Hidden behind a tan and green building, just 7.4 miles from Biltmore Village on US 25 S, is a local treasure, a rare gem, to be discovered by some or rediscovered by others. The traffic flies by at such a pace on Hendersonville Road that someone might not notice the small unassuming sign for Brown’s Pottery across from the Lutheran Church of the Nativity. They certainly may not realize that this is the location of the shop and home of the Brown family, who are considered the oldest pottery making family in the United States. The family came over from England in the early 1700’s and first settled in Spotslyvania County, Virginia, then Caswell County, N.C., then Atlanta, Georgia, and finally located here in 1924. The Browns are Southern Traditional Folk Potters, who have been trained starting at a very early age by their parents and grandparents. Through observation and practice they all learned an incredible skill, encouraging and helping each other to improve along the way.
Charlie Brown is a 9th generation master potter, who has been involved in every aspect of making pottery from his early childhood. His Daddy put him “on a wheel” at the age of two, and he has loved being there ever since. He says he “has mud for blood.” His skill in turning a piece on the wheel is just amazing to see, as the pottery takes shape and evolves. It all looks so easy, effortless and relaxed. But I gather it has all been well thought out and planned, well before he even approaches the wheel. He knows the shape, height, and size he wants, with certain indicator marks scratched into the machinery to guide him as the wheel turns. This is certainly a remarkable talent, which has been practiced, learned, and perfected over many years.
After the pottery has dried with handles all attached, Charlie’s wife, Jeanette, then finishes, glazes and fires all turned wares. Her colors blend and drip beautifully on the bowls, vases, jars, colanders, sushi dishes, and butter trays. Early on she decided to step away from the solid earthtone colors. She creates a glorious combination of tones and colors, all by hand, never sprayed. She even offers some spatterware with unusual kaleidoscope colors, which look so wonderful in the homes of today. Charlie and Jeanette have made sure that today’s pottery items have all been brought into the 21st century. They are dishwasher safe, microwave safe and oven safe. They are all lead free. After being cooled to room temperature, they can be put in the refrigerator.
Their sons, Charlie and Christian, and daughter, Stefani, represent the 10th generation, and all participate in their own way in the family business. Charlie mixes the clay, makes cookware, and helps in the shop with any task. Christian primarily handles all the orders, has set up an online store, is computer savvy and a fine photographer. Stefani, who loves animals, has become a veterinary technician at WNC Veterinary Hospital but helps in the family shop and store when she can. At the age of nine Stefani demonstrated her skill by turning pottery at the Knoxville World’s Fair in 1982.
Genuine American Folk Art | Made in the Southern Traditional Way
From the exterior of the building, it might certainly surprise a passerby to learn that the Brown face jugs, which have been made by every family member over the years, are displayed in major museums throughout the world. These handcrafted works are considered original American Folk Art, having been produced by master potters. The face jugs, with a Brown’s pottery stamp or signature, are considered a valuable collector’s item. Originally the first large red Devil’s face jugs with horns was placed outside the building to attract customers to the store. It sold immediately.
Today, these incredible pieces are displayed in places such as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, the Mint Museum in Charlotte and the Asheville Museum of Art. Over the years the prices of the face jugs have soared–a true Antiques Roadshow dream come true! In 2006 one Devil face jug sold at auction for $80,000 to the Philadelphia Museum. Alas, the Browns remember selling these same jugs to their customers for as little as $2.50 to $3.50–probably during the Depression!!
During those difficult days Uncle Otto would fill up the truck with items and take to the country to trade the pottery for produce.
Today, photographs of Brown ugly jugs, painted, devil’s face jugs,or just fun, laughable face jugs can appear unexpectedly in the homes of the rich and famous. Although other potters do make all types of face jugs, some knowledgeable collectors recognize the facial applications–the arched eyes, the expressionistic mouths–that typify an original Brown face jug. Although there are many other face jugs in the marketplace, The Brown’s Pottery figures–because they are recognized as collectors’ pieces–often appear in magazines, such as in the home of Jerry Lauren, the brother of Ralph’s Lauren of Polo on a page of the “Architectural Digest” in 2003.
