Kaolin. Chalk. Clay. It has shaped me as the potter’s hands shape mud. From native soil I come, and without it I would not be. Kaolin is very much a part of me. I am not a scientist or a salesman. I am a photographer who was born and raised in a kaolin mining community, and this is a story about a paradoxically beautiful relationship between a mineral, mining, and me.
What is kaolin? You already “know” kaolin even if you don’t recognize the word. If you are reading these words from a printed page of a magazine, you’re looking at kaolin – as both a filler and a coating, the clay provides much of the page’s weight and gloss. It is a soft white alumina-silica clay that is mined and processed in response to global demand for use in paper, plastics, paints, adhesives, medicine, cosmetics, fine china, ceramics, rubber, and fertilizer.
Some of the richest deposits of kaolin in the world are found along a geological fault line that runs diagonally across the map of Georgia from Augusta to Macon to Columbus. This fault line, called The Fall Line, marks the boundary between the Piedmont Plateau and the Coastal Plain areas. Millions of years ago, the Coastal Plain was under water and a sandy beach existed. This dynamic changed with a landmass shift. The ocean waters receded and prehistoric beaches were eventually covered by layers of silt, clay, and sand forced downhill from the newly formed mountain range. Rivers deposited sediment on their way through the Coastal Plain, that with time became variations of white kaolin and iron-tainted red clay. Eventually, man unearthed the clay to make pottery. Georgia’s pottery history is one of the oldest in North America – ceramics dating to 2500 BC have been discovered in the Savannah River area. The Southeastern Indians used red clay extensively to make their earthenware pottery. Pioneers established pottery centers along the Fall Line because kaolin clay was ideal for making the sturdy stoneware needed by Colonial settlers of Georgia.
My ancestors settled along The Fall Line in Washington County in 1787; today, I still call it home.
Through the darkest times in Southern history, Washington County found its destiny in the dirt below, its economy evolving from an 18th century cotton-dependent agrarian existence into an international mining industry on which the world depends. The commercial mining of kaolin in Washington County began in 1905, and the industry has since become our identity.
My childhood home was located at the bottom of a hill on a road used by large semi-trucks to transport the white clay from the mines throughout the county to the processing plant in town. As a child, some of the best summer days at home were spent in pursuit of chalk. Occasionally fatigued from playing but never bored, we patiently sat in the front yard and waited for the chalk trucks. As they approached, we jumped to our feet, pumping our right arms up and down in hopes to capture the driver’s attention. It thrilled us tremendously when the driver obliged our enthusiastic signal with a short blast of his horn. We kept an eye out for chunks of chalk that occasionally bounced out of the uncovered trailers when the trucks failed to miss potholes in the road. If we were lucky… “white gold” was ours for the taking from the side of the road! The chalk was heavy, cool to the touch, and provided endless fun. We attempted to carve it into figures, but it inevitably cracked into pieces. With the pieces, we embellished our concrete driveway with drawings and marked games of tic-tac-toe, dot-to-dot, and hopscotch.
Because of its non-toxic properties, the dust generated from kaolin clay processing was left unchecked during the early years and as a result, it was not uncommon to see white trees and automobiles throughout the county. As a child, I imagined the white trees were like the snow-laden Christmas trees in storybooks. The white chalk dust that settled on everything in town was also behind what I call “White Car Phenomenon”, when there was a preponderance of white painted automobiles on the streets of Washington County, purchased by locals who knew it was fruitless to try to keep a darker car clean. This trend lingered well beyond those dusty days but is no longer as obvious. Today the chalk emissions are tightly controlled.
The spelling of Kaopectate, a tried and true over-the-counter anti-acid remedy, offers an obvious clue into its active ingredient. Kaolin is a known remedy for stomach ailments.
