Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Incredible Dave Jars

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a "Dave Jar". Dave Drake, born circa 1801, was probably a most interesting man. If he had not been born into slavery, he would certainly have left a very different legacy, if any at all. Dave became a potter. Not by choice was he a potter, but by what he was enjoined to do for his owner.

This jar is well over a  hundred years old, It has been placed on a potter wheel that may have been close to what pottery thrown on in Dave's time. The wheel would have been foot powered and probably would have had a head block made of a thick round of wood. Dave had one leg, making it necessary for someone else to turn his wheel.

I decided that I would try to make a reasonable facsimile of a Dave pot, given my limited skill and technology. I came out pretty well for the first one...better than I had hoped, thanks to Janice's glazing skills and my ability to pick the 60 pound  pot  up and move it through the delicate "green stages" until it was bisque fired. It was made by turning the base as high as I could get it, and using big coils to add height and then turning them to pull it higher. Not sure this was how Dave did it, but it worked for me. Not a great picture, but you get the idea.

In reading the book Carolina Clay, written by Leonard Todd, and whose family had owned Dave in the far distant past, I get the distinct feeling Dave was a natural potter. I think all people are born to do something. Dave must have taken to making pots and jars like a duck to water. he sure was good at it!

These big jars up to 80 gallons, were needed to store food. Why so much? A plantation owner with even two or three slaves was bound to protect his investment...which meant care and feeding of extra mouths that allowed him the privilege of farming cotton and cane.

The meat, pork and beef, had to be stored, as fresh would only keep for a short while in the warm climate of the South.   Hogs were butchered in the fall after it cooled down. The meat was cut and put in huge vessels, like the one at the top of the page, and salted down. Hams were smoked or salt cured along with bacon.

Corn was ground into meal. Buckwheat, oats and winter wheat or "red wheat were also staples...as were potatoes cabbage and other root crops that would keep in cold weather.. Cane syrup for sweetening, a little chicory for coffee, and  you have a typical diet of the South in those days...not a bad bill of fare.
Gardens don't grow all winter in the South, though cabbage, turnip and collard greens and onions do quite well.

Feeding a large population with out refrigeration took know how and ingenuity. The jars that Dave made have been found as far as 100 miles away from the source in Edgefield, South Carolina. His work must have been in great demand, and his reputation gave him some small measure of expression.

Some of Dave's storage  vessels are signed with a poem , as is the one in the picture. Dave was literate...having been taught to read, and then sort of teaching himself to write, according to Todd. He was "allowed" to sign some of his pots. One of my favorites verses  " I wonder where is all my relations, Friendship to all-and every Nation". Reflection of his ancestry in Africa?

Dave's pots became very quiet in the years leading up to the Civil, largely due to legislation by most States to keep slaves from communicating with each other. It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write, and those who could already, played dumb.

Dave lived until the early 1870's we think. We don't know when he made his last pot...or really where he was living at the time of death...he sorta' sunk into oblivion leaving some of the most amazing pot ever made on a American soil.

A friend of mine has a Dave pot, and brought it over to let me see it. It was this grayish green tan, probably 12 gallons or so. I sat down and held it...and got the most amazing feeling as I rubbed it, feeling where his hands had been, imagining him pulling it up with an assistant turning the wheel. It gave me goose bumps. I asked how he knew it was a Dave and he pointed to the 5 little triangles with a dot in center...probably made from a stick carved down. What an experience to sit with that pot in my lap. Simple pleasures.

This post is the tip of the iceberg. Go on line to find more of this amazing potter the the Edgefield district of South Carolina. This area were a seditious hotbed of ideology and some other not so pleasant ideas leading up to South Carolina's firing the first shot.

Leonard Todd has written work on the life of Dave from the standpoint of Dave actually being owned by Todd's family a few generation's ago. Mr Todd spent some years living in Edgefield,  piecing together this story. A very good read of an amazing potter.

Even if you aren't a potter.

1 comment:

  1. Not only do you have to be ABLE just to manufacture a Dave jar (like you did) just imagine 80 "gallons" worth of ham inside one even allowing for packing inefficiency. It would take two serious men to move one and you better store it on the ground. //bb