Dueling Pottery Festivals
Seagrove will have two pottery festivals this year.
On Friday night, the Town Board gave a festival permit to the Museum of N.C. Traditional Pottery to hold its annual Seagrove Pottery Festival on the weekend before Thanksgiving at the Seagrove School, their usual site. Then the board gave another permit to a group of local potters led by Ben Owen III to hold their Festival of Seagrove Potters at the old Luck's plant.
After hearing proposals from both, town commissioners decided there was no risk to the town, and no need to pick one over the other.
Phil Morgan put the case for the museum, calling attention to its 26-year history of staging a festival that has helped the town name become an internationally recognized brand. The potters asked their attorney to go through town ordinances line by line to show commissioners how their festival would comply on every count.
Early worries that adding a second festival would cause traffic problems and troubles for shop owners were addressed by the new location at the Luck property where ample paved parking is available and the festival can be entirely indoors -- no need for a tent.
The new festival will showcase local potters -- those who prepare their clay, turn it on their wheels, fire it in their kilns, and market their finished wares in and around Seagrove and down N.C. 705, "The Pottery Highway," through Westmoore and Robbins and on down through Moore County.
Potters who truly live and work in the geographical vicinity of Seagrove say they are the real "Seagrove potters." They believe that potters should control their own festival and that their identity should not be diluted by applying the name of this town as a brand on pottery made in other places.
Three years ago, the General Assembly enacted a designation of four counties -- Montgomery, Randolph, Moore, and Chatham -- as "the Seagrove Pottery Area." The next year, an amendment added Lee County.
A former lawyer turned potter, Don Hudson of Sanford, sits on the board of the museum. He has promoted a Sanford pottery festival, pushing Sanford and Lee County as a pottery destination and a center for "Seagrove" pottery. He has been actively critical of the state-supported N.C. Pottery Center in Seagrove.
Many of the local Seagrove section potters who want their own festival also support the N.C. Pottery Center, which they see as a true museum and educating body for the history of North Carolina pottery and a place where the best of it can be honored and displayed.
Museum advocates say their group started its own museum in a former grocery across from town hall. Its mission is the promotion of local potters, they say. Supporters of each institution have criticized the other. They have argued over the content and form of promotional pieces and guide maps (in particular, whether a Seagrove Area map should show Sanford, which is nearly 50 miles from Seagrove).
Accusations of financial mismanagement and power plays flew back and forth. Threats were made that the center or the museum could fail without the support the festival provides -- threatening in turn the life blood of the potteries each claims to represent.
Both express a commitment to peace and good will, but there has been much ill will generated, with the museum group accusing the potters of trying to steal their festival. The struggle escalated with the accidental death earlier this year of the museum's director, Richard Gillson.
Hudson featured a tribute to Gillson in a guide to his May pottery festival in Sanford -- but coupled it with an attack describing the center as a Frankenstein monster.
Museum Director Linda Loggains, who worked side by side with Gillson, said every potter from last year's festival had already signed and paid to return this year. Last year, the Seagrove Pottery Festival drew some 3,000 visitors over the course of its Saturday and Sunday run, according to Loggains.
Some actually plan their vacations around the festival, which supports the museum by ticket sales, booth rental fees, and a last-day pottery auction. Sales there are a financial underpinning for the potters.
The potters group resents things Hudson says and see him as the one trying to "steal the festival" if anybody is by using the Seagrove tag to draw people to his own Sanford festival, held in May each year. Some tried to get the museum to take him off its board, but that was refused. Hudson says nobody ever did any research to validate the worth of the N.C. Pottery Center, which he questions.
Things have changed in pottery country over the past few decades. Time was when potters made vessels mostly for daily household use, when they perched large pots on roof beams and posted roadside "See It Made" signs to attract passer-by trade. They were for the most part a few families of potters whose roots stretched back to pre-revolutionary America, descendants of English potters attracted to the Seagrove and south-of-Seagrove area by its rich veins of native clays and handy forests of oak to supply firewood for "groundhog kilns."
Over time, their handiworks came to be highly valued as works of art, not just household items. Today, Seagrove area pottery vessels still include ordinary bowls like mugs, plates and vases -- but more and more are valued as museum-quality pieces. Some sell for thousands of dollars and are exported to distant parts of the globe.
That demand has brought more and more potters to Seagrove, and more and more potters are setting up in other parts. Competition has grown brisk. Back in the 1920s, potters of the Cole family moved up to Sanford to set up by a busy highway. In the same area, Mid-State Pottery did a brisk business and gave work to many potters who came from the Seagrove and Moore County area.
Over the past few years, a split has developed, and the divide has come to be represented by the two groups who each sought permits for November festivals. The Museum of North Carolina Traditional Pottery on the one hand points to its 26-year history of staging a festival. The other is an alliance of nearly 70 established potters who, in years past, bought booth space at that festival.
Now these potters will stage their own festival. On Thursday night, they toured the 85,000-square-foot plant with Darius Luck himself as guide. The huge warehouses where once Luck's Pinto Beans and other canned goods started their journey to pantry and table will now be home to hand-crafted bean pots and other pottery in colors, shapes, and glazes unknown to the ancestors who established the craft here.
The true winners of what town leaders must surely hope is Seagrove's Solomonic decision could be the pottery lovers who have flocked to Seagrove every fall. Now, with one festival focusing on potters bound to each other as neighbors, and another enlisting outside potters and other traditional craftspeople, this year's Seagrove fall festival weekend could turn out to be the biggest yet.
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