Unbroken Tradition Transcript
A Transcription of Unbroken Tradition
29 Minutes 7 Seconds
Close-up shots of Jerry Brown mugs. Background Music: "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could" recorded by Ricky Skaggs.
Jerry Brown picks up pottery outside his shop in Hamilton, Alabama. His clay mill is shown in the background.
Jerry Brown: I've got some churns. This is a two gallon churn in the blue. I've got blue white, brown and green and some in yellow in the pitchers. This here's a four gallon jug in Albany slip glaze.
Jerry shows pots.
Jerry Brown: This is bean pots here. You can cook in those or put them in your microwave or oven, either one.
Face jug details. Background music is "I Wouldn't Change You if I Could" recorded by Ricky Skaggs.
"Your eyes your lips your tender smile,
I'd leave them as they are.
And come what may
I'd never change a thing.
"And if I were a potter
And you a piece of clay
The only thing I'd change
Would be your name."
Jerry turns pottery on an electric wheel.
Jerry Brown: My daddy was known better as Jug Brown than he was - his name was Horace Vincent. Everybody called him Jug Brown.
Photo: Horace "Jug" Brown
Jerry Brown: A lot of people he'd know for years never did know his first name, called him "Jug." He got some mail one time, "Jug Brown."
Narrator: According to family tradition, John Henry Brown came to America in the 18th century. Some 30 of his descendents established potteries from the Carolinas to Texas. In 1935 Horace V. Brown moved from Georgia to Alabama, opened a pottery and raised a family. Jerry Brown is his son.
Jerry looks at a jug he has placed to one side of his wheel. A pitcher is also in view. These forms rest on temporary "bat boards" where they are allowed to dry.
Jerry Brown: I make all different shapes. I set that one off it made me think of one of my daddy's jugs. I didn't really notice it 'til I set it off and looked at it. It's got, you know, he made his top real thick and heavy up here at the top. And it's just slant in sort of a little at a time. I make mine more rounded top, most of them, than I do that one. When you make face jugs you make them in all different shapes because everybody's head is shaped different just about.
Music & credits. The winter scene includes Jerry Brown's house, dog pen, and barn and follows his red Ford pick up truck on the snowy dirt road to his pottery shop.
Photo: Jack Brown 1941-1964. Jerry's brother Jack is pictured in his National Guard uniform.
Jerry Brown: My brother, he was a real good potter. He was 14 months older than me. It was on a Friday. And he wanted to build us a shop. He had some property there in Detroit - down here at Detroit, Alabama. He wanted to build a shop on his property down there and go in together and make pottery. And we'd done agreed on what size, you know, shop to build. And we had it in mind starting it in just the next few days, soon as we got a chance. And that night he got killed in a car wreck. About less than a year after that my daddy passed away. And that's when it left me by myself and that's - didn't think I could stand the pressure, you know. It brought back too many memories. I went back down to the shop, you know, with the intention of making stuff, you know. I couldn't stand the pressure, you know. I'd just have to get out. Then I moved to Hamilton and somebody stole all my daddy's equipment before I got the chance to go back there and get it. I ain't got nary a piece of my daddy's equipment left. Then I started, uh, that's when I moved to Hamilton. That's when I started logging up here.
John Brewer cuts down a tree with a chainsaw. Jerry works with Ruff the mule to pull cut timber to the truck, where it is then loaded.
Jerry Brown: I was logging for a living and, uh, we had about two bad winters right after another. Stayed around here with nothing to do, you know. I told my wife, "I'm fixing to clean out my barn and put me in a pottery shop. I did have four mules and two trucks when I was logging. I'm down to two mules and one truck. And probably by spring, if the pottery business keeps on progressing, I can quit all that. See, I'd been out of it twenty years. A lot of my friends come by and said, "Man, you're crazy!" A lot of them said, "You don't even know what a churn looks like." They didn't know that I'd made them before.
