“Churn Turners”: The Outen Pottery Story
By Paula H. Lester

The mid-nineteenth century saw potters migrating from South Carolina to North Carolina.  Thomas Gay arrived in Union County in the 1850s and probably trained his brother-in-law Nimrod Broom.  Broom then trained his brother-in-law William Franklin Outen, who moved from South Carolina to Union County around 1860.  Mr. Outen worked with Nimrod’s son “Jug Jim” Broom in Monroe, making salt-glazed stoneware until the early 1900s, when he moved back to South Carolina establishing potteries in Lancaster and Catawba Junction. Outen ultimately settled in Matthews, North Carolina in 1922, opening Matthews Pottery on Shelby Street. This complete pottery had three large walk-in kilns and ten to fifteen employees, including his sons Rufus, Franklin and Gordon.  During this time, pottery factories in the region, including William Outen’s, abandoned customary salt glaze in favor of “Bristol” glaze from the North.

Mr. Outen’s son Rufus Franklin Outen was born in 1905 and learned the traditional pottery trade from his father at an early age. In the 1930s, Matthews Pottery began producing machine-stamped flowerpots.  Rufus, however, was dedicated to traditional wheel-thrown pottery. In 1950, he opened R. F. Outen Pottery, building his shop on Jefferson Street. He designed the six chimney vaulted rectangular brick kiln, which operated on fuel oil and forced air. Preparation of the local clay for potting was an arduous task.  The clay had to be cleaned and worked by hand until ready to be fed into a hammer mill, followed by the pug mill.  When it reached the right consistency, it was rolled into balls of clay that Rufus would turn on the wheel.

Rufus, with the help of his wife Louise and their children, did the work himself, occasionally employing a part-time helper. He worked tirelessly promoting his business, making sales calls as far north as Wilkesboro, NC and as far south as Greenville, SC.  On these trips, he visited hardware stores and took orders for churns, crocks, rabbit watering bowls and feeders, pots and pitchers. Rufus earned the nickname “churn turner” by turning up to 100 large churns a day. In the late 1950s, he switched from “Bristol” glaze to the more popular “Albany Slip,” giving the pottery a deep brown color.

Filling the kiln was a complex process, and Rufus knew exactly where each piece should be placed. Once filled, he sealed the kiln opening with mortared brick. The firing began early in the morning and lasted a full day.  He had “peep holes” where he could remove a brick and check on the firing. It took several days for the kiln to cool down and load the finished products for delivery.

In the 1960s, Charlotte TV personality Betty Feezor featured Rufus Outen on her show and in December 1968, Dora Gummerson, a local food editor, interviewed him for her column. Rufus was making the newest cooking fad, a clay chicken cooker requested by Miss W. Armistead, owner of LeMaster’s Design Center in Charlotte. A utilitarian potter, Outen adapted to the needs of his customers. Ms. Gummerson’s headline, “Mr. Outen’s An Artist Who Works With Clay,” perfectly captured Outen’s masterful skills.

Producing traditional pottery was satisfying but hard work and in 1975 Rufus Outen fired his last batch of pottery, although he continued producing and selling pottery clay.  Today, the Outen’s kiln is the last known kiln in Mecklenburg County and the R. F. Outen Pottery is listed as a local historic landmark.

Sources:

Interview with Frank Outen, Rufus Outen’s son, January 2015.

Gray, Stewart. “Survey and Research Report on the R. F. Outen Pottery,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. December 2011. http://cmhpf.org/S&Rs%20Alphabetical%20Order/Surveys&rOutenPottery.htm

Gummerson, Dora. “Mr.Outen’s an Artist Who Works With Clay,” Charlotte News, December 16, 1968.

Zug, Charles G. III, Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1986).

“Churn Turners”: The Outen Pottery Story