Clay Capital

Remember that phrase from the famous baseball movie Field of Dreams — “If you build it, they will come.” The character was referring to a baseball field. In other words, if you build the field, fans will come to see a game.

When talking about the pottery industry in North Carolina, a twist on the phrase would be “If Mother Nature deposits it, potters will come.”

The 'it' I’m talking about is clay.

Clay comes from igneous rock. Millions of years ago central North Carolina was geologically active. I’m not talking about giant volcanoes, but lots of hot springs and geysers. Igneous rock was close to the surface. Eventually, all of that igneous rock was weathered and, because of the slope of the land, it settled in the Piedmont plateau.

Clay that stays where it was formed is called primary clay. Clay that is moved from its original location is called secondary clay. The trouble with secondary clay is that as it is moved, it picks up a lot of other materials such as zinc and iron. That doesn’t make the clay unusable for making pottery, but it does make the material a little more challenging to use. As you can imagine, the clay around Seagrove, the handmade pottery capital of the U.S., is pure.

Native Americans were the first to discover this resource. The first immigrant potters, mostly English and German, arrived in the 18th century and began an industry. The area became a pottery center even before the Revolutionary War.

For more than 100 years, the industry flourished making utilitarian pottery that was heavy and had a waterproof salt glaze.

Around the turn of the 20th century however, the household need for pottery was dropping. Containers made of glass and other materials were replacing pottery. However, the Seagrove potters adapted and switched to more artsy forms of pottery.

Today, both types of pottery are made, artsy and utilitarian, by the more than 100 potters that call the area home.

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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