Jerry and his stepson Jeff Wilburn dig clay at the old Rye clay pit, Detroit, Alabama.
Photo: Gerald Stewart, 1917 -1993. Jerry's maternal uncle, Gerald Stewart, a traditional potter from Louisville, Mississippi, helped Jerry establish his pottery in Hamilton.
Jerry Brown: My Uncle Gerald, he come up and helped me out a lot. He was a big help. This vein of clay here is approximately - at least 12 feet deep, or deeper. Right there is a piece, as fine a piece of clay as there are in the state of Alabama, I would imagine. I've used so much of it. It's some of that dark clay. You can see the little shiny crystals in it. My daddy always called that "isinglass." But how I found out, if it hasn't got it, it definitely won't make pottery. They call it something else in college, but I'm not familiar with what it is.
In the summer months when it is real hot, Jeff and I are always down here about two hours before daylight. That's about the only way you can stand it in the summertime. Back when I was young like him it didn't make no difference. I'd come at 12 o'clock in the day. This pit is supposed to be around in the neighborhood of a hundred year old. Potters have been getting clay that long. There's a lot of old bursted pottery right over there. I assume that potters would bring their bursted pottery and unload it over there and come on down to the pit and get them a load of clay while they were here. A man, Jimmy Rye got all his clay here. Jeff, this is part of old Jimmy Rye's kiln. It's made out of iron ore rocks. That kiln is at least a hundred years old or better. And right here is some of his ash glaze. You know why I always tell you about keeping them little iron ore rocks out? This little spot right there, that's what it'll do for it. Here's a, here's a top of a three-gallon jug. It's got a three wrote on it.
Jeff Wilburn: It's ash glaze ain't it?
Jerry Brown: This is salt glaze here. There's no telling how old these pieces of pottery are.
Photo: James A. Rye, c. 1869 -1952
Jerry Brown: Walk in there and see if that kiln, that kiln's not tall, not hardly tall as ours. Reckon people will be able to come see our kiln a hundred years from now?
Jeff Wilburn: They might.
Jerry Brown: Certainly hope so.
Jeff Wilburn: I do to. Hope all of it is standing.
Jeff Wilburn crawls through the ruins of the kiln.
Jerry shovels clay into the pug mill, also known as a "clay mill" or "mud mill."
Jerry Brown: You take this Once I get the mill full, it takes the mule about two hours to have it ready to come out, to start taking it out. Whoa!
Jerry pours water into the mill.
Jerry Brown: I'm pouring some water on this clay now. It takes there's about 1500 pounds of clay in the mill here now, ah, it takes about 20 to 25 gallons of water to get it to the right temper that you want it. You get all the lumps and get it to the right temper. It takes approximately an hour and a half to two hours.
Jeff Wilburn uses a sack as a blindfold for Pat the mule.
Jerry Brown: The reason we put that sack over that mule's eyes, where we can go inside and be doing something else, and he'll just keep on going out here when he's by himself. He can't tell whether we're out here or not with that sack over his eyes. That's a mule I call Pat. I've owned him about eight years. He'll weigh about 1400 pounds. If you work one mule to it all day long, just one mill right after the other, you'd have to be in really good shape to stay out there and pull that thing all day. It's not real hard to pull, but it's, it's steady. Ain't no ease to it. It's the same pull. You can start walking to Birmingham, a loaf of bread will get heavy before you get there. Come here, Pat!
Jerry and Jeff remove clay from the mill, block it up and take it into the shop.
Jerry Brown: He used to be a professional boxer and wrestler, my daddy did and I I know it was so, because he had a mule, blind mule, he ground his clay with. Blind in both eyes. Something spooked it one day and throwed its head sideways and warped him upside the head. He hit that mule between his eyes with his fist and knocked out that mule cold as a cucumber. And I know it's so because I heard a lot of my people tell it, you know. They said his wrist and arm stayed swelled for nearly a month before he, about a month before he could ever use it no more after he hit that mule with it. He was one more case. Whoa!
