Past Times

A New Yorker discovers Jugtown

Prohibition and mass production contributed to the decline of the pottery market. Jugtown helped redefine it as an art form.
Prohibition and mass production contributed to the decline of the pottery market. Jugtown helped redefine it as an art form. UNC Library at Chapel Hill, North Carolina Collection

In 1986, N&O readers looked back at the origins of “Jugtown,” near the Randolph/Moore County line.

Seagrove, about 40 miles south of Greensboro, has been a potter’s town for more than 200 years. Many of its first settlers were from the English potting region of Staffordshire, and the oldest Seagrove families – the Aumans, Teagues, Coles and Owens among them – have stamped their names on the bottoms of pots for generations.

Still, the legend did not begin until 1915, when a young Raleigh couple, Jacques and Juliana Busbee … fell in love with a bright orange pie plate.

Pottery was bad business by 1915. Prohibition (which began in North Carolina in 1909) had hurt the market for whiskey jugs, and factories were mass-producing pots and plates. But Jacques Busbee (who had changed his first name from plain James) and Juliana ... made it their mission to revive the dying craft.

Jacques opened Jugtown Pottery, where, he wrote, young men with Staffordshire pottery ancestry were put to work under art direction.”

Juliana stayed in New York, opened a Greenwich Village tearoom and sold all the Jugtown ware that Jacques could send north.…

If Busbee was the mastermind behind Jugtown, Ben Owen was its master potter. He was 18 when he joined, and he stayed on for 36 years before opening his own shop. The N&O Oct. 22, 1986

Not long after Jugtown started up, Betty Graham, a former writer for New York World, made her way to Seagrove to see for herself.

At the Village Store I learned that the Busbees were both in North Carolina, where the pottery is made. So, getting the address, I started on the long trip, keen and eager for such a new experience.

Alighting at Greensboro, I had some time to wait for the local train which would take me another lap on the journey. Walking up and down the Greensboro streets, I looked in vain for this Jugtown pottery – nowhere did it seem to be in evidence.

Finally, I arrived at my Eighteenth Century world by various jitneys – a most modern approach to the past. At a deserted place on the highway marked NC 74 I was ousted from the jitney and on the road. I pleaded with a man in overalls driving a Ford car to take me to Jugtown.…

About 12:30 we pulled up before a charming log cabin built on simple lines so like – and yet so utter unlike anything seen in the entire countryside. Floating through the intense summer heat were the strains of Chaliapin’s Volga Boat Song….

Through the screen door I was amazed to see four men in overalls – smoking – two sitting at a card table playing checkers – the portable Sonora pouring out the strains of the world’s greatest basso. One of the men was reading the New York Times – a baby in a large wicker hamper basket – the room beautiful in its fitness and use of native split-bottom chairs – orange factory check curtains – a big open fireplace filled with wild flowers, while on the long tavern table was a soft gray jar filled with a bunch of native salmon colored orchids of entrancing beauty, unrivalled by anything in a Fifth Avenue florist’s window – the room scattered with American and English magazines and papers.

Jacques Busbee – in overalls – came forward and met a hot, dirty, hungry traveller and I instantly recognized him as a man of the world. He introduced me to his wife, who was dressed in a pale yellow gingham which harmonized perfectly with the room – so perfectly that I knew the dress was no accident.

The Jugtown potters were each presented to me, and the head potter and his wife and baby, who live in the cabin with Jacques Busbee, were as cordial – as natural as people could be – and I – with mission unknown to them – was taken in as hospitably as though I was an invited and expected guest.

Upon my request for information about this pottery I was taken to the log shop – a little way beyond the cabin, where again I found my self in the past century – the log shop, the primitive clay mill run by mule power, the flue kiln, the old “kick” wheel, the racks for drying the ware….

Jacques Busbee has brought to the community a new sense of value for this fast vanishing craft and, after seven years of hard labor – of unflagging endeavor – of isolation from his twentieth century world, is beginning to see prosperity come to these people – to see his work recognized by nearly every museum in this country and abroad – to get the appreciation from connoisseurs and to be unable to supply the demand for this Jugtown pottery which is made under his direction by potters who are directly descended from the Staffordshire potters who settled in his State and have it in their blood to turn pottery. The N&O Aug. 31, 1924

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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