Southern family shapes its history at potter's wheel

For six generations, it has been hard to shake hands with the Hewells. The family is very friendly, and welcomes visitors, but since even before the Civil War, the Hewells have been running a hand-thrown pottery business here in this tiny village near Gainesville, Ga.

So visitors often get just a wet, clay-streaked hand waved in their direction.

In a region of fast change, the Hewells have become one of the South's best examples of the survival of an old craft, says John Burrison, associate professor of folklore at Georgia State University and an expert on pottery.

Like the South's blending of old and new, the Hewells' pottery represents ''the seeming contradictions of continuity and change,'' says Professor Burrison.

In the old days, the Hewells used a kick wheel; now they make pottery on an electric wheel, controlling the speed by foot pressure on an ''accelerator'' pedal. They make some of the designs with a plastic fork or furniture caster held against the spinning wet clay.

But they still throw each piece by hand, in an age when many production pottery companies are using machines and molds. And as you walk into their production area, you feel as if you are stepping back into another age: The floor of the work area is dirt, the ceiling is low; long rows of fresh pots sit on crude board tables.

It may appear to be a former age, but it is not a slow age. Standing at her wheel, Grace Hewell takes only about 60 seconds to make a flowerpot, their most popular item. She often has a small radio playing softly as she works.

''I do all my housework and gardening,'' she says as her hands shape yet another pot. ''I've been making pots since 1951.''

When her husband, Harold, was in the military for 15 months, she kept the business alive. ''I loved it; I didn't want it to go dead,'' she explains later over a backyard lunch of sandwiches and small bags of potato chips.

Today, Grace and her husband, their son Chester and Chester's two young sons Matthew, 8, and Nathaniel, 3, as well as a couple of Harold's brothers, all make pottery.

Matthew is already fairly skilled. ''It's fun,'' he says, as he makes some pots on his own little electric wheel. He says he likes throwing pots better than anything he can think of - even baseball.

Nathaniel still has a long way to go to perfect his style. He likes making the tops of bird houses best. Grandma Grace helps guide his hands when needed, but he has his own ideas of how to do things.

It's living history to hear the Hewells tell about the first potters in this six-generation chain. For instance, some time before the Civil War, another Nathaniel Hewell - the one who started the pottery line - was helping one of the family slave women move a table already set with dinner plates. The table tilted , the plates broke, and the family had to make new ones to have something to eat on. Since they were already in the pottery business, it didn't take long.

Ada Hewell, the oldest living Hewell, and mother of Harold, also recalls that the early family potters used to make canning jars sealed with wax, butter churns, and jugs, as well as the ubiquitous flower pots.

Ada sees times changing. People don't visit as much as they used to, she says. She still likes some of the old ways of life - like ''a mess or two'' of poke salad and some grits.

Things are changing in the South. It is becoming a lot more like other parts of the country. But the Hewells, while adapting to the times, are still as hard to shake hands with as were some of their ancestors.

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