This town and its surrounding hamlets occupy only a few square miles in the corners of Randolph and Moore counties, yet they’re home to dozens of potters, one of the densest concentrations in the world. To paraphrase an old saw: You can’t throw a pot without hitting one.
Going to Seagrove is a trip, but going to look for Seagrove pottery is a quest. Finding the perfect piece of iconic North Carolina pottery requires (and promises) far more than one-stop shopping. To visit Seagrove properly is to explore miles of scenic two-lane blacktops and a fair number of gravel driveways, each a tempting path to one of nearly a hundred workshops and galleries. Seasoned pilgrims know to bring a good map and a feasible itinerary, plus a willingness to detour and follow a hunch that something extraordinary is just around the corner.
Seagrove potters built this community of studios and shops from the ground up, literally. The area was naturally rich in red clay that punished farmers and rewarded potters, who turned it into simple, serviceable pieces like jugs and churns to use in their homes and sell for a little cash. As customers’ needs and tastes evolved, and with encouragement from affluent art collectors, the modern era of Seagrove pottery began in 1917. The “turners and burners” shifted to more artistic and profitable pieces that would garner worldwide acclaim. Collectors with knowing eyes can quickly spot Seagrove pieces, both vintage and contemporary, recognizing shapes and glazes found nowhere else. Seagrove is in the geographic center of the state, but for many people, it’s the center of the pottery universe.
It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating or fruitful place to find holiday gifts, including the ones we’ll wind up keeping for ourselves. Beyond the tens of thousands of pieces of pottery, shoppers can find all sorts of things to buy, see, do, eat, and learn, no matter if it’s their first foray or an annual trip. Every visitor can enjoy the ride, even if all they do is window-shop. Those Seagrove gifts might go home with someone else, but the Seagrove experience belongs to the beholders.
“These shapes take pains to do,” Sid Luck says before quickly conceding with a wink, “but are less troublesome after 65 years.” photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Sid Luck is a fifth-generation potter who still digs local clay for some of his pieces, which are shaped on a wheel from his dad’s shop and fired in a traditional wood-burning groundhog kiln. He throws both classic and salt-glazed stoneware — the latter made by flinging handfuls of ordinary salt into the kiln near the end of firing. When it melts, it forms an orange-peel texture in the glaze. Most days, customers can find Luck working away in his shop. As he shapes pots on the wheel, Luck chats with customers, ensuring that each shopping expedition is also a lesson in local pottery traditions from an expert named a North Carolina Living Treasure. Classic two-handled and multi-handled corked jugs (nicknamed “drunkard’s jugs”) and oval bowls that Luck calls gravy boats (although no one would dare put gravy in these collectible works of art) are his favorite pieces to make.
Collectible face jugs have been signature creations in Seagrove since the early 1800s. The shape of each jug is standard, but no two faces are alike. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Bobbie Thomas is known for her clay pieces built by hand instead of turned on a potter’s wheel, such as Christmas trees, wall vases, and decorative serving pieces. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
On NC Highway 705, Bobbie and Scott Thomas created a pottery destination where shoppers browse giftware and gardening supplies, and enjoy quiet sitting spots on a covered patio next to a koi pond. Inside the renovated farm cabin that the Thomases use as a sales gallery, shelves feature Scott’s turned tableware — think bean pots, teapots, and mugs — and tableaux of Bobbie’s whimsical woodland creatures based on beloved storybook characters. She’s quite the decorator, too, especially for their holiday open houses, giving shoppers plenty of inspiration on how to use and display the pieces they take home. For visitors eager to get their hands in the clay to create their own gifts and Seagrove souvenirs, Bobbie offers classes and pottery-making parties year-round in the pottery studio.
The North Carolina Pottery Center campus is a multimedia educational center dedicated to helping visitors better appreciate the state’s storied clay culture. The fascinating self-guided tour offers an overview of local pottery traditions and legendary potters past and present, including displays of iconic and one-of-a-kind pieces. The center curates rotating exhibits throughout the year and hosts live demonstrations and classes. It’s an ideal gateway to an inaugural Seagrove excursion, although even seasoned Seagrove-goers can learn something new, making a visit well worth the modest entry fee. The expert staffers are enthusiastic pottery advocates, ready to answer questions and offer suggestions to make the most of one’s time in Seagrove, from a daylong ramble to a strategic stop or two. Executive Director Lindsey Lambert says, “We don’t give recommendations, but we help point people in the direction they seek.”
