The Mills family: Ann, John, Ellen, Beth, and Carmen the cat. photo by Cindy Steele

The Mills Family

by Susan Showalter

In 1968 when John Mills was wandering around contemplating what he would do if no one accepted him for a teaching job after graduate school, he discovered an empty building in Nashville. Built in 1873, it had once been a summer kitchen at Allie Ferguson’s rooming house. He decided to rent it and make pottery there for awhile until he could “get serious” about making a living.

“I never did get serious,” John said with a laugh.

John stayed until 1994 when he and his wife Beth went to Colorado. They returned at the end of 2000 when potter Andy Huddleston sold the business back to them.

A native of Traders Point, Indiana, Beth is the granddaughter of Brown County’s Portia Sperry and daughter of native Ralph Sperry. John is from West Lafayette where his father was a professor of English at Purdue University.

Education has always been important to John who was recently elected for a second time to the Brown County School Board. Education is also very important to Beth who has set aside her career as a wetland biologist to home school their two daughters. Ellen is ten and Ann is twelve. Both were born at home in Victor, Colorado where the Mills had a pottery shop and a bed and breakfast.

“Our downtown brick storefront in Victor, a gold mining town with maybe 500 residents, was built in 1899,” said Beth. “The pottery shop was downstairs and the Bed and Breakfast was upstairs where several archeologists in the local mine lived full time for at least a year. Eventually we were just doing the bed and breakfast on weekends and doing art fairs in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.”

The family obtained a second home in Mayer, Arizona, where they wintered. Then Arizona became their primary base until they returned to Brown County. Here they all spend time making pottery. John does the majority of the work. Beth also works on the wheel making batter bowls, pitchers and creamers, mugs, etc. She learned mostly from John but took ceramics classes starting at age six.

Ellen makes beads and birds with pottery. Ann makes pinch pots, unglazed sculptural clay figures, and buttons. Ann exhibited some of her work at the Brown County 4-H Fair.

“For the figure I entered in the fair I got a first premium and reserve champion,” Ann said. “I had a picture which got an honorable mention and a first premium.”

A painter as well, Ann has entered T. C. Steele events, winning awards at each including two first prizes for acrylics. She studied painting at the Waldron Art Center in Bloomington. Both girls are musicians who play violin and piano. They receive instruction at the prestigious Indiana University String Academy.

At home they study science, history, spelling, phonics, math, violin, piano, and Spanish. Ann’s favorite subjects are drawing and reading while Ellen prefers reading, knitting, and chess.

“They learn about the resources to help find answers to questions, then come up with more questions. That is probably the biggest thing that happens,” said Beth. “We are available to them because of having our own shop. This is a huge responsibility for us. We are both capable of teaching and feel comfortable doing it. It works! We are fortunate that we have the time and resources to do it.”

Beth became familiar with home schooling when her daughter’s cousins were home schooled.

“It has been popular for a long time with many parents who chose to have home births. We have a great support system and network of people who are doing it, also,” she said. “There is a strong home school organization here and in Bloomington.”

John’s older children, from a previous marriage, are Brown County residents Karl and David Mills. Both attended public schools here. John believes the ideal form of education would be “one on one” but understands we cannot afford that in the public schools.

“I am wanting to move in that direction by lowering the class sizes,” explained John. “More individual attention is going to hopefully keep some kids from slipping through the cracks. Our children have the basic literacy already. That is wonderful. They read for pleasure. If you have that, you can learn anything you decide to learn for the rest of your life.”

Open afternoons Wednesday through Sunday, Brown County Pottery is located at 58 West Franklin Street (Antique Alley) in Nashville and can be contacted at (812)988-6860.