?
Was it just the two of you? You and your brother?
No, I had five brothers. Every one of them learned how to make pottery, but me and the one in Sanford. . .
Yeah, and then the one who had the shop back in Randolph, now, he quit in 1942, he sold his place. He sold everything he had, land and all, up there. Home, country store, and everything. He sold all that out and moved to Fort Bragg and went back to work in the Army, worked for the government. He worked out at Fort Bragg about, he worked at Fort Bragg all, all when the Second World War was. Then he moved back close to Siler City, and he's been dead, oh, 'bout 15 years, I guess. But his wife is still living. She was younger than he was.
How was the pottery business during WWII?
Well, right along when the war was goin' on, it got real good.
Yeah. It picked up. Along about '44, '45, along in there, and it stayed good on up in, real good, on up into, that's when Glenn Art was built, in '45.
Why do you think there's such a demand?
Have you talked to Joe Owen?
Well now, Joe, Joe was into that when it was built. He was connected, you see, with it. Joe, Joe owned the land it was built on. And then it was sold, uh, the man's name was Gilmore. Glenn Gilmore built it. And then he got out of it, completely got away from it. See, he owned a nursery, a grain, grain.
Was he the one that had imported bulbs from Holland?
Yeah, that's right.
- And they made special flower pots for them?
Yeah, they made a little flat bulb bowl. That was what he started it for, I think, maybe. He kept it.
For a few years, I don't remember why.
Then who bought it?
Well, the McSwain family bought it.
So they actually ran it for a while, the McSwains.
They tried to.
Didn't do too good a job though, did they? Was Joe turning for them?
No, Joe was a'working in the building at that time for hisself.
Mm-hum, he was like renting space out?
Yeah, he just had the space. Some way Joe fixed it. When it was sold out, that Joe, Joe still could work in it. And Joe worked there till 19', 1962. Then he moved everything back over to his old place.
I didn't realize he'd been over, he'd stayed in the Glenn Art facilities that long.
Yeah, he was there off and on several years with it. From '45 till. But see, the kilns never worked.
They were too large!
Oh, them kilns was large! They was, I believe they was 16 or 18 foot long, 8 or 9 foot wide, and about 8 foot deep. And they didn't have no pack shelf. They didn't have nothing to pack up the kiln on, see. And they tried burning right down on the floor.
You mean they didn't stack?
No, they didn't have nothing to stack with. They never would buy, they never would buy the shelves for packing.
I don't know, they just never would buy them. But I knowd they wasn't gonna work. I know all the time that they's not gonna work when they was building them, because they built them, they was built wrong to start with. The engineer that laid them all, from, I think it was out of Greensboro, he got mad with me. He got real mad with me.
Did you try and tell him they wouldn't work?
I told him what he'd have to do but he wouldn't change them, see.
Was he a potter?
(Begin Side 2)
No, I've never been to a brick firing place.
You ought to go to Sanford. They's one right on, out 15-501 there.
They just wheel the bricks in on something? And then burn them that way?
They load them brick on cars, they come off of a cup press. Brick don't come out this way no more. They come up.
They come up? (Laughter)
Yeah, they come up.
I ought to go and look.
Yeah, and shuttle off on a belt and they. put 'em right off of that belt, right into, right on the car. And they run that, their kilns are say, 80 foot long, and about as wide as from here to here (he gestures). And that car is on a track and the track is down under the floor, and if they got, some of them come down and they put their burners overhead, down draft burners, you know, and. . .
Well, didn't this guy from Greensboro know that this was going to be a pottery kiln?
Yeah, he did, but he didn't build it. They was gonna burn through a trench on the bottom of it and pull a smoke as far as from here to that old drum lying out there.
See, they didn't build, they didn't put a chimney to it. They didn't build a chimney to the building or the kiln. They just built it to the, way out there and dug a trench out to it, and it just didn't ever work. It just never would pull enough. They would fire up to about 1700.
Mm-hum. So they couldn't do any kind of high fire glazes at all.
No, they, and they had to burn, they had to fire them kilns 25 and 30 hours to even get 'em up that high. They would burn kerosene up there, fuel oil, it was burn, burn, burn, burn, burn, burn, burn! There was one kiln that was burning enough so that I could burn on it a month.
They were burning 500, 600 gallons of oil!
Good heavens. And that's during wartime, when there was a shortage, wasn't there?
No, not right after then, you know. There was plenty of it. It was only about 10, 11 cents a gallon, 12. (Tape stops, then starts)
Do you like to do big pieces?
Not too large. 'Bout five pounds.
Five pounds. How tall a piece can you make out of five pounds?
Well, if it's a tall piece, I can make--that's five (gestures to piece in shop). But if I was gonna make it up tall, I could probably make it 15 inches.
Back in the '40s when they were doing all that art pottery and they had those big tall urns, remember, the things here with the handles on 'em?
Did you do any of those?
Not many. I never did work on the real large ones.
Jack Kiser was supposed to be good at doing that. Was he?
Yeah, he was. Waymon Cole.
Have you been down to talk to Waymon?
Huh-uh, not yet.
You've not. Waymon, Waymon was real good on those. He was real good. Back at that time, you see, I only had wood kilns. I had ground hog wood kilns for firing. I didn't have oil kilns. I didn't get oil kilns till, oh, 1961, before ever I got an oil kiln to fire with.
You must have been one of the last people, then, to keep using the wood kilns.
Well, and Jug Town. Melvin L. Owens, 25 February 1983
They've used 'em on down that far. Well, it was about 1970, that was the year, somewhere around 1969, '70 before they ever got in, put in oil heat.
What were the Busbees like?
What were they like?
Oh, they was all right.
(Laughter) You had to know how to take 'em. I mean, you had to, they were good people. They would. . .
Did they know pottery?
They'd do anything for [unintelligible].
Did they ever ask you to turn for 'em?
I made pottery for 'em. Back in 1943 and '44, I made some for 'em. I didn't go down there and made it. I made it here. If sometime they'd get an order and want it rushed up real fast, they'd come up. If you didn't have the tape on, I'd tell you why. (Tape stops, then starts)
. . .sets down here, now you can believe this or not. But he'd bring me 20, say 20 sets down here for $40.
20 sets for. . .
32 piece sets.
20, that's a lot of dishes.
Oh, that would be a lot of dishes. They'd already be packed in gift boxes.
It was Si, Siho? Ohio?
Sico. S-I-C-O, that's the way he pronounced it. Siho.
Sico, Ohio. You've heard of McCoy, probably.
I know, a little bit of this clay in here comes from Okele. Okele, Ohio. Now that's just across the river from Charleston, West Virginia.