Although it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a woman pull a chunk of crude kaolin from her purse or brassiere and take a bite, the practice of eating white dirt still exists. I recently asked a friend why she eats kaolin. She told me she simply likes the taste, but others consume it daily for its purported health benefits. If you look closely, on the shelves of certain local stores you can still find small bags of pure white chalk, sold as souvenirs and labeled “not for human consumption”, though it’s more likely the customers are locals with upset stomachs rather than tourists. Some individuals still stop to collect the occasional chunk of kaolin on the side of the road.
Although my father did not work directly in the industry, he opened a fast food restaurant and convenience store to serve kaolin workers and their families. As soon as we were old enough, my siblings and I had unique access to the people of the community from behind the counter. We gladly shook white powder from hard earned dollar bills pulled from the pockets of men covered from head to boot with kaolin dust. Our customers were hard working and proud.
Throughout the years I saw among the kaolin workers a spirit of camaraderie and genuine care for each other. The pioneers of Washington County’s kaolin industry are lauded for taking the lead in protecting the environment and the community, voluntarily introducing progressive reclamation practices that would become industry standards. Once most of the usable kaolin has been extracted from an active mine, the land is restored to a stable condition, often planted with pine trees or other renewable resources, or converted to a pond for fishing or for use by cattle farmers. According to some landowners, this reclamation process improves the property to the extent that it again has income potential.
Each October since 1956, Washington County hosts a Kaolin Festival, a week-long celebration in honor of our signature industry. The Festival ends with a parade along the main street of Sandersville, the county seat. Parade Day is the best day in Washington County! It is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with family and friends who embody the kaolin spirit. One friend loves the idea of kaolin so much that he has the scientific formula for kaolin tattooed on his arm. Another friend goes by Kaolin instead of her similarly sounding first name. There are many people who call Washington County their second home. I hear time after time, “There is something special about Washington County.” I call it the center of the universe and to many, there is something special about Washington County. That something is born out of the tremendous sense of community that exists beside hospitality, respect, faith and trust.
I am fortunate to live on a parcel of land with old growth trees and a small creek, along the banks of which I’ve found fossilized sand dollars and ancient sharks’ teeth. I will forever be amazed that presently the closest beach is about a three-hour drive from these ocean relics. Showing my fossil collection is a wonderful way to explain how kaolin was formed a very long time ago. I don’t have many regrets in life, but one is not collecting a jar of the pristine sand that was exposed during excavation and grading of our home. It had been hidden for so long under brick-hard red dirt. Touching the sands of a prehistoric beach that once existed in the same spot where my living room would soon be was a magical experience. I may not have a jar of the sand on my shelf, but I do have photographs to help recall the absolute awe I felt that day.
I call Washington County the center of the universe, not because it is equally distanced from both the big city of Atlanta and the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, but because it grounds my soul and centers my mind. As I seek a wider audience for my photographs, I have found myself closer to home than ever. Washington County will always be my home. And kaolin is a way for me to be me. With love and gratitude for what it offers, I claim it as mine.
Jo Lynn Still
October 19, 2017
Jo Lynn Still loves home as much as anyone you will meet. Born and raised in Washington County, Georgia, she lives in the same kaolin-mining community with her family. Jo Lynn’s connection to home runs generations deep. Her self-directed approach to photography is guided by her curious nature and a genuine interest and respect for all people and places. Her photographs offer glimpses into the rural south and read like invitations to question the past, consider the now, honor the natural world, and embrace what is good.
Jo Lynn’s photography and writing project called $10/10 Bucks was published by Fiona Hayes of Day Four Magazine (TEN) in 2013. Her photographs were part of John A. Bennette’s Southern Memories exhibitions and Elizabeth Avedon’s South x Southeast Southern Landscapes Exhibition and South x Southeast Portraits Exhibition, the 2015 Exposure Awards Documentary Collection. Jo Lynn Exhibited 24 photographs at Blue Star Gallery in Blue Ridge, GA Aug-Sept 2015 and presented a solo exhibition Georgia Rehabilitation Hospital in 2012. Her work appeared on blogs including HangingWithMrBennette, Elizabeth Avedon blog, The New Yorker’s Photobooth and La Lettre de la Photographie.