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Jerry Brown, His Life and Times

Jerry Brown, His Life and Times

Sulligent, Lamar County, Alabama, where Jerry Brown was born in 1942, is in the far northwest corner of the state, an area that bears within its earth veins of clay suited for pottery making. Jerry Brown’s father, Horace Brown, came to this area surrounding the Alabama-Mississippi town of Louisville. Horace, who was known to everyone as "Jug" Brown, married Homer Stewart’s daughter Hattie Mae and they had two sons, Jack and Jerry, and a daughter, Wanda. Jug Brown opened his own pottery shop near Sulligent, Alabama in 1941. His family worked along-side him in the shop. Jack and Jerry were expected to pay close attention to the instructions of their father who had, before them, learned the trade from his father and grandfather.

Once many potteries operated in the area where Jug Brown settled. During the 19th Century and early part of the 20th, with no electricity, few automobiles, and little mechanization, people used animals to farm, maintained home gardens and raised livestock to support themselves. The small, independent farmer was more prevalent in the Lamar and Marion County areas than in many other parts of Alabama and Mississippi. People were used to working for themselves, supplementing their agricultural labors with other kinds of activities, such as logging, hunting and working at the pants factory in nearby Detroit, Alabama. The local clay attracted potters to the area who found a ready market both within the vicinity and beyond. People needed the durable stoneware they made and bought jars and jugs for storing and preserving food, churns for making butter, and pitchers, bowls and cups for serving food. Gradually, technological innovations penetrated the area, but did not completely replace the backwoods ways of living that had served the people well since the early settlement era. It is clear that many people in this section of Alabama subscribe to the tenet that "things don’t get old without a reason."

Jerry Brown’s childhood was typical for a rural southern boy growing up in the Forties and Fifties. His daily life revolved around school and church, home chores (including working in the pottery), playing baseball and running around with the other boys. Radio, television, and movies had made the world beyond Sulligent available and good roads put Birmingham and the Tri-Cities of Florence, Sheffield and Tuscombia only a few hours away. During the time Jerry was a teenager, the number of potteries in northwest Alabama dwindled, but this was partially due to the fact that few young people were taking up the trade as old potters retired. While the people of the region had adopted modern practices, many still produce their own food by gardening, hunting, fishing and raising livestock, which they "put up" in a "deep freeze" or in glass mason jars. Though it was true that people rarely used stoneware for preserving food and more, there was still a market for other kinds of ware. Therefore, when Jerry’s brother Jack approached him in 1964 with the idea that they open a pottery together, it seemed like a practical idea. However, when Jack was killed in an automobile accident and Jug Brown died a year later, Jerry lost his desire to operate a pottery.

For many years, Jerry Brown made the major part of his living working as logger in the pulpwood industry. (He was still doing some logging at the time the film was made, but has since stopped.) Working with a crew, he cut trees with a gas-powered chainsaw, "snaking" the logs with mules and loading them onto trucks with mechanical side-arm loaders in a combination of old and new technology that is characteristic of the local economy. An early marriage resulted in a son, Jeff, and ended in divorce. In 1979, Jerry married Sandra, acquiring two stepchildren, Jeff and Tammy Wilburn, in the process. Successful as a logger, he built a comfortable, wood-heated contemporary ranch house on seventeen acres near Hamilton. The Brown place includes a catfish pond, a large garden, and a pen filled with hunting dogs. Jerry also raises hogs on his property, and runs cattle. In 1981, during a slack time in the logging business, Jerry told Sandra, "I’m going to build me a pottery shop."

With help from his Uncle Gerald Stewart, and employing his own amazing recall of what his father had taught him, Jerry put the shop together. It includes a building for turning vessels and drying greenware; a mule-drawn mill for mixing newly-dug clay; a display room for keeping finished ware; and a brick groundhog kiln for firing. Working together, the Browns finished their first batch of stoneware and Sandra loaded it up in the truck and drove away to see if could sell it locally. People bought it— some because they used it, others because they liked its old-fashioned look— and eventually they started coming to the shop to make their purchases. Nevertheless, the pace was slow. It was a part-time occupation. But this was not unexpected. Pottery making has usually been just one of the ways the traditional potters make a living— something they could turn to when they weren’t farming or, in Jerry Brown’s case, logging.

In the early 1980s, public interest in the objects produced out of folk traditions prompted the Montgomery Museum of Art to sponsor a survey of the folk pottery tradition in Alabama. Joey Brackner, fieldworker for the survey, came across Jerry Brown’s pottery shop in Marion County. Subsequently, Brackner and project director Henry Willett included Jerry Brown’s work in an exhibition, "The Traditional Pottery of Alabama," mentioning him prominently in the catalog for the show. Jerry also demonstrated his work at the opening of the exhibition. As a result of this exposure, Jerry and Sandra Brown now appear regularly at museums and arts and crafts fairs featuring folk crafts. It is through these avenues that they have developed a new market for their ware outside of the traditional local market.

It was not until his association with folklorist Brackner that Jerry Brown became aware of the importance of his role as a tradition-bearer. In 1992 that importance was recognized when Jerry became one of thirteen recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship Award, the country’s highest honor for traditional artists.