Sunday, May 2, 2010

Memories of Westville - Conclusion

DX (Dorris Xerxes) Gordy and Fred Fussell

I have many memories of the people – Fred Fussell, the Crafts Director and his wife Cathy introduced us to soul food (collard greens were great when prepared with enough grease from the pork fat, but just say "no" to the rutabagas!) We also used to laugh at each other's accents (although WE didn't have any!) Fred and Cathy were the resident historians and Cathy led many a school group through the village, answering a million questions, I'm sure. We became good friends and they are the only folks we still have any contact with. Hi Fred and Cathy!

Richard Fox was the young long-haired shoe maker who made us both a pair of shoes. He and his wife, Carmen, once woke us up in the middle of the night so we could see a few snow flurries, a rarity in those parts – we Kansans were not impressed.

Mr. Blankenship was the resident wookworker and at one point, Dr. Mahan decided I needed to go work with him to learn the cooper's art. While I hated to leave the pottery, I did enjoy learning to make buckets and tubs of cedar. Before returning to the pottery, I actually made several (nearly) water tight containers.

Mr. Blankenship was also responsible for a hobby I've practiced for 35 years now. He made my first mountain dulcimer. I had never seen or heard a dulcimer before going to Georgia, but was intrigued by their sweet, simple tone.

One afternoon, I was walking up the hill to the parking lot after work and Mr. B, driving by in his pickup, asked me if I wanted a lift. As I opened the door to climb in, he moved a short 2x6 over to make room. “I'm going to make a dulcimer out of this,” he said, “it's poplar wood, but see that dark purple streak in the grain? Thought it would be pretty.” The next time I saw him, he showed me a beautiful instrument, a large hour glass shaped, traditional 3 string dulcimer. He had carved the sound holes and whittled the tuning pegs with his pocket knife. And yes, streaked through the back was that dark purple grain. I didn't know anything about playing it, but I ended up buying it from him. We drove to his house and he gave me a little demonstration on playing it. I'm still playing, although I have at least 5 dulcimers now. Mr. Blankenship's slightly crude model, now retired, hangs proudly on the wall.

The locals added a lot of color (no pun intended)! Oliver Powell , Idus Freeman, and Johnny Hudson were general farm hands and maintenance workers, as I recall. The old school bus-turned-flatbed was very out of character in the 1850 village, but early mornings or after hours they could often be seen groaning up a hill with an arm load of firewood or other cargo in tow.

The blacksmith shop was one of my favorite places. Dude Redding was the short blacksmith. He had forearms of sinewy steel.

He always had a tin can of boiled (pronounced “balled”) peanuts sitting by the forge. The water turned black from the soot on his fingers. Gross. He was hard to understand, but we discovered when Jane went down to have him make some curtain rods for her house that he couldn't understand her either! I acted as interpreter for that interaction. Jane and I eventually learned a little blacksmithing ourselves – we still use a fire poker Jane made which had two hammer welds! (Impressive, no?) And I forged the metal parts of the potter's wheel I still use. I can still smell the hot iron and coal.

There was also a young man who started working in the blacksmith shop while we were there. His name was Fred Rembert. We became friends with Fred and when Jane's sister visited Westville in 2007, Fred was still working there and was the only person who remembered us!

We bought several white oak baskets from Gus Daniel the basket maker, who actually still made baskets for a living when he wasn't working at Westville. They are very large and extremely sturdy baskets once used to haul cotton. Lucius Robinson also made baskets.

Viola Walker, Bernell Randall and Mary Eva Ward worked in the farmhouse kitchen cooking gingerbread, collards and other delicious southern fare and were always quick to share. Mary Eva also worked at the McDonald House when Jane had off. Here Mary Eva is pictured with our Texas friend, Gary Craig Hart.

At one point, DX and I were given the task of training two young calves to pull an ox cart. DX made a small double yoke and started teaching them to work together and follow voice commands.

Eventually, I actually got them to pull me around in a little two wheeled cart. Great fun! Here I'm giving my younger brother, Brian a ride with our dog LP. I see one of the puppies wanted to go too.

We even hooked them up to the pugmill once to see how they would do. I think we went back to the mule!
During one of the festivals, feeling rather confident, I decided to take them down the road to the "camp meeting" pavillion. Buck and Ball had other ideas and decided to run back to the farmhouse despite my "impassioned" commands. All I could do was hang on! I was embarrassed by the insubordination in front of so many people and all three of us were glad when that day was over.

Our experiences at Westville are fondly etched in our memories. We learned to love history and especially to appreciate early American stoneware. Many evidences of that appreciation can be seen in our work today, some 35 years later. DX Gordy was an inspiration and a treasure. I'm honored to have known him and to have the opportunity to learn from him. Though short in duration, from 1974 through 1975, our time at Westville, GA was a major influence in our personal and professional lives.

A rare shot of Jane on the potter's wheel! She never cared for the treadle wheels.
I hope you've enjoyed this walk down the primrose path. Smell the sweet honeysuckle and listen to the lonesome whip-poor-wills ...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Memories of Westville - Pt.3

After several na├»ve experiences of renting a house, not having enough money for all the deposits, meeting the crafts director of Westville who knew nothing of me coming, I finally made it to my first day of work. Westville was much different during daylight hours when it was actually open to the public. A large part of my job was to demonstrate pottery making, 1850 style, to a steady stream of visitors. We dressed in period costume, but fortunately did not have to role play the part as well. I was petrified with the thought of having to try to throw on those awkward wheels, balanced on one foot and trying to act calm and in control while groups of people stood around watching and asking questions! I went down to the village after hours to practice before that first day! The magic was wearing off, and it didn't really help when I later found out that D.X. hadn't seen anything especially “promising in me” - he just needed a willing body. Not that he didn't care that I had an interest in pottery, he just said he could teach me whatever I didn't yet know. Kinda burst that bubble...

Eventually I became more comfortable working in front of people and actually started to enjoy it, except maybe for the constant stream of predictable questions. “Where do you get your clay?” “Do you know how the Indians used to do that?” “Does your leg get tired?” and my favorite “Why do you have to make the wheel go round?” Hmmm....

The magic did return, as the sights, sounds and smells of 1850 filled our days. Of course it was still special after hours when everything was still and quiet. Jane got a job there, too, which doubled our income! She was down at the village every day anyway! She became hostess of the McDonald house, the village “mansion.” Besides giving tours of the house, her duties included spinning on a “walking wheel,” weaving, and cooking over an open hearth as well as the small wood burning cook stove, the latest convenience in 1850!

Life in 1850 was great for this newly wed couple. We made some good friends, learned a lot, and generally enjoyed life in southwest Georgia. I picked DX's brain about pottery making, kiln and wheel building, and a multitude of other subjects. He was a wealth of knowledge and skill, but you had to coax it out of him. We spent hours talking while working in that candle-lit cabin, especially during the winter months when visitors were fewer. I slowly absorbed an appreciation for early American stoneware and the potter's life. DX worked with his father during the great depression when itinerant potters would travel from pottery to pottery and often had specialties, like jugs, or churns. He told me that during a time when common laborers made $1 a day, a good potter could make $3 and go fishing in the afternoon!