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Lula folk potter fights to keep his family's land and legacy
David Meaders is fired up about the kiln and its history
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David Meaders finished work is a large face jug, vase and gourd head. It was crafted by the White County native earlier this year at his workshop in Lula. “It takes seven hours of work to get the kiln hot,” Meaders said. - photo by JOSHUA L. JONES

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When asked how it feels to be the last son of a centurylong legacy, David Meaders responds with the humor and humility typical of his easy-going, deeply Southern personality.

“It feels like being David,” Meaders said, as he crouches down to throw another log into the wood-fired kiln.

Meaders was firing the kiln “possibly for the last time,” a potential endnote to a story that began more than a century ago.

The 63-year-old White County native has been making folk pottery since 1982, carrying the torch from his ancestors who started in the skilled craft in 1892.

The family member who owns the Lula property where much of the Meaders’ family legacy is located — including Meaders’ kiln, his father Reggie’s old pottery workshop, and the house where David Meaders lives — wants to sell it to pay for the care of David Meaders’ mother, who is in assisted living.

Campaigns and supporters have sprung into action to help Meaders purchase the property, not just so he can keep his livelihood and home, but to preserve an artistic legacy central to the history of Northeast Georgia.

If he isn’t able to purchase the property, Meaders said he didn’t know what he would do.

“It’s the end of the world as I know it,” Meaders said.

A family history

Everything — except the family’s pottery tradition — has changed since the Meaders family patriarch, John Milton Meaders, moved to White County and started crafting pottery at the end of the 19th century.

As the decades progressed, the decreased demand for handmade pottery phased out most of the Meaderses’ fellow folk potters, but not them. In the 1950s, the Meaders family found a new market for its trademark skill. Folk art collectors descended on the White County-based business to buy the pitchers, roosters and face jugs the Meaders clan created. According to local legend, President Theodore Roosevelt purchased a piece of Meaders pottery.

And while technology has advanced the production industry in more than 100 years, the methods the Meaders use to produce their trademark wares remain the same.

Long into the 20th century, the Meaderses used the same techniques as their forefathers: digging the clay, creating glazes from gathered natural elements and firing the pieces in a nonelectric, handmade kiln.

“You can go back to some of the ruins in some of the old colonies — they have kilns very similar to (David Meaders’ kiln),” said Kathy Amos, executive director of the Center for Lifetime Study at Brenau University and one of Meaders’ supporters. 

The story of the Meaders family wouldn’t be complete without the “Meaders homesite,” about 19 or so acres in Lula which originally belonged to David Meaders’ great-great-grandmother.

A legacy that has survived industrialization, Prohibition, the Great Depression and both World Wars might seem immune to jeopardy, but that’s exactly what Meaders is facing in the new millennium.

“Every time a generation dies, things leave this world that people won’t know how to do anymore, and this is going to be one of them,” Meaders said of his craft.

The end of the world’

If the property is purchased by an outside party, it will be the “third time in about six years” Meaders will have to “start completely over.”

In 1999, he was diagnosed with end-stage liver failure. But after five years on the transplant list, something miraculous happened. Meaders’ liver regenerated, but the process was less than pleasant.

“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” he said. “If you’re going to die, pick you another way. Not liver failure.”

In 2009, Meaders’ wife of 36 years, Anita died after an extended illness.

“When my wife passed away, that was the biggest change in my life, ever,” Meaders said. noting she was also a folk potter. “Nothing else will ever be like that, ever. That was the end of the world as I knew it.”

Thirty-one days later, his father died at the age of 90. Six weeks later, Anita Meaders’ dog also died.

Then in December 2010, Meaders’ home burned down.

Now, Meaders faces another potential loss of his home, livelihood and family kiln. It will also sever another connection to his late wife.

Anita Meaders is buried at Skitts Mountain Baptist Church, directly behind the property. A short path leads through the Meaders land to her gravesite.

Ancient goes digital

Freda Wiley does not want to see Meaders suffer another loss.

Therefore, she is the driving force behind the online “Save Dave’s Pottery” campaign. It includes a Facebook page, which has 138 likes, and a GoFundMe page, which has raised $415 toward its $150,000 goal.

Anyone who wishes to help may donate to the GoFundMe account.

Slotin’s Folk Art in Buford also has an auction planned in the near future. Items crafted by Meaders and others will be auctioned off to benefit his purchase of the property.

While the goal is to ensure Meaders has a secure living situation for the rest of his life, the question of who will take on the pottery tradition after him remains to be answered. Meaders has proposed a solution.

“I’d like to see it put in a trust, where other potters can come here to learn to fire the wood kiln,” he said. “As long as I’m around, I could teach them a little something.”

Meaders doesn’t want to see the old house become a museum.

“I’d like to see it set up to where the people who want to come and learn about this will have a place to stay, and maybe a place to display their wares,” Meaders said.

What to lose

Meaders and his supporters see putting the house into a trust as their best shot, not just at preserving the folk pottery craft, but a snapshot of a way of life nearly extinct.

“I remember driving through Hall County when there was nothing but white clapboard houses as far as you could see,” Amos said. “What I’m afraid of is there’s 19 acres here — somebody is going to come in and they’re going to subdivide that property and that kiln is going to go. They’ll think they’re tearing down a pile of bricks, but it’s a whole lot more than that.”

The “Save Dave’s Pottery” campaign isn’t asking potential supporters what the world could gain without the Meaders’ legacy preserved, but rather what it would lose.

“I just look at it and think what would our world be poorer for without it?” Amos said. “The answer is a lot.”

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