Another amazing fact is that Charlie’s grandfather and brother Javan were mentioned in the Guiness Book of World Records for the largest pottery vase in the world (6’2” tall by 9’8” around, weighing 500 pounds) which is still standing in the far corner of the store. “Apparently Grandpa really liked making huge things, as it showed what he could do.” As luck would have it, this vase had just been moved before a car ran into the front of the building. Another astounding event was that thanks to some clever thinking by Clementine Douglas of the Spinning Wheel, the small pigs of Louis D. Brown appeared on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desk, as well as the Secretary of Agriculture’s. Charlie’s Dad, who was recovering from a horrific car accident, had started making small clay pigs as he recovered. Mrs. Douglas decided to send some to the White House. They were a big hit.
In America’s history, pottery was badly needed for food storage. Jugs were needed for molasses, syrup, rice, salt, and many other items. One must remember that plastic did not exist, nor did refrigeration. Crockery was needed for storage everywhere. During World War II all metal was needed for the war effort, so pottery items were in high demand. It is amusing to see that a World War II Savings Bond poster was circulated with the Brown’s Pottery on the poster. The Browns are rightfully very proud of this poster that helped the War effort.
The Brown family have been making pottery, stoneware, fancyware, and cookware for a very long time. They like to say this is the home of the Little Brown Jug! This has always been a family business, and the traditions are handed down from one generation to another. In 1977 after their father suffered a heart attack, two of the brothers, Robert and Charlie Brown bought the business. They worked together until 1988. When Jeanette and Charlie married, they bought out Robert who now lives in Eureka, Montana, where he continues to make pottery and plans to return to the East Coast in the future.
Real Frenchware Made in Arden
As surprising as this may sound, Brown’s Pottery once supplied the highly respected Bazar Français store in New York City with French cookware. In 1939 Charles Ruegger realized that the potteries he owned in France were soon to be occupied by the Germans, so he quickly brought a complete set of French cookware to Arden to see if it could be made here. Was it possible? Fortunately the designs were adaptable; the clay was suitable; the cookware could be made here; and as Browns had already taken lead out of their pottery, that would not be a problem. However some changes and modernization needed to be made to get the shop into its most efficient productivity.
“In 1940 a mammoth kiln, which was at least 6’4” tall and 12 feet in diameter, was built and put in place by Grandpa and Daddy Brown This small shop certainly warmed up when that kiln was going! When possible, it ran mostly at night.” At first the kiln was wood fired, then coal, then kerosene oil, then natural gas. It held 3,000 pieces and was fired three times every two weeks, filled with items to be shipped by motor freight to New York City for Bazar Français. Jiggers (molds) had to be made for all the various sizes of cookware and corresponding lids. For years they shipped approximately 50,000 pieces a year to 666 6th Avenue, New York. To keep up with this volume, the shop needed to employ approximately 26 people.
Brown’s Pottery still makes this French cookware, even though Bazar Français closed in 1975. The original casseroles, bowls, and other cookware had a natural bisque clay exterior with a clear glazed interior, which are so often seen in Europe. However, in the United States demand seems to be greater for pieces to be glazed both on the inside and the outside—as they have a cleaner appearance after use. As newer stores entered the retail picture after Bazar Français, Browns Pottery supplied Crate & Barrel, the Storehouse, and Williams-Sonoma. In fact they have sent stoneware all over the world. Brown’s Pottery supplied a special New York restaurant with a number of pottery steak platters. After the steak was cooked and served, the platter went home with the customer! Now that is a good steak!
