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Aug. 22, 2019
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Mark of the Potter celebrates 50 years in Lanier headwaters

By Jane Harrison
 
At a special place in the northeastern headwaters of Lake Lanier, rushing water once turned a wheel to grind corn as moonshiners wheeled by on a narrow winding river road to escape the law. For the past 50 years, potters have thrown clay on wheels at this peaceful artists’ paradise and marked their creations with their initials.
 
The Mark of the Potter, formerly the site of Grandpa Watts Mill on the Soque River in Habersham County, celebrated its half-century last month as a haven for potters and those who seek their wares. Many of the visitors, artists, and founders’ ancestors who mingled by the river returned full circle to muse about the past and make plans for the future of what’s hailed as the oldest craft shop in Georgia.
 
Sharon Bucek, whose brother Jay operated the shop and potters’ studio for 30 years, led tours starting on the side porch above where the beautiful Soque sparkled on a hazy morning. History streams from the site, where the original 1920s era Hills Mill was rebuilt during the Depression by Robert Watts and his father, Allen “Grandpa” Watts.
 
“Wagons would come up to the door and it would open up for them to drop their corn,” Bucek said. “They socialized and caught up” at the center of community life, which was also one of the few businesses around. The mill operated until the mid-1960s when the Watts family shut it down after high water on the Soque destroyed the machinery.
 
It sat abandoned until the late 1960s when John and Glendal LaRowe, an engineer and nurse from Atlanta, started life anew in the Georgia mountains. Glen, who was losing her vision due to Macular Degeneration, retired from nursing and put her hands on clay. The couple remodeled the upstairs of the old mill as their abode, set up a studio, and opened Mark of the Potter in 1969. They lived and worked there until 1985 and eventually moved into Lanier Village Estates in Gainesville. Glen died in 2008 at the age of 88. John was 94 when he passed away in 2014.
 
The floor of the shop, once spattered with corn husks and mill dust, now foots racks and tables holding faces hewn in clay, pitchers, mugs, platters and vases, all marked by the potter who made them. Original mill wheels have been reworked into display tables. Rusted turbines and conveyors adorn the walls.
 
Downstairs, visitors can duck into the coolest spot in the house to see an arm of the river splashing through the rock into the old mill works. Off the back porch lies a spectacular water fall, at the foot of which the shop’s huge “pet trout” await a feeding, a tradition established decades ago when millers dropped cornmeal into the water below.
 
It’s an idyllic setting for creative hearts and hands. “I love it. It’s a potter’s dream,” said Matt Henderson, 43, who feels privileged to be one of the shop’s resident potters. The 27-year denizen added that shaping clay into usable items “is not an easy way to make a living,” but that his designation as one of the six resident potters has sustained him and his art. “I’ve been here such a long time and have such a following I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.
 
Henderson and resident potter Laurey Faye Dean set up shop and wheel in the studio across from the old mill to meet visitors at the anniversary celebration. Dean, a graduate of Gainesville’s Johnson High School, said she “learned to throw pots” from potter Ursula Vollrath on the shores of Lake Lanier in the 1970s. She now handles about 100 to 200 pounds of clay a day. Dean’s hands worked the mud to show visitors how to turn a lump of earth into a beautiful, functional vessel. The initial phase, centering the clay on the wheel “is harder than it looks,” she said.
 
Although the clay they kneed and shape is not native (it’s shipped in from south Georgia suppliers), each potter mixes in their own recipe of ingredients to make it their own. They make glazes – brilliant blues, reds, greens, earthen tones – at the studio.
 
Two visitors from Valdosta were among those making annual pilgrimages to the shop last month. Betty and Augustine Martinez said they’ve been coming up since the late 1990s to see the river, fish and meet potters. On each visit, they add to their pottery collection.
 
Dollie Barron Merritt recalls taking pots out of the kiln and greeting customers when the LaRowes opened shop. One of the craft shop’s first employees, she says the clay’s in her blood. “It’s in my DNA,” she said of the pull to come back monthly from her home in Greenville, S.C. She plans to retire on family property near the Soque.
 
The shop’s current owners, Mayte and Chad Peck, inherited it from the Bucek family in December 2018. “I’ve been coming here for at least 20 years,” said Chad, who’s well grounded in the legacy laid down. “We want to maintain the traditions and legacy of this iconic place” at the interface of family, art and nature, Mayte said. “People feel at home here.”
 
The Pecks greeted dozens of long time customers, artists and family friends on the day they’d planned since before Christmas. Chad said his goal “after this” involves creating electric energy with turbines, a modernized concept from the mill’s past. The building contractor with an eye for detail said he’s looking into potential grants to construct multiple turbines in the river to supply power to the whole facility, including the kilns and possibly a couple of rustic cabins.
 
In the meantime, young potter Dalton Foret, a recent Savannah School of Art and Design graduate, is grateful to get his foot in the door working the cash register and helping out where he can. He first visited on family vacation six years ago and felt the call of earth and water. “It’s my dream to work here. I aspire to be an in-house potter,” he said. Look for his abstract mark on fresh functional stoneware fashioned from hands in love with an old mill, a river, and an ancient craft.

Mark of the Potter
  • Address: 9982 Ga. Hwy. 197, Clarkesville
  • Info: 706-947-3440, www.markofthepotter.com
  • Hours: Open year round. Summer hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m.


Posted online 5/28/19
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