Clay From the Coosa River Cast Spell on Unlikely Craftsman
Carl Stephens started his business from the ground up – literally, and he’s living proof that you can make a clean living running a dirty business, if you do it right.To Stephens that means no phones, no signs and no business cards. He’s not on the Web and doesn’t advertise. He just wants a good, handmade product that sells itself. But his own good fortune, not to mention a very unusual and popular product, almost ran his business into the ground, and his health right along with it.After retiring from the Army as a helicopter pilot in 1975, Carl and his wife, Maxie, decided to settle in Elmore County just west of Wetumpka. She was from Mississippi. He was a native of Georgia. Wetumpka seemed like a good halfway spot, he said.
“I was looking for a job, not really looking all that hard, and my wife started a hobby of making ceramics,” Stephens recalls. “She asked me to make something for her one day, and I told her I was no artist, but I’d try. To my surprise she liked it a lot. From there, my interest in sculptures and ceramics started to grow.”An avid fisherman, Stephens had noticed the unusual clay along one of his favorite fishing spots on the Coosa River not far from their home on Alabama Highway14. Because he had to travel to Birmingham to buy the clay they used in his wife’s hobby shop, he decided to see what would happen when they fired the Coosa River clay.”We couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Most store-bought clay comes out white once it’s fired. But when we fired this clay, it came out an off-white color with the most unusual streaks of brownish orange in it. We tried it again, and the same thing happened, but no two pieces looked alike. That’s when I realized we might have something.”The unusual clay caught the eye of the few customers who visited their tiny shop, but when Stephens pitched the idea of selling it at a Montgomery department store, he was surprised when the manager got so excited.”He ordered $300 worth of our stuff right then and there,” Stephens said. “I told him I’d have to make it first. So I did, and it sold out faster than anyone could have imagined.”From there, the popularity of the unusual ceramics that come in all shapes and sizes began to explode. Soon, Stephens had orders from all over the United States. Companies like Hallmark were calling him. Special orders were flooding in. He continued to expand until he had 30 employees.But wait. All he wanted was a small business that allowed him to spend time with his family. He hadn’t bargained for all this.”It was crazy, and I was about to kill myself working day and night to fill all the orders,” he said. “I was bringing in lots of money but it was costing me a lot of money to fill all the orders and get them out. When a fella offered to buy the business and hire me as a consultant, I took the offer because it looked like my way out.”But a short time later, the new owner died and his estate wasn’t interested in keeping the business open. For Stephens, it was chance to start over. This time, he promised, there would be strict rules he’d have to follow.”My wife only agreed to it if I promised not to put up a sign, that we wouldn’t have regular hours and we wouldn’t try to get too big,” he said. “I’ve done that, and we’ve managed to stay in business. I don’t have a Web site – don’t want one either. And I can lock the door and leave any time I get ready to. The way things are, I can work, be happy and make a little money. That’s all I ever wanted.”But just because he’s not easy to reach, doesn’t mean his work isn’t popular. His manger scenes are in big demand each year. So much so he’s decided to stop making one set, and for the past several years he’s even limited the number he would sell. Soldiers are some of his most popular customers, and as a veteran himself, Stephens admits he can’t hardly turn down an order from a soldier. They especially like the various eagles he sells.Other popular shapes include Indians, cowboys, flowers, angels and Alabama-shaped boxes. After having the clay tested by Auburn University, Stephens learned it’s the iron in the special clay that makes the distinctive marks. While most clay is filled with minerals, Stephens said he’s never found any like that he digs from the Coosa.”My two sons-in-law and my grandchildren are the only ones who know where it is,” Stephens said. “We dig it by hand, and it’s not all over the river. I have only found two spots that have this particular type clay. You could be five feet in either direction and never hit a streak of it. But I know where two places are, and it’s my secret.”Digging the clay is as much a fishing trip as it is anything, according to Stephens’ daughter, Karen, who is his main helper in the shop.”Whenever they go dig clay, you can bet they are going to take fishing poles,” she said. “They bring back the clay, but usually there’s about 20 fish with them, too.”Stephens is so particular about the clay he uses that he insists on testing each batch he collects. A test fire in the kiln assures that each piece will have the unusual streaks of rust.”We have to put the clay in a liquid form to pour it into the molds,” he said. “Then once it’s fired, it’s glazed and fired a second time. We do have some clients who buy several pieces at a time, but we don’t take big orders.”There have been attempts to imitate the work done by Stephens, but to be certain you have an authentic piece created by him, it will be signed Max – or MRS – near the base of the item.”Growing up in Franklin, Ga., all I ever wanted to do was be in the military and be a pilot,” he said. “I managed to do both those things and then retire. But if you had asked me if I’d be doing this, I could have never imagined it. But it’s nice getting up every day and creating something that people want.”