A potter used to be an indispensable member of an Alabama community. Potter’s jars were used to store things we keep in the refrigerator. The potter provided the everyday dishes, pots, pans, plates, and cups that a family would use.
Alabama’s longest running family of potters were featured in the Alabama Public Television documentary “Miller’s Pottery: Turning For Generations” in 1997. The documentary was produced by Max Shores of the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio.
Eric Miller and his son, Steve, are continuing a tradition begun in 1865 by Abraham Miller, a Pennsylvania man who moved to Alabama at the close of the Civil War. The Millers dig clay from a pit in Perry County, mill it, turn it, and fire it into pitchers, churns, piggy banks and other items in Brent, Alabama.
“The first step is to wet the clay and put it into a mill that mixes it to a fairly uniform consistency,” says Shores, who produced the documentary. “The old mills were mule powered, but the Millers have an electric motor running their clay mill now.”
70 to 100 pound chunks of clay are taken from this mill and then run through a filter mill which is designed to removed rocks and debris. A third mill removes pockets of air from the material. Clay which has been processed in this manner is ready to be shaped on a potter’s turning wheel.
“The Millers sell a lot of their processed clay to artist supply stores and educational institutions,” Shores explains. “It is highly praised by artists who turn pottery but avoid the hard labor involved in preparing the clay.”
Most of the items made by the Millers are turned on a wheel, dried for several weeks, and then fired in a kiln in a process that lasts three days. This work kept generations of the Miller family busy from the 1800’s through the 1970’s when they sold as many as 6,000 flower pots each month. However, demand for stoneware has fallen off since then. Today the Millers market their pottery at craft shows and to curious visitors at their pottery shop.
“The Millers are really a great treasure,” says Shores. “Meeting them and watching them work you feel a link with the old days when our ancestors relied on pottery items for their survival, and through the sale of their pottery they allow us to bring a little piece of that feeling home.”
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