Interview with Estella Jackson, fourth generation split oak basket maker.

Conducted by Amy LeePard & Randy Arnold

Amy:  What was your father’s name?

Estella Jackson: Sterling Johnson.

Amy:  Did you grow up watching him make the baskets?

Estella:  All my life.  I stayed with him ever since I was born, I didn’t leave to go off to the city, I stayed here. I didn’t want to leave and go to the north.  I enjoyed staying here, I enjoyed the farm, the hog slaughtering, the cotton fields, corn fields.  I like the country.  I didn’t ever leave.  We want to keep the basket weaving alive.  But now the companies are making stuff with a machine that you can use, I guess to weave with but we’ve been doing ours with our hands.  We get the wood down to the quarters, we use a knife and a wooden mallet to get it out in thin splits, we don’t have a machine, we don’t use a machine, we get it out with our hands.  We don’t have a saw to get it out with, we don’t have nothing but a pocket knife. We take a piece of hickory to hit the wood in the end with a pocket knife.  You take one pocket knife and split it, sometimes you get cut and sometimes you don’t have an accident.  But I’ve been cut a lot of times.

Amy: Your grandfather made the baskets with your dad?

Estella:  My grandfather’s name was Sam Johnson.  My grandfather Sam had Sterling to get up under the big basket, he was so small and sit down and run the strips back up through there when he (Sam) ran them down through it. The cotton baskets were tall enough for a little child to get up under there and run the strips back up through.  When he’d (Sam) run it through there, he’d (Sterling) run it back up through the next hole.  That’s how big a cotton basket was, it weighed about 14 or 15 pounds.

Whenever you were making baskets, you always had a bunch of people around because we was cooking peanuts, sweet potatoes, hog cracklins, lye harmony or whatever like that. That was a peaceful time when we got ready to make baskets. So it was a friendship thing. We didn’t have no colors, we had white, black, all kinds, everybody came.  They came to the hill where we made baskets. They wanted the friendship and the food.

Amy: Do you know how your grandfather learned how to make baskets?

Estella:  He stayed down in Shady Grove in Sumter County. They was down there living on the Whitfield Farm, Mr E.C. Johnson’s farm.  It was a way for him to gather his cotton.  Everybody had a field that was assigned to them, a cotton field, one field might be named Sam Johnson cut.  So he went out and got the wood and made his basket to get his cotton up off the ground. He learned to make for himself.  Then other people saw him do that and they wanted the same tradition.  You pick cotton in a sack but you pack it in a basket.

The fish baskets he was doing to catch food for his children.  He would make them for himself and somebody else would always want him to make one for them.  But he always made baskets for his children.  So that’s how he learned how to get that done.  I think it was about 12 children that he had. So they had to raise all that stuff, chickens, cotton, pigs, corn. So each basket he made, each child would have something to work with.  I imagine he could sell the baskets to get a little money to get food.  We picked berries to eat for food, the blackberries, we picked plums. My daddy would make a basket for us to pick them in.  So they was just really for the farmers, when one farmer saw one farmer with it, they wanted some. So he might have traded off a basket for corn, he might have traded a basket off for chickens.  I think a lot of it was trade. Some people didn’t have money.

Interview with Randy Arnold, third generation woodworker and instrument maker.

Conducted by Amy LeePard

Amy LeePard: Can you tell us about how you got started making banjos?

Randy Arnold: I started playing banjos in early 2000s.  I’ve played guitar all my life, and I didn’t know if the banjo would be the right thing for me so I ended up just getting one of the least expensive banjos that you could possibly buy just to see if I liked it. I ended up loving playing the banjo and I like the music and the feel of the music.  When it came time to get a better banjo, I had inherited my grandparents house.  Beside the house, my grandfather had built a woodworking shop in the 40s. So I was wanting to use the shop and I was wanting to learn woodworking.  At the same time, I had gotten better on the banjo. I knew it was something that I wanted to learn for the rest of my life and to play for the rest of my life. So it was time to get a better banjo and I was shopping around for one and I just kind of put the two together and thought that would be a good first woodworking project, to learn how to build a banjo. I probably should have started off with a bookcase but…(laughs).

Amy: So can you tell us about the shop and how you restored it or why you were interested in restoring it?

Randy: Well, I’m still restoring it. It needs a lot, it needs a whole lot but it’s workable now. My grandfather, like I said, built it in the 40s and I think primarily, he built the shop because if you had a house, you did stuff yourself. And you had a shop and if you needed a post for the front of the house, then you would put a piece of wood on a lathe and you would turn the post. So I think that’s primarily what he used it for. I think that he made his own kitchen cabinets, anything that a family needed, you didn’t so much go to the store.  You just built it yourself.  After my grandfather passed away, which was in 1977, my dad started using the shop and he built and sold furniture. So he added tools that were specific to his needs and my grandfather’s tools were specific to his needs. Also my grandfather had a pretty large garden all around the house and he kept his gardening supplies and tools in here also. My dad used the shop from I guess probably 1977 to about 1980 building furniture and selling it. He was a very good, very talented furniture maker.

