JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – I’ve had the gist of the story about the earthenware headstones in Northeast Mississippi for a while, but I needed an interview. And I finally found someone with firsthand knowledge of them while on our trip to the Rhine River in Germany last month.
There were about 90 people in our group of tourists ambling from Amsterdam in the Netherlands up to Lucerne in Sweden. In Heidelberg, Germany, I met one of the couple of dozen Mississippians on the trip with us; Irene Ausborn, of Fulton.
My attention was abruptly pulled back from European castles and cathedrals and churches to Mississippi when Irene told me her grandfather was a Northeast Mississippi potter; W.D. Suggs, of Smithville. And she really got my attention when she told me in addition to jugs and churns and other utilities items, that he also made something I have seen all of my life in that part of the state.
“But he also did something unique. He used the Loyd Patten to make cemetery markers,” she explained.
I knew exactly what Irene was talking about. I’ve been fascinated by the pottery markers with the grey salt glaze and the cobalt blue lettering since I was a child and saw them all over the graveyard where my grandparents are buried in Itawamba County.
In a state where we have very little native stone, and in a time when in the foothills of the Appalachians there wasn’t a lot of money to mail-order headstones from elsewhere, these simple markers were an affordable permanent alternative to using a wooden marker or simply planting a tree to mark a grave.
Many potters made these type markers, but Irene and a cousin can spot their grandad’s markers by the subtle shade of color he used.
“He had a certain blue gaze that he used to distinguish his in a manner that we knew what we were looking for. And there was a pot, a cradle that they sat down in. And they were almost indestructible with the weather. What destroyed some was cemetery mowing. They would hit them and knock them over and break them,” she said.
And as a bonus, these simple markers are still very legible today a century after they were placed, when spree stone markers of the day have faded.
Europe is beautiful and magnificent. But I’m really glad I got to find out more about the simple dignity of something I’ve wondered about in Mississippi all of my life.