The Family and Shop Today
Locally, pottery made by Brown’s can be purchased at the Grove Arcade in Asheville and Grandad’s Apple Orchard in Hendersonville, as well as their own outlet store in Arden. “In fact with the apple harvest about to begin, I need to fill a large order right now for Grandad’s Apple Orchard.” In 2009 Charlie Brown together with a blacksmith demonstrated their skills on weekends at the RiverBend Farm on the Biltmore Estate as an educational tool with hands-on learning. Over the years the Grove Park Inn has ordered a number of items from Brown’s Pottery–large planters, vases, plates, platters, and bowls. “Dad and Grandpa made a lot of coffee mugs for the Grove Park Inn, which are still around today. I will say I was quite honored last April to have been awarded the Southern Heritage Award given by the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which makes me a member of the Guild. That is quite an honor,” said Charlie.
As for custom orders, the company does make custom items in quantities for customers, never just one piece, as that just isn’t cost effective –perhaps a set of plates, serving bowls, centerpieces or vases for a hotel, restaurant or club. They make individualized wedding sets for the special bride. The bride can have her pieces placed on her registry to be filled. “We have done a lot of those,” said Jeanette. Looking ahead, Brown’s Pottery is planning to make more garden items. The pots for plants need to be in a variety of sizes. We have made some very large decorative ones. And because plants need to breathe, few are glazed; some have soft, scalloped edges. “As Asheville is the beer capital of the USA, perhaps a special mug will be ordered for the city or by one of the new breweries coming to town, or perhaps a special cheese container is needed by one of the creameries, specifically for their product? As Asheville continues to grow, new opportunities are continually surfacing. It is an exciting time to live in this area with so much happening here.”
“Each generation learned more about the potting process and took it a step further, always adding their particular talent, expertise and even personality to some aspect of the business,” says Charlie Brown. “We are production potters and have been for generations. Daddy (Louis D. Brown 1924-2002) always said “It is easy to make one-of-a-kind items, but can you make another one just like it? That is the real challenge.’ My wife Jeanette is the best in glazing that has ever been. Using about twelve colors, she blends them so beautifully–all by hand.”
“Over the years we have gone from wholesalers, to retailers, to some of both. We have always been a family business and worked together as a family unit, helping each other. My Granny and Grandpa worked together for 50 years; my Mother and Dad worked together for 50 years; and Jeanette and I are nearing that now also. One business philosophy I follow is ‘Try not to put all my eggs in one basket.’ I branched out with a few other ideas, like selling clay to those that needed it. In general, I like math a lot, but as a master potter, I am more of an artist. As you know, artists aren’t known for their financial expertise! My wife Jeanette has a business head on her shoulders, which has helped our business a lot. In the ‘90’s business was great, but after 9/11 it started slowing down pretty badly. Hopefully the tables are turning now. Looking back, it’s fun to remember that at the age of sixteen my very first real paying job was for Little Pigs Bar-B-Que at $1 an hour. Joe Swicegood paid me my first paycheck for my first two weeks in $1 bills, a total of $70. When he handed me that, I didn’t know what to do with so much money!!”
“There is no doubt about it,” Charlie adds, “our items are all handmade, Made in America with Pride–right here in Arden, North Carolina. Practically every tool in our workshop has been made by us, the tools (some of which–the lifters for instance–date back to the Civil War days) the potter’s wheels, the molds, the dies, the extruders, the clay mixer, everything was made by us. We dug our own clay since 1924 from the same pit in Fletcher.
“Now I buy the clay from clay mines. Of course minerals have to be added to the clay. I needed to build a large mixer for this, which has saved us a tremendous amount of time. After shoveling the clay, the older machine could run 600 pounds of clay, which took 2 hours. The new machine does 2,200 pounds in less than one hour, and the air is already removed. My wife calls me a “Clay Guru!” We currently make about 800 pieces a week. Our signature or stamp, Brown’s Pottery, Arden, N.C., can always be found on the bottom of our items. ”
Brown’s Pottery is located at
2398 Hendersonville Road, Arden, NC.
They are open year round from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM Tuesday-Saturday.
Monday by appointment.
Phone (828) 684-2901