With a knock at the door, Pastor Terry Ferrell puts his bible down upon a side table. At 95 years old, he knows the time to meet his maker is drawing near.
But his mother lived to 97 and “had her marbles to the end.” So, Terry arises each day to tackle his primary passions: cloth and clay. “I celebrated 76 years in the ministry on the eighth of June,” he shares with just the right amount of pride. “I don’t yell or wander around, or pound the pulpit. I study, and then use that insight in my sermons to share with the church. That’s what I do.” While members at Greenville Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith credit their spiritual growth to the long-serving minister, it’s his commitment to clay that historians, artisans, and collectors will long applaud. “Mr. Terry?” asks The Phoenix Factory’s Old Edgefield Pottery’s Justin Guy. “He’s unlike any other. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t know about Edgefield Pottery, and now it’s transcended the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, and is in the Smithsonian.” So how does a humorous, yet humble preacher become a renowned expert on an obscure Carolina craft?
Glaze Craze // The Pottersville kilns were built in the early 1800s by Abner Landrum and were significant for their ability to fire alkaline glazes on stoneware, creating a less porous product. Terry Ferrell has several Pottersville pieces in his collection, including the pitcher, middle.
1. JUG, MARKED COLLIN RHODES | EDGEFIELD, SC | Attributed to Edgefield merchant Collin Rhodes (1811–1881); two gallon jug with a kaolin slip decoration
2. PITCHER, POTTERSVILLE PIECE | EDGEFIELD, SC | Showcases typical Pottersville piece attributes: bulbous base, long neck, and long vertical handle
3. CHURN, POTTERSVILLE PIECE | EDGEFIELD, SC | Circa 1820–1830, two-gallon churn
CROSSROADS OF CLAY
As volcanoes erupted and streams slipped to the sea, rich, red clay deposits canvased what would become South Carolina, with silica-loaded materials embedded beneath the topsoil of Edgefield near the Georgia border north of Augusta. Artifacts show the earliest natives to walk the land took note. The Cherokee named a meeting place Elawo’diyi, “red earth place.” The Catawba molded the raw materials into porous earthenware. A century later, antebellum slaves in the Savannah River Basin used the abundant red clay, and kaolin, to create watertight, durable stoneware by dipping it with a Chinese-style glaze and firing it at 2200°F.
In the early 1800s, the Landrum family settled in what was called the Edgefield District. Like many at the time, they owned slaves, and Dr. Abner Landrum used his to build a community to make stoneware. “Pottersville” featured kilns that measured 105 feet long and daily consumed 10 tons of firewood. Teams of slaves chopped wood, dug clay, ground elements, mixed slip, threw clay, spun wheels, packed kilns, and decorated jars.
Capitalizing on the unlimited quantities of wood, water, clay, and labor, other local families constructed plantation potteries as well, producing sturdy stoneware for people living up to 150 miles away. Pots as large as 40 gallons exited the “dragon” kilns, to hold meat, milk, lard, and grains. The price: 10 cents a gallon. Many communities made storage containers in the United States, but this was the first stoneware sealed with an alkaline glaze. Edgefield Potters became the first in the nation to succeed commercially, by pairing Scotch-Irish entrepreneurship with the talents of African-American artisans. Historians estimate enslaved men and women created 75 to 95 percent of Edgefield’s pottery . . . totaling some 100,000 vessels before the close of the century.
4. JUG | UNKNOWN | Date unknown, piece features heel marks from the potter lifting off the wheel after formation, prior to firing
5. VASE BY STEPHEN FERRELL | EDGEFIELD, SC | Crafted by Terry’s son, Stephen, master potter at Edgefield Pottery in the 1990s
6. TEAPOT | UNKNOWN | Circa 1850s and 1880s, depicting “Rebecca at the Well” with a Rockingham glaze
MAN ON A MISSION
As he stares down a century of life, Terry’s mind is as sharp as the current Jeopardy champ’s. Names, dates, locations flow from his lips without pause. He takes us back to Pomona, California. “My mother was born there in 1889. My maternal grandparents pioneered in orange ranching, and my father pioneered in avocado ranching. I was born on a 10-acre avocado ranch.” He continues with a good laugh, “I tell people I was weaned on avocados, and cut my teeth on the seed.” He tries to eat one a day.
