It is before dawn and cars are pulling up in front of the Craig's home. People are getting out and talking excitedly. By 7:00 AM, Cat Spring Road is lined with cars and more than a hundred people are standing in the yard. They press against the ropes that separate them from their bounty.
As the magic hour approaches, people are pushing and shoving and jockeying for position. They start screaming at latecomers who have bypassed the line and have taken position on the front line on the opposite side of the yard.
All eyes are focused on their goal.
8 AM. Don Craig drops the rope then hurriedly gets out of the way. He has been knocked down before. The crowd stampedes. The leaders sprint across the yard.
What is going on here? What would cause people to act this way at someone's home? Is the last available stash on the planet of this year's hottest Christmas toy sitting in the Craig's front yard?
This is the annual kiln opening and they are after Burlon Craig's clay pots.
A woman throws her coat over an entire table of miniatures and claims them in the name of herself.
Two men are wrestling, pulling on opposite handles of a five-gallon jug. The handles break off. A woman behind them says she will be happy to buy it anyway.
Another woman straddling a line of pots is knocked flat. Neat rows of jars are knocked over like dominoes.
Some people snatch pots out of other people's plunder while they are not looking.
Everything has been scooped up in about sixty seconds. The frenzied mob switches gears. Civility returns. They quietly form a line to pay for their treasures. Irene Craig and her daughter, Sue, total up the purchases and collect the money from the back of pickup truck.
Some in line make trades while they are waiting.
By 10:30 AM, everyone is gone and there is no evidence that there was ever a clay pot sitting in the yard.
Burlon Craig of Vale, North Carolina in the Catawba Valley has been a potter since 1928. He was 14 and started apprenticing with his next door neighbor, Jim Lynn. He worked at various shops in the area and mastered the art. Later, he went into business for himself.
In the 1930s and 40s, 10 cents a gallon was the going rate for a clay pot.
Sometimes, Burl couldn't sell all of his pots. He says that he has hauled pots until the glazing almost wore off then had to haul them back home. Sometimes he had to make deals with volume buyers. A hardware store owner might say "I'll take 100 or 200 gallons for 8 cents a gallon." He would take it because he didn't know if he could sell them all at 10 cents a gallon or not.
Contrast that to his latest kiln openings where he gets $100 a gallon, and everything goes- culls, cracked jars, loose broken pieces, and jugs with underfired glazes. Everything.
Sale day is called the kiln opening, which he only holds once a year, now. He doesn�t advertise, but word gets around in a hurry throughout North Carolina and surrounding states. Competition to get one of his pots is fierce.
At the 1990 opening, his son, Don, was knocked down trying to get the rope down.
"I don't know if they stepped on him," he recalled. "I wasn't out there. I just leave when they go to take it down. I just walk in here and get out of sight."
Burl hates to see his year of hard work disappear so fast. Years ago, "People would come and pick up every piece. They would look at it and set it down. They might buy a piece or two."
"They might stop and talk" about his creations and discuss their qualities. "Now, it's hard to tell what they like and what they don't when they grab it all like they do here."
There still appears to be no limit to the market. "There's a lot of people here that I don't know and I've never seen before. You know, a lot of the old ones quit buying. They don't want to come out here and get run over. Well, they, a lot of them run out of room, too.'
"Tell you what. It's the best investment they ever made!" he adds with a grin.
For a man who spent most of his life trying to make 10 cents a gallon, his later day fame and fortune seems like a miracle.
In the old days, his jugs were a necessity item. Rural families had to have jars, milk crocks and jugs and churns to put up enough food for the winter. Now, buyers pay hundreds of dollars for jugs they will never use. The less people needed them to use, the more valuable they became. Most current buyers wouldn't know how to use them.
In the old days, utility was the only thing that was important. Burl's mentor Floyd Harris told him "Don't make any difference what they look like. Just so they hold what they are supposed to and have a good glaze on it. People are going to set 'em in the smokehouse or cellar and nobody'll ever see 'em anyway."
The jugs were judged by their ability to hold a full capacity and not leak. Now, they are valued for their appearance and are prominently displayed on a collector�s mantel or china cabinet.
The collector's get most excited about the "face jug". They are, also, called "ugly jugs" or "voodoo jugs".
Burl tries to put a face on everything he makes because that is what the people want.
"Anything with a face on it will sell. That's the big seller. People come here: "You got a face jug? I'd like to have a face jug" That's the first thing they ask about."
So, he makes face jugs. He puts faces on jugs, jars, pitchers, wall pockets, vases, wig stands, spittoons, chamber pots and even birdhouses.
Burl first made a few face jugs in the 1920s and 30s to sell to the tourists.
He says that making face jugs "is getting old, but what I like is the money I get out of it."
Miniature versions of jugs, storage jars and chamber pots that are about one to three inches tall, are also good sellers. They don't take up much space and collectors can buy large numbers at a time because they are easy to carry home. Boys of the area have long learned how to become potters turning the toys these miniatures once were considered.
Also, Burl makes mega-pots, 5-gallon pitchers that stand 18 inches tall and weigh 15 pounds empty. If it were filled with milk, no one could pick it up. But, it makes a striking conversation piece and of course it has that ugly face.
The faces are indeed quite ugly. The faces probably look like the crazy aunt or uncle that Ross Perot once said during his presidential campaign "you keep down in the basement and nobody talks about.
Whether undersized or oversized, today, his jugs have no utility and their only use or uselessness is "fine" art.
Burl still does everything from scratch, himself. He goes down the bottomlands of the South Fork of the Catawba River and digs up his clay. He trucks it back to the shop and lets it sit and weather. He grinds it to the right consistency in his clay mill then breaks it into 75-pound balls.
For years he used a wheel that he pumped with his leg, but after a bout with blood poisoning in one leg he switched to an electric.
He dips the greenware into homemade alkaline glaze. When he makes enough greenware to fill the kiln it is time to "burn" them. His kiln is known as a groundhog kiln. Made from bricks, it is about twenty-five feet long and has a firebox on one end and the chimney on the other end. The temperature inside the kiln reaches over 2,000 degrees. Burlon Craig's kiln was built in the 1930s.
The day of the firing has become almost as much of an event as the day of the sale. It is a social gathering that attracts curious onlookers, apprentice potters and folklorists that come to see the flames and smoke.
People bring food and play music. In the old days it was customary to roast potatoes and corn over the hot chimney, and the men would entertain themselves by boxing on the lawn. A current entertainment is to shoot potatoes out of a potato gun. Potatoes are stuffed in PVC pipe then someone ignites hairspray at the other end.
Everyone wants to help load wood into the kiln. Getting people to help load wood into the kiln is kind of like Tom Sawyer talking his friends into painting Aunt Polly's fence.
It takes two days for the kiln to cool down enough to enter after the firing. The pottery is taken out and stored until sale day. The tradition of the Catawba Valley potters is to have an outside sale (instead of in a gallery) at the event called the kiln opening. The sale usually takes place on the next Saturday.
So, why are Burl's clay pots in such demand? Because, he is the real thing. He is the last of the potters who actually made pottery that was intended to be used. He is a hero to the "turners and burners" (the name for someone who turns clay on a wheel then fires it in a kiln). He still does things the way they did it at the turn of the century. The buyers feel like they are buying a piece of history as well as a work of art.