Jerry Brown: It's dirty work, you know, and it's hard work. I've hired, I guess, half a dozen workers. Some of them won't last two days and some of them won't last a week. I got one fellow, why, he helped me in the shop. He made balls for me for a while. I guess he helped me probably three months. Then we's firing the kiln out there one day. We done been firing there about 24 hours. He said, "Jughead, there's bound to be to be a way to make a easier living." That's what he called me, "Jughead." He called churns jugs. Everything was a jug to him, regardless of what it was.
Jerry weighs the clay.
Jerry Brown: I'm going to make me a ball for a five gallon churn. It takes 27 pounds. I generally allow about a quarter of a pound for my lumps and rocks and stuff.
Jerry wedges the clay by throwing it across a taut wire.
Jerry Brown: This is what you call wedging the clay. This clay has got air pockets in it. It's got a little trash and occasionally a few rocks in it. You can hit it about 12 or 15 times across this wire and it's pretty well like taking an x-ray of it. You can see whatever is in it. You can tell by the sound of the wire when I hit a rock. See, I just hit one then. Now I'm ready to roll it up. You have to roll it up real tight. If you don't, you'll trap more air in it when you start rolling it up. You have to keep the bottom of your ball of clay real smooth. That's the bottom of the churn right there. If you leave a hole in the bottom of your clay, you'll have a hole in the bottom of your churn.
Background music is "Highway 40 Blues" recorded by Ricky Skaggs.
Jerry Brown: This is a five-gallon churn. I timed myself a lot of times over here. Sometimes I make them a little quicker and sometimes I have beat that a little. And if you got your clay the right temper, you know, you make First thing you do when you get your ball of clay on the wheel is get it perfectly centered and then you take your top piece off.
Jerry removes the top piece and sets it aside.
Your top piece weighs approximately five pounds. Then you open it up. You get the thickness of your bottom and smooth your bottom up. I can make about 40 to 50 of them a day and put the handles on them. Get down to a smaller size, I can make 75 to 100 in two and three-gallon churns. These five-gallon churns are a little harder to make than the smaller ones. It takes more time.
Jerry begins pulling the clay into a taller form.
Jerry Brown: Your first pull is your hand pull. And your next two pulls are your knuckle pull. And then start putting your shape on. You should get your height before you start putting any shape on at all. When you first start, your hand pull is real hard, and your first knuckle pull is real hard. But after that it's not that hard. After that it gets tedious, you know, you have to really watch what you are doing when you start putting the shape to it. When you get it down, what I'm trying to say us when you get it down to about the right thickness, you know it just, the least little mistake, you just as well start on another one. This five-gallon churn here is 20 inches high.
Jerry uses a rib to smooth the sides of the churn.
Jerry Brown: Once you get your height on it, this is what you call a "rib," this thin piece of metal with four smooth sides on it. It's not sharp, it's just smooth. That's what you use to shape it and smooth it up with. Mother said they used to make a lot of 20-gallon flower pots and crocks and stuff like that.
Jerry places the top of the churn on the bottom and joins the two pieces.
Jerry Brown: Twenty gallons-that's a big piece of pottery. He made it on the kick wheel. She'd have, she'd have to get on the wheel and help him kick it, when he was making something that size. Help get him started off. Now I can remember when I was just a little toddler, you know, helping him kick that wheel. You know, we're making little stuff. I'd kick it by myself. He'd have to help me get it started off when we're making four or five-gallon churns. He'd have to help me a little bit, you know and he got started and I started kicking 'til he got it made. I thought it was a lot of fun to start with, but it turned out to be work!
Jerry takes a paint brush dipped in cobalt and makes a blue line around the churn while it is still turning. He then takes a wire, cuts the piece loose from the wheel. He takes a pair of custom made "lifters," removes the churn and places it on a wooden bat board.
Jerry Brown: Looks all right! Just need a bunch more of them.