Number nine in a run of 10 kids, Terry was surrounded by the outdoors and art. “My mother was a watercolorist and a master artist with flowers. My dad built the house I was born in. My mother painted a mural of hollyhocks on the wall. It was beautiful.” Terry explored his artistic talents through photography, and found inspiration chatting with Ansel Adams when visiting Yosemite. “I was eleven years old when I first met him,” he recalls. “He had his studio in the village and we got to hanging out.” The youngster returned as often as he could. “He had this old Woodie station wagon with a platform and camera tripod. He was always watching for the right cloud formations and light. He’d look out the window, and if a cloud formation was pretty, he’d say, ‘Excuse me, I’ve got to go take pictures.’” The amateur photographer regrets not having $20 to buy one of Adams’s prints.
Religion also cast a hue on Terry’s life and thoughts. He was raised and educated in church, with both an uncle and great uncle in ministry. “I was 18 and just out of high school when I went to summer school and it all kind of gelled,” he says, describing his commitment to serve God. He traveled halfway across the country to Oregon Bible College in Illinois. Summer school grew into a full education and job. “It was our denominational school, so it was natural,” he explains. “In fact, there was such a shortage, that all of the students were put into ministry right away.” Terry hitchhiked from school weekly to pastor his first church. “I’d write on the side of my suitcase the destination, and people would pick me up. Then World War II came along, and folks started working in the war effort, and transportation got bad.”
He graduated in 1943, and married a woman he met his first summer on campus . . . his beloved Orpha. “Oh, we raised eyebrows,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “She was a 37-year-old widow, and I was a 21-year-old college graduate. They accused her of robbing the cradle and me of robbing the grave!” Once his laughter subsides, he adds, “The best thing I ever did was marry her. We were married 54 years. She was only five feet tall, before she started shrinking. She could do anything. She was a wonderful minister’s wife. She didn’t push herself to the forefront, but she was always there to help where needed.”
Natural Touch // Terry’s son, Stephen Ferrell, went from casual collector to master potter when he started throwing clay in the 1990s. His pieces showcase traditional Edgefield potting techniques and designs.
After working in frosty Minnesota and dustbowl-ravaged Nebraska, the church sent Terry to serve near Pelzer in 1963. Other than a brief stay at denomination headquarters in ’68, Terry has lived in the Palmetto State ever since. “I found out when my daddy died that we were Southerners who had moved to California during Reconstruction,” he reveals. “Both Orpha and I had ancestors from North and South Carolina. I am a Southerner. I feel like a Southerner, I think like a Southerner, I am a Southerner.”
Terry had discovered his ancestral link to the land, and in the early ’60s, he discovered a physical link when he stumbled upon pieces of Edgefield Pottery. “We kind of backed into it,” he recalls of spying his first two objects. “There was an old Piedmont jockey lot, and I was always interested in antiques. I hadn’t really collected much but old mustache cups, when I started buying butter molds. Then I saw these two jugs and I liked them. I paid a dollar and a quarter each for them.” Turns out those two vessels were by Collin Rhodes, who was one of the men making stoneware in Pottersville prior to the Civil War.
Terry and his son Stephen started searching for pottery every weekend. Decorated. Undecorated. One handle. Two handles. No handles. Pitchers. Churns. Coolers. Cups. Vases. Bowls. Even face jugs. “It was different,” he explains. “The thing is, the forms, the glazes, and the decorations are just so beautiful and so artistic. They were utilitarian, but the people who made them were artists.”
