When a man is cold, hungry and thirsty, he will be happy with a
coat, a loaf of bread and a jug of water. When a man is well off,
he is unhappy when he runs out of caviar. - Jim Brown
Davis Pennington Brown
Plumber, carpenter and mason. Architect, design engineer and fabricator.
Equipment mechanic, electrician and welder. Mould maker, kiln designer and
My Grandpa – Davis Pennington Brown.
He was all of these things and more.
If he was building something, he figured the materials needed in his head –
the lumber needed or the number of bricks in a kiln or foundation.
They told him that the line shaft to run the equipment in the new shop – built
in 1939-40 - was too long, that it wouldn’t work.
Maybe in another 70+ years we will find out if they were right because it is
running to this day.
The day he laid the crown for the big kiln, Dad said a large number of people
were there because he didn’t use any arch supports. They said it couldn’t be
For some 55 years the kiln stood and when my cousin, Charles, tore the kiln
down he had to knock the arch bricks out, one at a time, to take it down. Of
the many kilns Grandpa built, I never remember him using arch supports.
When you are raised around something – around it all the time – you never
really understand or appreciate just what it is until you are away from it, can
separate yourself from it and look at things from the outside. Having been
raised around the pottery, it is only now that I can start to appreciate just
what my Grandpa did there.
In one year - and one very large step - he went from a basic folk potter making
handmade utilitarian wares and a few art ware items to designing, building
and operating what was at that time a modern manufacturing plant. He
became, in one year – and one huge step - one of the largest employer’s in
Buncombe County, North Carolina.
He designed and built the building – a huge building when one considers most
potters were working out of one very small room, maybe two, or out of their
barn. He had an area for storing the huge piles of clay, some inside and some
outside – so a steady source of the tons of clay used would be kept dry.
He brought in the equipment needed – a large dry pan for dusting the native
clay used; an eight foot long pug mill for mixing; a large tank for mixing the
casting slip used in making some of the cooking ware produced, a large pit to
store it and the pumps and pipes to move it around; a jack shaft running alone
one wall which turned two jigger machines, a potters wheels and the ball jars
used to grind glazing.
He supervised the installation of it all, designing and installing the plumbing
and electrical, the jack shafts to run each piece of equipment.
He made the master pots, the master blocks and then all the moulds used in
the French style cooking ware production – both for the jigger machines and
for the slip casting products - hundreds of them.
He designed and built a large kiln outside and then the very large one inside
the shop – at the time the only known large kiln in the south to be inside a
pottery, out of the weather and not just under a shed. When properly loaded,
this kiln would hold some thirty six hundred gallons of ware, an amazing feat
for any pottery at the time.
As with all the kilns he designed and built – estimated to be between 30 and
40 - it was of a downdraft design. It was a round, “Beehive” kiln with
sidewalls about 4 feet high and a domed roof some 6 feet high in the middle –
one could stand up inside it. This at a time when most Southern potters would
have to crawl on there bellies to put their wares in and take them out of the
ground hog kilns they were using.
There were four fire boxes evenly spaced all the way around. The fire came
from the fireboxes up into the kiln along the side walls, circulated up around
the arched top and then back down through the ware and out the floor and into
the tunnel running to the large chimney outside – very efficient and very
economical to operate.
It also fired very even – Grandpa was using a cone 04 lead based glaze on the
cooking ware at the time and as you know, these glazes have a very small
firing range. From top to bottom, center to side, all the ware would come out
perfect, time after time, a feat for even the small electric kilns in use today.
(Note – Lead based glazes had been used for centuries with few problems and
if formulated and fired properly pose no safety problems and although lead
banded on most wares in the 1960’s after serious problems with some of the
very low fired wares being imported from Mexico and Italy, the test ran on
Grandpa’s ware showed it to be safe.)
Grandpa designed and built hand pumps to assist and speed up the glazing.
One took a pot, turned it upside down, sat it on the rack on top, pushed down
on the handle and a steady stream of glazing came rushing up, coating the
inside of the pot. Quick, efficient – and at almost no cost to build.
A display and packing area was designed into the building as well and he and
my Dad formulated the glazes needed in the new operation.
It is only now, some 50+ years after I left the shop that I can appreciate just
what this man did.
All with a fifth grade education. Incredible.
Where did this man become knowledgeable about designing a building? Doing
framing, concrete or electrical work?
Where did he learn to design the jack shafts and belts needed to supply power
to all the equipment? To figure all the pulley sizes to reduce the electric motor
speed to get the desired rotation speed for whichever piece of equipment it
was powering – this man from the folk era?
Where did he learn how to make masters, blocks and moulds – a skilled
occupation in and of itself.
Where the skill needed to first design and then build kilns? Highly efficient,
downdraft kilns instead of the typical groundhog or shotgun kilns typically
used by southern potters of the time. Where the skill in laying bricks and
Where the basics of glaze formulation as up to this time everything in his past
had been sand and ash, Bristol and Albany slip glazed?
This man with a fifth grade education.
BROWN’S POTTERY -
from the inside