Jerry attaches the handle. This is done after the clay has dried to "leather hard."
Jerry Brown: I asked a lot of people if they knew what side the jug or churn to put the handle on. Nearly every one of them will tell you it don't make no difference. I tell them ain't but two sides: the inside and the outside.
Jerry dips a churn in a white glaze and places it near his wife Sandra. She wipes the glaze from the bottom of the churns.
Sandra Brown: I'm wiping the bottoms off so that the glaze won't stick when we put it in the kiln. He decided that, to get into it, just seemed like overnight. He just come in one evening, he said, "I'm fixing to go into the pottery business." He hadn't mentioned it to me or nothing. Next day he started out over here fixing his shop, hunting somebody to fix him, build him a wheel. And it just seems like, it's like the drop of a hat, you know, just all of a sudden. I'm glad he did now. It was real exciting to learn about it and everything.
Sandra scrapes glaze off the tops of churns.
Sandra Brown: We stack these churns in the kiln. This right here, if it's not scraped off, they stick together just like they're welded.
Jerry and Sandra stack the pottery in the kiln. First, Jerry places churn lids in the back flues to use as test pieces.
Sandra Brown: I knew his daddy had done pottery. We went down and visited his uncle Gerald, you know, and I had seen his one time before he started into this. And ah...but I don't think we ever talked about it, you know, before we married, if he was a potter or not. I can't remember it, if we did.
Jerry Brown: I know we didn't because I never had made any
Sandra Brown: uhn uhn
Jerry Brown: to amount to anything. I believe I did make a little jug down at Gerald's one time, didn't I?
Sandra Brown: Yeah, I still got it over there. I put my and your name on it. That's the first piece of pottery I had ever seen made. I still got it.
Jerry emerges from the kiln. A shot inside the kiln shows old cracked churns stacked in front of the freshly made pottery.
Jerry Brown: She's stacked! If I over fire it a little bit, these old churns here start tingling. That's the sign that you're firing it a little too heavy. You have to back off and start again. You can burst a lot of your pottery with this little fire right here, if you start it off too fast you can burst a bunch of it-all your front stuff. You ruin all of it if you ever start off too fast. I never will forget when I first built this kiln. I just wasn't thinking. I had me a good, some pine and some, lots of paper under it and it blazed up and that blaze shot plumb through that door and them old churns went to tingling a little bit. I heard something sounded like somebody shooting a gun back in there. The churns were blowing up. When I'd taken them back out, I'd lost, I guess, 15 to 20 churns out of that kiln, just on account of this first firing right here. Don't never let my blaze get through that first door before, generally eight hours.
A shot of the kiln at day break.
Jerry Brown: We have been firing now approximately 14 hours. Right now is when you either make it or break it. Start firing on the inside. Put a stick in each side about every seven to eight minutes for two hours. Next two hours I put two sticks in each side and from there on you just put whatever it, you think it needs. This stage here where I can't keep from getting a little nervous. Got a lot of hard work involved in there and you can, just one little mistake and you can lose the biggest majority of it, if not all of it. This stage here where you have to strictly keep your mind on your business, you know, and do it right. One little, like I said, just one little misfiring is costly. That's what makes me a little nervous.
Jerry looks into the kiln.
Jerry Brown: Ready for some more!
Jerry loads some wood into the kiln.
Jerry Brown: I got to get my kiln red hot from front to back before I start really putting much wood in it. It probably takes 'til lunch to get it red hot from back to the front. Then once you get that, you're out of the danger stage. There's where you go putting a lot of wood in it, you go melting your glaze.
Jerry and Jeff load wood into the fire box.
Jerry Brown: My daddy always started off using oak wood and used it plumb up maybe 'til the last three or four hours, then he used pine. He always said that rosin in that pine put a shiny finish on your churns. And I know it does, I've seen it work. When I go up to some of the arts and craft shows, most people walk by, you know, they think it's ceramics. Ceramics is easy broke. This is what's called stoneware here. It's real durable. It just don't break easy. You take a little cream pitcher, two men or three men my size can lay down its side, stand up on it and it won't break.
