The Meaders family of potters is probably the most influential family in the history of Southern Appalachian folk pottery. The White County, GA family was featured in Allen Eaton’s 1937 book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, and was honored with a special event at the Library of Congress in 1978, when the Smithsonian Institution’s documentary film on the Meaders pottery was released. The ‘face jugs’ created by Lanier Meaders are highly sought by collectors and can fetch as much as $3,000 per jug.
In the days before the advent of mass-produced tin cans and glass bottles, before the mechanized commercial dairy and the home refrigerator, the potter functioned as an indispensable adjunct to rural life. Through the nineteenth century, general stores in all parts of the South maintained large stocks of preserving vessels, pitchers, churns, and jugs freighted to them by pottery entrepreneurs.
The potters themselves clustered around naturally occurring clay deposits, thereby creating numerous “jugtowns” of a dozen shops and more. While the ceramic product turned out by these potters varied with the area, its clays, its traditions, the basic steps in the production process varied little throughout the South. Most of these men fashioned their own tools with the assistance of local blacksmiths, built their own kilns of homemade bricks, and processed their own clay and glaze materials.
And while the potters and the society around them regarded pottery-making as a respectable and reasonably profitable trade, its adherents rarely sought —or found —the professional status of their fellows in the North. More often than not, southern stoneware potters worked anonymously, characteristically combining pottery-making with farming.
“I remember very distinctly about Pa talking with my older brother, said: ‘We’ll just put us up a ware shop, we’ll have something to work at.’ And course they were young, chucky boys, that just suited ‘em. They just cut the logs and pulled ‘em right up to that place where that old chimley’s at and built the shop.”
The founding of the first Meaders Pottery during the winter months of 1892-93 was hardly an auspicious occasion. If the account of L.Q. Meaders, one of the founder’s sons, is to be believed, it began as something of a whim, as a diversion from farming and as a means to gain a small supplemental income. Since the Meaderses had virtually no antecedents in the field (unlike many of their potter neighbors in the hill country of White County), it was mostly chance circumstance that brought them to pottery-making at such a late date.
John Milton Meaders, a taciturn, humorless man noted mainly for his unusual strength, had very little disposition for farming. Rather, for years he maintained himself at odd jobs like blacksmithing, wagon building, and carpentry. At other times he found solace hauling wagonloads of farm vegetables between north Georgia hamlets.
As his youngest son remembers: “Well, Pa was a-wagoning. He was a terrible fellow to go back over the mountain and take a load of produce and buy up a big coop, chicken bed full of chickens. Take ‘em off to Athens and he’d make money on ‘em.”
Along with his staples, John M. Meaders also freighted jugs, churns, and pitchers for his potter neighbors.
Given his background and personality, it seems surprising that John M. would elect to enter into such a disciplined craft as pottery making. Nevertheless, he apparently found his neighbors’ success at the trade irresistible: “They was other pott’ries around here that was making good about it and he decided he had the boys — let them go to making it.”
His son also suggests that the decision was influenced by his experience as a merchandiser of ceramic ware: “Well, he’d always try to take a load of this pott’ry ware over there [to Athens] to swap for chickens. They’d trade for the ware. And [if] he hadn’t a-been a-wagoning so much with his team across there and buying up stuff and selling it, I don’t think he ever would have put [a shop] up.” In any event, the germ of an idea had taken hold, for at length John M. Meaders called his growing family together in the fall of 1892 and announced his intention to build a “ware shop.”
Because of their late entry into pottery-making, the Meaderses did not enjoy too many years of great stability in their chosen craft. Even as they developed skills and built a clientele, changes were on the horizon, changes that would bring about a social and economic transformation with the dawning twentieth century.
For a few years, however, they worked in an environment not very different from that of the previous decades.
During these years, the economy of White County depended upon agriculture. Settlers for the most part occupied subsistence farmsteads, congregating occasionally at a few tiny general stores that dotted the countryside. Of these, the Leo store and post office stood closest to the Mossy Creek voting district. Several times a year, business took the family a three-mile distance to the county seat, Cleveland, which boasted a physician, a dentist, an attorney, a courthouse, and two dry-goods stores; these trips, however, depended on necessity.
The trade network, in which the Meaderses participated actively, relieved the isolation of their rural existence to an extent. Wagon freighters criss-crossed the region, trading produce and bringing news to the outlying settlements. After 1895, these wagoners introduced commercially manufactured glaze materials to the potter’s benefit and, after 1900, introduced vast numbers of glass bottles and tin cans to his eventual disadvantage.
By 1910, Q. Meaders took over his father’s role as principal sales representative and spokesman for the Meaders family potters. Two decades later, he further documented the family’s importance to Southern Appalachian folk pottery when he taught at Brenau College in Gainesville.
Today, John Milton Meaders’ great grandson Clete Meaders, of Cleveland, GA, is dedicated to preserving the traditional process of making folk pottery, from digging his own clay to firing his face jugs in a wood kiln. Indeed, Cleveland holds an annual Meaders Pottery Face Jug Festival to recognize the more than century old contribution of this one North Georgia family.