Erwin, Tennessee: transformation of work and place in an Appalachian community, 1900-1960.

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Binnicker, Margaret
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Middle Tennessee State University
Erwin, Tennessee, county seat of Unicoi County, grew to exemplify the New South era in the early twentieth century when the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway, as masterminded by George L. Carter, opened this Appalachian area to development, encouraged the expansion of industrialization, and provided Erwin its economy. The railroad's management also hired New York architect and community planner Grosvenor Atterbury, known for Ins garden-city plans, to create a residential area including schools, industries, parks, and employee housing adjacent to Erwin.
While construction commenced on Atterbury's plans, another enterprise began that would become equally significant for Erwin. Potters from Ohio opened a dinnerware factory called Southern Potteries in 1917. The pottery maintained a work force of 250 for twenty years, but after 1938 the employee roster expanded to five times that figure. Southern Potteries developed a distinctive dinnerware that looked like folk art and named it Blue Ridge. The pottery factory hired Appalachian women to hand-decorate the dishes, and, as Blue Ridge dinnerware gained national recognition, Southern Potteries became the largest hand-painted pottery in the United States in the mid-1940s.
Conveyance by the Clinchfield Railroad out of Appalachia made Blue Ridge dishes available throughout the country. The quantity produced resulted from the mechanized kilns and assembly-line methods operating in the pottery. The final product, however, remained hand-painted dishes, where each piece differed slightly. Decorators at Southern Potteries were rural women, familiar with the craft tradition surrounding them. They were also union members living in a community being transformed by twentieth-century industry and consumer tastes. Times and momentum changed, though, and in 1957 stockholders voted to liquidate their holdings before competition from Japanese imports bankrupted the company. Production of Blue Ridge dinnerware ceased.
Generalizations about women workers in southern settings have little bearing here. For a few years these women made their own marks on what they produced, transforming that product and their role within the pottery industry though not challenging their roles within the community. Oral histories, union correspondence, and the built environment help illustrate that this community's transformation involved outside influences, various local elements, and their complex interactions.
Director: Carroll Van West.