Published: August 9, 2010
These are exciting times in East Tennessee as new discoveries in pottery manufacturing and cabinetmaking are making their way into the public forum. Although pottery from these parts was known by aficionados since Roddy Moore’s 1983 article in The Magazine Antiques , it took the 2008 auction of a J.A. Lowe-signed jar to catch the attention of the general antiques world. At that time it was the only known signed Lowe piece of pottery and it realized the princely sum of $63,000, including buyer’s premium †the highest price ever paid for Tennessee pottery.
Since that seminal turn of events, more and equally exciting information has come to the attention of pottery collectors in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
On July 10, at the Dickson-Williams Mansion in Greeneville, Tenn., pottery and cabinetmaking were the topics of discussion for a lively conference titled “Journey Stories of East Tennessee’s Finest Craftsmen.”
John Case presented an exciting overview titled “Redware and Greene County Pottery.” To appreciate this topic, one must know a little about the settling of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee.
The Great Road was the name given to the route, which began in Philadelphia and followed the Indian trail, known as the Great Warrior Path, along river valleys and through mountain passes. From Philadelphia to Roanoke, Va., it was called the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. From Roanoke west, it was known simply as the Great Road. Towns developed around stage stops, way stations and inns. Early settlers included Germans, Scots-Irish, English, Welsh, slaves and free blacks.
Though primitive in comparison to the large cities of the budding nation, this area was replete with silversmiths, gunsmiths, cabinetmakers, wagon makers, portrait painters, clockmakers and more. Store inventories from Wytheville, Va., describe delftware, Queen’s ware, looking glasses and even toothbrushes. Surprisingly, the backcountry could provide almost anything available on the Virginia coast.
By 1850, census records list a large number of potters living in the region who probably supplied most of the needs of their communities. Major pottery centers existed in Wythe, Washington, Russell, Smyth, Lee and Scott Counties in Virginia, and Sullivan County in Tennessee. Although there are many documentary references to potters and the pottery they produced, there are relatively few surviving examples that can definitely be attributed to this region and even fewer signed examples.
Many unfamiliar with this pottery often confuse it with Moravian pottery from Salem (now Winston-Salem), N.C. There is justification for this confusion. East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia pottery have many similar characteristics to Moravian pottery: lead glazing, extruded or pulled handles, footed bases, sine wave decoration or decorations brushed, daubed or thrown on the surface. As a whole, the pottery along the Great Road appears to have both English and German influences.
Case’s presentation gave an overview of East Tennessee pottery. He showed examples of Cain pottery and Wine pottery from Sullivan County, Tenn. Although Greene County was technically not on the Great Road, it was also a pottery manufacturing center. The 1820 Manufacturer’s Census shows potters listed in Tennessee were working in Greene County.
The earthenware pots of Greene County are unique because most of the potteries in the upper Great Road had already transitioned to stoneware. Consequently, there are fewer surviving examples of earthenware pottery. Beautiful in form with exuberant decorations including coggling and stamping, these pots have their own story to tell.
During the Civil War, C.A. Haun of Greene County was a Union sympathizer. Union loyalists campaigned to burn nine bridges with the knowledge and support of President Abraham Lincoln. Four of the five men implicated in the successful plot were potters. C.A. Haun was one of those men. He was hanged by Confederate forces on December 11, 1861.
In a letter Haun wrote to his wife during his last hours he said, “Have Bohanan, Hinshaw or Low finish that ware and do the best you can with it for your support.” In October, a signed C.A. Haun jar will come on the block at Case Antiques.
Two exciting pottery exhibits will soon be open for extending the knowledge about the regionality of pottery. Sponsored by Old Salem Museums & Gardens, the Chipstone Foundation and the Caxambas Foundation, a traveling exhibit titled “Art in Clay” will open in Milwaukee in September, Old Salem Museums in March and Colonial Williamsburg in September 2011.
The exhibition reexamines North Carolina earthenware traditions. Based on research by Johanna Brown, Luke Beckerdite and Rob Hunter, the exhibit will present new scholarship on the extraordinary achievements of North Carolina regional earthenware potters. The Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville will open an exhibit in May focusing on earthenware and stoneware made in East Tennessee between 1800 and 1900. Carole Wahler will be the guest curator. Wahler spearheaded the first exhibit on Tennessee pottery back in 1986.
Not only is East Tennessee a standard bearer for wonderful pottery, but also fine furniture. Daniel Ackermann, associate curator of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), Winston-Salem, presented a talk on “Burgner Family Furniture.”
The Burgner family has a 100-year history of cabinetmaking in Greene County with a little time spent in North Carolina. Three of the five Burgner brothers were in cabinetmaking or carpentry. John C. Burgner (1797‱863) is known through his account book, which happened to be found in Haywood County, N.C.
Making this book even more valuable to researchers was the fact that it was also Burgner’s waste book, which documented the day-to-day events of a cabinetmaking workshop. Because a cabinetmaker would have had difficulty making a living in a rural area producing only furniture, there is documentation in this waste book of making architectural details, musical instruments such as dulcimers and violins, and coffins †even a gallows for a hanging. The account book lists more than 900 objects produced by Burgner.
Two sideboards still exist, which are signed by Burgner. One was dated 1817/18 and was documented by MESDA in 1982. At present its whereabouts are unknown. The other sideboard is dated 1839 and remains in the hands of descendents. Burgner moved from Greene County to Morganton, N.C., in 1825. He obtained a land grant for 600 acres, and became a justice of the peace. By 1830, however, he had returned to Greene County. He moves once more to Haywood County, N.C., in 1842, only to return again to Greene County by 1856.
Christian Burgner (1811‱886) is known through a group of pie safes. A very fine example is in MESDA’s collection. Knothole veneers are a trademark of Christian’s work. These knotholes are very evident in the “post office press” residing in the Dickson-Williams Mansion in Greeneville. Scrolls on the sides of safes and chests of drawers give Christian’s objects an elegant profile as well as make his work recognizable.
Daniel Forney Burgner (1817‱902) produced sideboards of highly figured woods using solid boards. On these sideboards he made exuberant backsplashes with C scrolls and waves. Daniel’s granddaughter carefully typed labels and applied them to her grandfather’s work, documenting them for future generations. Most of Daniel’s work remains in the Burgner families. Daniel applied for a violin modification patent in 1892.
Ackermann explains that this study of the Burgner furniture of Greene County allows one to see what happens to a certain aesthetic over a 100-year period. The Greene County community is enthusiastically proud of the Burgner furniture and the Haun and Lowe pottery. Through its craftsmen the story of a community is being told by people who are passionate about their past.
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