Jeff Wilburn sits in front of the wood pile by the kiln.
Jeff Wilburn: I learned how to make pottery on a wheel, turning it with your hands. It took me about a month to learn how to make something at least decent to sell, a little thing.
Jerry Brown: Tell them what I do to you if you leave rocks and air pockets in it, in my balls of clay.
Jeff Wilburn: He, well he, when he finds an air pocket or two in it, while he's making it, he just cuts it off, tears it up and throws it back at me and let's me, make me make it over, get 'em out.
Jerry Brown: If I'd been as strict on him as my daddy was me, he'd have a lot more than he's got. Always on Sunday morning we always had two choices: go to church or go to the shop and work. And part of the time had to work on Sunday evening, if we had a rush order or something. The rest of the boys in the community were just running around and playing, you know. Boy it tore my brother and I up good, because we had to work and the rest of the kids in the community playing. And they'd come by and laugh at us. My daddy, when he told you to do something, it's better be done. If you didn't you paid the price for it. When he'd get on a drunk we'd ride off a little.
Smoke rises out of the chimney. Shot looking into the red hot kiln.
Jerry Brown: Once I found out, you know, that I was the 9th generation, I was really proud that I did take it back up. It would've died at eight if hadn't a taken it up. I just hope, I'm hoping my boy will be ten. You know he's still young. When I was his age, I wasn't that bad interested in it myself, you know.
Jerry Brown: That lid there is just near about as slick as a monkey's back end! I didn't know you was taping.
Jerry removes a sheet of tin from the entrance.
Jerry Brown: I'm fixing to start taking this old kiln out now. It's been cooling about three and a half, four days. Still probably be pretty warm in there. But it won't be hot enough to bother you.
About a year or so after we started, we had trouble selling some of them. And I told her, I said, "we just as well nail up our doors. We'll starve to death in the pottery business." It wasn't many days after that we, we had a good bit made up. And she carried off a pick up load and sold it and got a bunch of orders for some more. And since then we've done just gradually get better every day.
Jerry climbs into the kiln taking a light.
Sandra helps to unload the kiln.
Sandra Brown: Well, when we first started nobody knew it and we didn't really know where to sell it, you know, where to go or anything. We'd load up the truck, you know, go around to hardware stores and places like that. When we'd leave, we didn't know whether we was going to sell it or not. It was just a chance we's taking. So, and they finally learned us and now they come here instead of us delivering it.
Jerry Brown: My guess is in the spring of the year is the best time of the year to sell it-flower pots and churns both. Last spring I couldn't keep a churn here of any kind. If it'd hold water up to halfway, I could sell it. When I'd fire a kiln and it'd get ready to come out, I'd tell 'em what day and they, they'd be here waiting on them to take 'em out. I'm going to try to get me some made up ahead this year. Well, I had some last year, but they just didn't last long.
Jerry looks around at the pottery on the ground outside the kiln.
Jerry Brown: Don't look bad, does it? Aren't ya'll ready to start lidding the churns?
Tammy Wilburn (step daughter): Yes.
Jerry, Jeff, Tammy and Sandra match lids to churns. Background music is "Don't Let Your Sweet Love Die" recorded by Ricky Skaggs
"Don't let you sweet love die
Like flowers in the fall,
Don't take away the smiles
And leave the tears.
My heart believes in you
Please say you love me true
Don't leave me here
To face the lonely years.
I drifted all alone
No one to call my own
And then you came
Like an angel from the sky.
You said we'd never part
Don't leave and break my heart
Be mine alone
Don't let your sweet love die.
Don't let you sweet love die
Like flowers in the fall,
Don't take away the smiles
And leave the tears.
My heart believes in you
Please say you love me true
Be mine alone
Don't let your sweet love die."