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Johnny Vardeman: Grace Hewell is gone, but her Gillsville pottery family endures

POSTED: December 18, 2016 1:00 a.m.
/The Times file photo

A piece by area potter Kurt Hewell.

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The matriarch of the Hewell family pottery dynasty, Grace Nell (Granny) Hewell, died Dec. 1.

The Gillsville pottery amazingly has operated since 1850 when Nathaniel Hewell began pottery-making as a sideline to his farming. His son, Eli, moved the pottery to Gillsville around 1900, and generation after generation of Hewell potters have continued the business.

Grace came from a family of potters, but always said she married into pottery. She ran off to get married to husband Harold Hewell when she was 16 years old. She helped out at the pottery, but didn’t make pottery herself. Few women at the time did, as is the case today.

But Grace didn’t want to be a housewife, her daughter-in-law, Sandra Hewell, said. She didn’t like cooking, never grocery shopped, wrote a check, paid bills or most anything else the traditional rural wife would do.

She yearned to make some pottery herself. Her husband Harold, at the time the patriarch of the pottery business, resisted. He was one of the best craftsman around. But he finally relented one day, and Grace emphatically demonstrated her talent for years afterward.

Harold and Grace’s son Chester and wife Sandra bought the pottery business several years ago, but Grace continued to make her pottery until about 10 years ago. Arthritis in her fingers caused her to quit, but she remained involved in Hewell’s Pottery just outside Gillsville until her monthslong battle with cancer finally took her life.

In her prime, Grace was proud of how fast she could turn out pottery. She once bet somebody she could turn out 1,000 pieces in a day, Sandra Hewell said. She got up early the next day, didn’t stop for lunch, applied a few short cuts, but didn’t quit until she made more than 1,000 small pieces, mostly hats for jack o’lantern pots.

“She was a hard worker,” Sandra said.

Grace was self-conscious of her weight and her age. “She lived on Snickers bars and diet Cokes,” she said. During her bout with cancer though, Grace told Sandra she couldn’t stand the sight of the candy.

She didn’t want anybody to know her age, but everybody knew how old she was, Sandra said. Grace didn’t want her birth date on her tombstone, but Sandra told her it would have to be on it, and it is, Jan. 11, 1933.

Grace also liked clothes, and Sandra said after she died, the family must have taken about 20 carloads of them to give away. Some still have price tags on them, never worn.

Grace was proud of being a female potter. She and Mary Ferguson, also of Gillsville, were the only active women making pottery for years.

But before she died, Grace was proud to see her 14-year-old great-granddaughter, Susannah Hewell, carry on the tradition. Susannah has actually been turning pottery since she was 2 years old, Sandra Hewell said. Though she also married into the Hewell pottery clan, Sandra said she’s never tried pottery-making.

“I have a talent for singing,” she said. “Others have the talent for making pottery. You can spot it ... it was born in the Hewells.”

But Sandra is heavily involved in the pottery. She’s been keeping books for the business since she married Chester. She also runs the store, sees to shipping of products, helps in sales and spreading the word about Hewell’s Pottery.

Sons Nathaniel and Matthew do much of the turning, along with Matthew’s son and daughter, Eli and Susannah, when time allows after school.

The Hewells also raise cattle and goats.

Poor health has sidelined Sandra’s husband, Chester Hewell, for months. Besides being an accomplished potter, he earned a reputation as a colorful storyteller and resource on family history and that of other potters in the area.

The pottery business was in a slump for some years, but it has been better lately, Sandra says. A better economy has helped in general, but the Hewells also make a couple of trips a year to the Atlanta Gift Market, which helps sales and promotes their products.

They continue to make their popular strawberry jars, fluted pots, churns and other items. One of their best sellers at the moment is what Sandra calls a Colonial Williamsburg pot, modeled after an actual pot unearthed on the Williamsburg site. The Hewells produce four different sizes.

And, of course, they continue to make face jugs, popular among folk pottery collectors.

Granny Hewell specialized in face jugs. Some of her small versions remain on sale at the pottery.

Grace Nell (Granny) Hewell lived a good life, Sandra says. “She was one woman who about everything she wanted, she got.”

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.



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