Amy: How has working in your grandfather’s shop developed a relationship with your grandfather now that he’s gone?

Randy: Well, he died when I was seven so I have some very strong memories of him but they’re also very limited memories.  I feel like I knew him before and I knew the kind of person he was and I’ve always admired and respected him for a lot of the stuff that he did. For instance, he was a big union organizer, which I’m very proud of, he was self-sufficient, which I’m very proud of.  He grew his own vegetables, if anything happened to the house, he fixed it. So I’m using the shop and I’m using a lot of his tools that I’ve gotten back working again and I’m using a lot of my father’s tools that he added. So using the tools, in a way, I feel a connection with my grandfather and my father. I can use the same tools that my grandfather used and feel the wood in the same way that he did and it feels like a connection. I’m redoing the shop right now and I had to replace the floor and when I took the floor up I saw how my grandfather did the supports and I saw how it all went together and I could almost see his mind working. I see his technique. Even laying a foundation, there’s a certain technique, it’s a style, there’s a certain style and it is certainly just getting the job done and doing it efficiently but there’s a style to it. Everyone always joked that, with my grandfather, if one nail would hold something in, ten nails would hold it in a lot better. This whole shop has been neglected since 1980, no one has touched this shop and it’s got holes in the roof, it was badly damaged and if it wasn’t for my grandfather seriously overbuilding this shop, it would not be standing and there’s no reason why it should be standing, except for he really overbuilt everything, so there’s a style to it, I mean, there’s a style to everyday tasks. Certainly he was just trying to get the floor to stand but to see the technique and the system that he used, brings me to a connection with his thought process and in that way I feel like I know him a lot better.

Amy: How has that influenced your craftsmanship in banjo building? Or has it?

Randy: It has, it certainly has, I always joke that there are ghosts in here and it’s the ghost of craftsmanship.  It gives me something to strive towards because my goal is to be as good of a woodworker as my father and my grandfather and I feel like I’ll probably always strive for that. It’s a heavy influence and it’s a happy one.

Interview with Eric Miller, fifth generation potter.

Conducted by Amy LeePard & Randy Arnold

Randy Arnold:    I guess the first question I’d like to ask is about your family history.  You’re a seventh generation potter?

Eric Miller:    I am the fifth, and my son and nephew are the sixth

generation in Alabama.  We’re Alabama potters.  They claim my great-great

grandfather, Francis LaCoste, came to Mobile from Sheffield in 1831 and started making pottery in Mobile.  The Civil War came about and my great-great grandfather, Abraham Miller Cole, was in the Union Army.  Back then they salt glazed a lot and the salt would ruin the kilns after a year or two, so they had several kilns around the spot and they, the Union Army, thought that’s where they made bullets, so they was bombin’ ‘em, you know?  Shooting the cannon in on ‘em.  They was trying to tell them that they weren’t making any bullets, that it was pottery.  And so they came in and the tale is that my (other) great-great grandfather, Abraham went in the house and they (LaCoste) knocked him in the head and thought that they had killed him.  They took him and hid him and when they finally found out that there was just a pottery there, they left.  They seen that he (Abraham) wasn’t dead, so they took care of him.  He come to and the unit was gone.  He was in south Alabama by himself.  So there was a French girl there who had a girl named Frances, and they fell in love and he decided to stay and make pottery there with them.  They stayed there ‘til 1880.  Set out, well, he got up here in 1880.  Don’t know how long it took ‘em to get up here in a horse and wagon, but they come up in 1880 and settled in Perry County.  My father took (pottery) up after my grandfather.  Now Steve (Eric’s son) has took it up after me.  We’re just trying to keep it, you know, oldest potter family in Alabama.

Randy Arnold:    Can you tell us about the difference between the kinds of things that your dad and your grandfather made and what you are making these days?  How has the pottery changed over time?

Eric Miller:    Well, my great grandfather, Abraham, they made what the community needed: plates, cups, churns, jugs.  You know, just what the community needed.  And my grandfather, that’s what he did.  And my father, he was making that in Perry County, that’s what we made over there.  But when he come over here, he started making flower pots.  He found a couple of dealers in Florida that wanted just clay flower pots, stoneware flower pots.  They’re the best you can get and they’ll last you forever.  So that’s what he started doing and he quit making the folk stuff, mostly because he had the big orders for the pots.  So that’s all he wanted to make, make ‘em for the money.  And [the dealers] died, retired.  The kids were doctors and lawyers in Chicago, New York, and they sold the company.  So we lost those dealers and our government let Mexico ship every pot that they can into the country.  So, that kind of done away with the pottery business.  So, Steve (Eric’s son), Allen (Hamm, Eric’s nephew), and me, we’re trying to get back into the folk, that’s all we’re trying to make now.  We don’t want to make a pot.  We want to make folk pottery, because we’re the oldest folk pottery in Alabama, and you can’t ship that in from Mexico (laughs).  And we’re going to give lessons to anyone who wants to learn.

1 Response to “Amy Leepard”

  1. June 30, 2011 at 8:24 am

    this is my mother in this article

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