Linda Thorne’s orchids — like the Vanda Bangkok Blue — provide an unexpected splash of color in Seagrove. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Most people drive right past the run-of-the-mill greenhouses without a second glance, but orchid collectors make a beeline for this destination. Stepping over the threshold is like crossing into another realm: Inside, Randolph County magically transforms into a tropical paradise filled with 10,000 exotic blooms. Owner Linda Thorne is a world-famous, award-winning orchid grower who sells remarkable specimens to expert green thumbs and novices alike. In 2000, she relocated to central North Carolina because of the climate, which is well-suited for growing fragile, delicate plants that are literally hothouse flowers. When asked which orchid variety is her favorite, she replies, “Whichever is the most spectacular today.” It’s important to Thorne that people not only buy orchids, but also feel confident in caring for them. “People take the best care of the orchid they’re drawn to,” she says, “so after they pick it out, I teach them how to care for it.”
“The King” of Seagrove keeps his subjects sated with Fresh Cuts’ classic meat-and-three plates piled high with fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese, hush puppies, and greens. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
The sign out front says that Fresh Cuts is a butcher and seafood market, and the website says it’s a locally owned community grocery store. All true. But Fresh Cuts is also a place to get road snacks (house-made pork rinds, anyone?) and a good meal, from freshly made deli sandwiches to a homestyle meat-and-three plate. Jerry King, the deli manager, keeps track of orders and guests alike. Known affectionately around town as “The King,” this lifelong Seagrove resident has never met a stranger. Throughout the holiday season, customers flock to the store to load up on boxes of Fresh Cuts’ old-fashioned Christmas cookies.
Cagle’s bacon double cheeseburger and onion rings are proof that not all of the works of art in Seagrove are made of clay. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Cagle’s Diner is famous for old-fashioned burgers that are as delicious as they look. Maybe better. In keeping with traditional North Carolina parlance, burgers ordered “all the way” come topped with chili, slaw, onions, and yellow mustard. Regulars know to grab an extra handful of napkins, just in case. Cagle’s is also a popular stop for frosty milkshakes and big cones of ice cream. The diner was once a gas station that stands about midway between Seagrove and Robbins. These days, the pumps out front have been replaced by rocking chairs — big enough for cousins to share while sipping milkshakes (right) — a couple of tables, and, around lunchtime on a busy day, a line of people happy to wait their turn for good food and delightful service.
Potters have turned, fired, and glazed at Jugtown Pottery for a little more than a century. The business was founded in 1917 by Jacques and Juliana Busbee, Raleigh aristocrats and art collectors who were determined to save the struggling craft of North Carolina pottery. The local industry had taken a hard hit due to plummeting sales of whiskey and moonshine jugs during Prohibition and the growing popularity of glass and metal containers and china dishware. Jugtown was one of the first potteries to shift from simple utilitarian pieces to more profitable decorative items and artistic forms whose innovative glazes had quirky names, such as Tobacco Spit Brown, Frogskin Green, and Chinese Blue. Visitors can see a timeline display in the museum building on the property.
Bayle Owens, a seventh-generation potter who grew up at Jugtown, takes inspiration from nature — whether a bunny or a fox. Her other inspiration? Her mother, Pam, standing by her side. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Vernon Owens, a sixth-generation potter, bought Jugtown in 1983 and now makes pottery with his family — his wife, Pam; their children, Travis and Bayle; and his brother Bobby. Visitors are welcome to watch them work, although in December, the Owenses shift from making pottery to selling it. In years past, they’ve served bites of rum cake to shoppers during celebration weekends and winter kiln openings. The Sales Cabin, built in 1921, displays the Owenses’ work, plus decorative items and household wares from other local and regional artists, including ironwork, jewelry, textiles, woodworking, candles, and glass.
We talked to three experts — including the legendary Sid Luck — to find out how to start your very own collection of Seagrove pottery, their favorite pieces to make, and what it’s really like behind the wheel.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.