Four Generations Connect through a Stoneware Churn
In the summer of 2017, the Jackson family traveled from their home in Alabama to Washington, D.C., and came to our office first thing the next morning. As Lena, her husband, and their children stood in front of the large glass case just off the lobby, which holds some of the Center’s most beloved objects, I pointed to a large stoneware churn. They suddenly grew quiet.
The churn had been made by Lena’s grandfather, Cleater Meaders Jr., more than thirty years ago. Cleater also made and gifted the well-formed pitcher standing nearby. The two pieces were the focus of the Jacksons’ visit—and the journey to find them had been long.
The two older girls quickly snapped out of their shyness and began peppering their mother with questions. Why was their great-grandfather’s pottery here? What was the Smithsonian Folklife Festival? Could they work here too? I told them that their great-grandfather demonstrated his family’s distinctive style of pottery making at the 1983 Folklife Festival, and that he and others in the large extended family from northern Georgia were, in fact, very well known by the Festival’s co-founder, Ralph Rinzler, who had long appreciated their work.
Lena’s quest to find her grandfather’s work had taken several years. She had been told by other family members that it was “somewhere at the Smithsonian,” but no one knew exactly where. When you consider that the Smithsonian holds more than 154 million objects in 19 different museums, the challenge was clear: What museum? What collection?
After coming up short several times before, Lena’s intuition led her to contact her Alabama congressman’s office for assistance. He called the Smithsonian’s congressional liaison who, in turn, suggested our office as a possible location. The congressional aide left a message for Folklife curator Marjorie Hunt about a constituent seeking information about her grandfather, Cleater Meaders. Marjorie was able to enthusiastically affirm that, yes, we had a number of Cleater’s pieces in our office collection.
The family arrived three days before the opening of the 2017 Folklife Festival, and most staff were already on the National Mall getting ready for the fiftieth anniversary celebration. I had just finished curating an online exhibition, 50 Years | 50 Objects—which included Cleater’s churn—and was available to meet them. We looked closely at Cleater’s two pots. The churn, which dominates the case, measures nearly two feet high and is coated with a distinctive “snakeskin” alkaline glaze. It’s a functional shape used for churning butter that could be found in rural Southern households well into the twentieth century.
I then brought the group back to my workspace for a special treat. I wanted them to see the churn on the exhibition website. Not only would they now recognize it on the homepage, but once they clicked on the photo and got to the object profile, they could see a film clip of Cleater at the 1983 Festival. The segment shows him finishing a jug, taking it off the wheel, and talking to a visitor as he works.Tears appeared in Lena’s eyes. She noted that her children were too young to have ever met their great-grandfather and, as a result, had never heard his voice.
She then got out her phone, reached her mother on FaceTime, and asked to see the clip again. A wonderful conversation ensued as three generations of the family reconnected with a fourth through our website! The family learned from me that the man Cleater was speaking to—who was visible only from behind—was the Secretary of the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley.
The work of Southern potters had been of special interest to Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler since he first began traveling in the region in the early 1960s. When he came to the Smithsonian in 1967, documenting the Meaders family pottery was his first research project. In Nancy Sweezy’s 1984 book, Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition, Rinzler recalls:
“The owner, a man of eighty [Cheever Meaders, Cleater’s uncle], had retained the original tools, forms, and techniques he had inherited from his older brothers who, with their father, had established a kiln site in 1893. I approached the project with urgency because the old man was ill and seemed unlikely to continue working much longer…”
The results of this work were a groundbreaking documentary film and monograph (co-authored with anthropologist Robert Sayers), The Meaders Family: North Georgia Potters. The film was re-released in DVD format in 2003 by Smithsonian Folkways, and the monograph remains available free of charge on the Folkways website as a PDF download.
After the Jackson family left, I couldn’t help but marvel at the combination of persistence and good luck that finally got them to our office—and at the best possible time. Had Lena found us sooner, the family would have been able to see her grandfather’s pottery but not the film. It was, in fact, the occasion of the Festival’s fiftieth anniversary that led many of us back to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives in search of documentation of the earlier years.
The volume of these archival materials is huge. The Center’s commitment to keeping it accessible is fundamental to its mission but has also become a race against time. Media disintegrates and cataloging systems change. Finding the perfect photograph or audiotaped discussion from thirty years ago can be a long, slow process and does not always end with success. But when it does—as it did with Cleater Meaders’ participation in the 1983 Festival—the effort is extremely gratifying.
Of all the objects highlighted in the anniversary exhibition, the Meaders churn holds one of the best stories of the value of the archives, tying seamlessly into the history of the Festival through Rinzler’s seminal work with the family. The clip of Cleater speaking with visitors while he works provides a glimpse of his skill on the wheel, as well as his quiet Southern humor. When paired with this archival gem, the static churn on our display shelf comes to life.
If we then fast-forward to summer 2017 when Cleater’s descendants sought to reconnect with their past, the conversation and the record become even richer. For the Center, the experience of the Jackson family’s visit is a testament to the value of the Festival’s work, and also to remaining committed to making the resources of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives accessible.
Erin Younger is a former museum professional and current research associate working with the material culture collection at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She was the curator of 50 Years | 50 Objects and plans to add new entries to the “Storied Objects” site in the year ahead. Her experience with the Jackson family has inspired her to dig ever deeper into the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives for illuminating companion resources.
Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition by Nancy Sweezy was both a traveling exhibition and a book published in 1984 by the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs (now the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage). The book remains an invaluable resource on the roots of pottery making in the American South.