We hate clay when it sticks to our boots and shoes, we depend on it to hold water in ponds, and we pay high prices for it when we buy paint or lipstick.
Clay is used to make floor tile, slick paper magazines, bricks and gunpowder - and it usually gives prompt relief from diarrhea! For centuries clay made an essential item we seldom see - thousands of miles of underground sewer pipes. Missouri clay is in demand by industries in many countries. It has been used to make silos, porcelain fittings for electrical wiring and linings for blast furnace chimneys. Missile launch pads are constructed of oversize firebricks made of stoneware clay dug between Columbia and St. Louis.
How did primitive people discover the miracle of clay? We know they did discover it! Earliest items made by human hands were probably baskets, but baskets didn’t hold water! The oldest clay shards - broken pieces of pottery - survived for eons with the print of a basket on their convex surfaces - the outsides of the bowls and jars. Clay had been smeared in the baskets, perhaps with bare human hands, and would therefore hold water. The surviving shards had somehow been put into very hot fires because it required extreme heat to change clay to stone. It was that way permanently.
Clay is a miracle material! In the Neolithic Age, civilization took a giant leap. Making pots and bowls that held water made life simpler and permitted people to move farther away from natural water sources for hunting and exploration. This miracle was gradually discovered by humans in places far from each other - Egypt, China, the Americas, India, Europe - everywhere there was clay.
Today we see white stoneware clay at roadsides around Columbia in all directions. It’s usually hidden by grass or weeds, but it’s exposed in drainage ditches and where earth is being dug for basements or new roads - or post holes. I’ve dug white stoneware clay for folk art projects from the area where we donated land for improving a state road long ago.
My first major project was a pair of white, hand-constructed, matching lamps, 15 inches tall. They required almost all of the clay that I had cleaned and processed at that time. I immediately decided to make miniatures instead of lamps. I made square dancers, beekeepers and families in covered wagons, as well as people milking cows, splitting fence rails, making lye soap and dipping candles. Here was history in three dimensions. I called those miniatures "The little people of Boones Lick Trail."
Later I created a sculpture that is displayed at Boone Hospital Center in the ground-level registration lobby. It’s a representation of the true story of pioneers’ compassion. Historians have related this: "When word reached downtown Columbia that wagons were on the trail, men harnessed their mule teams and went to help pull those wagons out of the mud."
Seeping ground water kept the trail churned into a muddy loblolly. Ox teams in the 1820s found it difficult to pull those covered wagons up the steep hill on which the hospital is located today.
The travelers had no way of knowing that help would be coming over the crest of Broadway Hill. They had unloaded their heavy belongings, put rocks under the wheels and watered the oxen as they rested. Kindness was the way of life in our infant town. A similar sculpture is displayed in Boone County Historical Museum on Ponderosa Drive. Nancy Russell added color to help local clay tell this story.