As 'Journey Stories'
BY JIM FELTMAN
The rich historical heritage of Greene County, as evidenced by craftsmanship from 19th-century furniture-makers and potters, was celebrated and discussed Saturday during the "Journey Stories of East Tennessee's Finest Craftsmen" event at the Dickson-Williams Mansion.
The mansion is a partner with the Nathanael Greene Museum for the Smithsonian Institution's "Journey Stories" exhibit that is on display at the museum through Aug. 7.
Sarah E.T. Webster began the program by explaining the history of Dickson-Williams Mansion restoration.
BURGNER BROTHERS' WORK
Daniel Ackermann, associate curator at The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, in Winston-Salem, N.C. was the first speaker. His talk concerned the historical perspective of the Burgner brothers cabinet-making operation in the Horse Creek area.
"I'm excited that this event is titled 'Journey Stories,'" Ackermann said.
"The stories of the objects that we love and many of us live with, those very fine antiques, are really about journeys. They're about how people get to where they are and the stories of what people do once they're here," he added.
Ackermann noted that most early settlers coming to the region from the east were not hauling their heavy furniture over the mountains in their crowded wagons, so there was a good opportunity for craftsmen in the newly-settled areas.
"After all, a newborn needs a cradle, eventually we all need coffins, and in between are tables, desks, sideboards and the other furniture you need to buy to create a household," he said.
Ackermann has done extensive research on the local Burgner Family Furniture and shared his vast knowledge of the Burgner Family and the incredible furniture they created.
"Five Burgner brothers -- John C., Jacob F., Henry, Christian and Daniel F. -- built furniture at one point or another, primarily in the Horse Creek community of Greene and Washington counties, and they did so as a group for three-quarters of a century," he said.
Ackermann added, "The Burgner cabinet makers of East Tennessee provide us with a unique opportunity to explore and understand the cabinet-making business as it existed in a particular place for an exceptionally long period of time, basically from 1817 until 1902."
Ackermann said he had to be on his toes at the event because of the composition of the audience of 65 people.
"This is a crowd for whom this place and the things we're going to talk about matter. These are relatives, these are friends. These are names that are familiar.
"My guess is that there is probably more wisdom in this room right now about Greene County's history, about the Burgners, and about the kinds of objects we're going to talk about than has probably been gathered in one room at one moment, ever," he said.
Much of Ackermann's information came from a 'waste book' kept by John C. Burgner. The book chronicled the daily operations of his business, including information on every piece made, who was involved in it's production, and, in some cases, the prices received for some items.
RANGE OF PIECES
"An incredible range of pieces were made by the Burgners," Ackermann said.
"They made bureaus, the most expensive of which were $50 dollars, the cheapest of which were $8.
"They made tons of bedsteads, from ornate pieces selling for $25 to simple plain bedsteads for $1.50.
"Coffins ranged from the $15 Lexus model to the $2 economy class. He also made frames, desks, and, of course sideboards," Ackermann said.
Ackermann said Burgner sideboards are some of the most important pieces associated with this area, adding, "You can't talk about the Burgner brothers without talking sideboards."
The Burgners' work, like that of other craftsmen, had significant features that identified their work.
Ackermann said, "The features of Burgner work included exuberant backspashes, made extensive use of highly figured woods, such as curly maple, curly cherry and curvy walnut, and usually had distinctively turned legs."
The Dickson-Williams Mansion has four Burgner pieces on display, including a sideboard and a press called a post office press which features 26 small lettered drawers originally built for a postmaster.
Ackermann paid tribute to the late Richard Doughty and his work researching the craftsmen of the Greene County area.
Doughty, who was considered an antique authority, was the author of 'Greeneville: 100 Year Portrait, 1775-1875,' the definitive book about the first 100 years of the town's history and architecture.
He died in October 2003.
Wilhelmina Williams, who coordinated the event, also mentioned Doughty's tremendous contribution to the history of the era in her welcoming remarks and dedicated the event to Doughty's memory.
Following Ackermann's presentation, attendees were treated to Barbara Nyman portraying Catherine Dickson Williams.
She talked about her life in the house and spoke emotionally about life during the Civil War. She said she endured a divided family, a divided country a divided house. She he had sons in the Confederate Army and a son in the Union Army. During the war, she would entertain both Union and Confederate officers, depending on which had control of Greeneville at the time.
The group then enjoyed a picnic lunch on the porch hosted by Catherine Williams Anglin, a descendent of Catherine Dickson Williams.
GREENE COUNTY POTTERY
After lunch, the program continued with John Case, of Case Antiques, Auctions and Appraisals in Knoxville, who spoke on the subject of Redware and Greene County pottery.
Case showed some examples of pottery from neighboring counties, including Washington County, Va; Washington County, Tenn. and Sullivan County Tenn.
"I'm providing examples of earthenware slash redware from those areas so that when we talk about Greene County we can understand the differences.
"When folks find a piece locally and start asking where it's from, there are some characteristics that can help identify what area it came from, and even when we get into Greene County there are some characteristics that are unique to various potters," Case said.
Case talked about Christopher Haun, one of the individuals that was hung for the bridge-burning during the Civil War.
"He was important historically but he was phenomenally artistic. He made some of the finest redware ever made in America in the 19th century," Case said.
"And another gentleman significant in Greene County pottery was J.A. Lowe. He possibly could have apprenticed under Haun or certainly worked in association with him," Case added.
Case also talked about pottery from the era that was not signed, but some of which had certain stamps or marks on the piece that helped identify the maker.
Case said Greene County artifacts are very significant.
"The decorative arts tradition in Greene County is probably one of the most outstanding in all of Tennessee. Even now, the exciting stuff that's surfacing is coming from this county, from furniture to pottery to textiles," he added.
"Greene county, from the late 18th and early 19th century, was a county of financial means that supported cabinet makers and potters, and we just see some of the best examples in every category coming out of here, he added.