At the time, South Carolina folk art was limited to sweetgrass baskets. No one knew a thing about this pottery manufactured in the Midlands. Those who saw it erroneously called it Indian pottery. The Ferrells’ collection grew, as did their knowledge. They partnered with two others who were also picking up pieces and information. The three parties shared all they had, with all they met. “We were so happy with it and so proud, so interested in it, we just talked about it all the time,” admits Terry. Each of their finds pealed back another layer, revealing the region’s past and a lifestyle long gone. The darkest period in U.S. history bore intricate, distinct artwork. Creations durable enough to survive decades of neglect and abuse on front porches, dusty attics, and cluttered garages.
The ’70s were a heyday, with the Ferrells compiling one of the most extensive private collections in the country. By the ’80s, archaeologists started excavating Edgefield to unearth her secrets. By the ’90s, Terry was running antique shops and preaching, while Stephen threw clay as Edgefield’s resident master potter. Father and son collaborated with museums, and historical and preservation societies, as the town recreated its forgotten, niche industry with modern-day potters. Fascination with the artform spread like silt in a pugmill, hooking artisans including current master potter Justin Guy. “People in Edgefield didn’t even know what Edgefield Pottery was before the Ferrells collected it for those decades,” Justin explains. “For an antiques dealer to specialize in a subculture of antiques that they have awareness and knowledge of . . . and Mr. Terry knew exactly what he was talking about . . . it’s almost impossible to describe how invaluable he is.” And the value of the stoneware was rising.
7. JUG BY STEPHEN FERRELL | EDGEFIELD, SC | Two-handled jug crafted by Terry’s son, Stephen, master potter at Edgefield Pottery in the 1990s
8. FACE JUG BY STEPHEN FERRELL | EDGEFIELD, SC | Circa 1990s, replica of a stoneware face jug, a common Edgefield piece from the mid-1800s
9. FACE JUG BY STEPHEN FERRELL | EDGEFIELD, SC | Circa 1990s, replica of a stoneware face jug, a common Edgefield piece from the mid-1800s
By the new millennium, Terry was working at his current church in Greenville, while running an antiques shop and museum on the square in Edgefield. “We had thousands of people who came to the museum,” the owner remembers. “I kept a guestbook. There were thousands of people who came from all 50 states and several foreign countries.” But just as clay changes shape with each rotation of the wheel, Terry’s world contorted, too. Orpha passed away in ’97 from Alzheimer’s, but only after helping her husband achieve success with both of his passions. “Full-time preaching and the pottery? It was kind of tough,” admits the widower. “But I could still carry on preacher work and roam around. When we first started collecting, you could buy anything for $100. People would say, ‘You mean you paid $100 for that old jug?’ Then later, when they got expensive, they’d say, ‘You mean you paid only $100 for that jug?’”
Digging up Edgefield’s past drove up prices. In 2014, Terry sold 90 items at auction, netting more than half a million dollars. “They were like my children, I had them for so many years,” he reflects. “I wanted to see where my stuff goes. I wanted to see who bought it. I made a lot of people happy.” He closed the shop on the square a year ago, holding on to about 50 pieces. He hopes someday they’ll go in a museum literally telling the story of the land, showcasing how enslaved potters molded it into striking pieces of art. Vessels big and small, embedded with the fleshy marks of their fingertips, engraved with a legacy lost, now found.
Terry’s still on the hunt for pottery, even from an assisted living facility in Greenville, where he’s recuperating from a fall. “The fire alarm went off the other day, and it wasn’t until I got outside that I realized I hadn’t used my walker! I hope to get out of here soon.” He’s still leading others to Jesus, too. “I haven’t been able to preach since I fell. But I’ve been with my church in Greenville for more than 40 years. I keep telling them to get somebody else, but they say they don’t want anybody else, we want you.” There’s no wondering why they would want to keep this earthly treasure, a man of cloth and clay.