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Fame and good fortune are shaped here by hand, in kilns, with long tradition

SEAGROVE, N.C. -- The strangers began showing up at Ben Owen's place about 10 years ago. It started small, one or two that first summer. But within a couple of years, they began to stream into town for the big openings. Some slept in their cars, others got a room at a local bed-and-breakfast. One loyal customer pulled out his sleeping bag and slept on Owen's picnic table.

Come sunup, they were lined up, ready for a first crack at the potter's latest work.

''It's kind of like camping out for concert tickets," Owen says on a recent morning, his hands working a piece of clay in his workshop. ''I never thought it would be like this."

The sleepovers have become a tradition, and Owen expects more overnight guests in the days leading up to his next big opening, on June 11. By morning, he will have laid out the freshly-fired cups, pots, and larger vessels. Most of the work will be sold by the end of the day.

Owen is easily the region's most famous potter. He has made a tea set for Elton John, a ring jug for President Reagan, and pieces for several of the state's governors. Still, he remains stunned by the growth of Seagrove.

He knows this country town is like any other in North Carolina except for one important detail: At least 100 potters live, work, and sell within this dusty, 15-mile stretch of roads. Owen's workspace, house, and gallery are on Route 705, the same land on which his grandfather opened a shop a half-century ago. Owen III, 36, went off to college, traveled around the world to study art, and came home to grow the family business. He still operates his grandfather's long tunnel kiln. But he has others, and another noticeable building project on the site. This summer, Owen and his family plan to move into a 6,000-square-foot house he has built just a short walk from his studio.

The house is hard to miss, a Mediterranean-style mansion that sticks out like a sausage cart at a vegan convention. The exterior is a sandy-colored stucco, the clay roof made of tiles from the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania. Inside, the large entryway is framed by a walnut railing that lines a series of stairways. As he walks through the front door, Owen talks about holding receptions for his most loyal customers.

''I want to have a place where I can do PowerPoint presentations and show people more than just a piece," he says. ''The more people understand about the work, the better."

My wife and I discovered Seagrove a few years ago. We were living in Raleigh, and took a ramble west across the state to Asheville, the hipster-hillbilly enclave that's home to Andie McDowell and a vacation spot for Tom Cruise. A pit stop in Seagrove turned into a day trip, and we wished we could have stayed longer. Seagrove, we found, was the perfect antidote to the $42-mug syndrome, familiar to anyone who has shopped at the often charming but overpriced ceramic shops in Boston and on the Cape.

Owen's work is among the priciest in the region. Commissioned, 4-foot-tall jugs can run into four figures. In his store, you can find a vase or bowl for $35. Other potters sell their work for considerably less. Most shops have seconds, some with barely noticeable flaws that can knock the price down dramatically. We picked up a green vase for $12, its only defect a thumb-sized section bare of glaze. We got a small pot with a lid and two square plates with a matching white-and-gray platter for another $25.

''A lot of people would compare the Seagrove area to La Borne in France or Shigaraki in Japan," says Charlotte Brown, director of the Gallery of Art & Design at North Carolina State University. ''You can make your stuff right there. You can sell it. And it's not particularly spoiled yet, mainly because it's not that easy to get to."

Seagrove is a good two hours from either Raleigh, the state capital in the east, or Charlotte, the big city to the west. To get there, you wind down a series of country roads. You know you're getting close when you see signs nailed to trees pointing to a potter's home.

Seagrove, the tourist destination, is a relatively new development driven by the state's promotional staff. But Seagrove, the pottery center, has been around since the 1750s, when the earliest settlers arrived.

''The reason is a four letter word: c-l-a-y," says Brown, who is writing a book about the local potters. ''It's the clay that's perfect for making stoneware. Some is found in South Carolina and some is found in Georgia. It's not in the surface. It's in the river bottoms and river edges and stream edges. It takes to high firing. And it was just there. If you don't have it, you can't make it."

The original families -- the Chriscoes, Coles, Teagues, and Owens -- set up groundhog kilns, long tunnels heated to more than 2,000 degrees. Business was good, with jugs and other storage containers in high demand. The families passed the skills down to their children and formed partnerships that sometimes lasted, sometimes broke up.

Then the Industrial Revolution came. Bottle-making plants replaced the necessity for pottery. So, in the early 1920s, an important shift occurred.

Two Raleigh transplants, Juliana and Jacques Busbee, became fascinated with the beauty of the Seagrove stoneware and opened a shop in Greenwich Village to sell pottery. The Busbees also built a workshop in Seagrove and hired 18-year-old Ben Owen. He stayed at ''Jugtown" for 36 years. After Juliana died, he created his own place. That's where his young grandson, Ben III, learned how to work with clay. At the same time, Seagrove was starting to recognize its potential as a tourist attraction.

In the late 1970s, Nell Cole, a descendant of one of the original families, scribbled out a map showing 18 potteries and had the sheet mimeographed. Today, visitors to town can use a full-color, glossy pamphlet as a guide to more than 110 sites. The North Carolina Pottery Center, opened in 1998, offers exhibits and samples of various works. Still, because of its remote location, Seagrove hasn't become so stylish that it prices out the potters. In fact, the market is strong enough to support new storefronts.

Take the case of William Kennedy, 44, who worked in a nearby hosiery mill until recently, when the factory closed. He bought a gas kiln, which he kept in his backyard, and a buddy bought him a potter's wheel. In 2002, he fired pots almost every day to improve this work. Two years ago, Kennedy opened his shop just down the street from the Pottery Center.

Sally Lufkin Saylor came from Winslow, Maine. She was a sales representative for a pottery company when she drove into town, stopping to see Dorothy and Walter Auman's shop, Seagrove Pottery.

''I walked through and said, 'This would be heaven on earth,' " she remembers.

The Aumans died soon after in a car accident. Lufkin Saylor moved down to take over their business. She changed the name to Lufkin Pottery, and remains passionate about Seagrove.

''This place is like going on an adventure on a treasure map," says Lufkin Saylor, whose shop is on Highway 220. ''It's not commercialized. The pottery is all priced very modestly. It's almost like the fast pace of the world doesn't touch us here."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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