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Gleason, Tennessee: Clay Mining and Music

By Virginia Vaughan

From Weakley County, Tennessee

 The sign on the edge of Gleason’s city limits reads “Welcome to Gleason: Ball Clay Mining Center of the Nation.” Weakley County’s deposit of the finest quality of ball clay, which is used for china, porcelain and pottery, is shipped all over the world. 

The first clay that was dug was in 1926, from a testing on the W. R. Crawford farm, two miles west of Gleason. A tenant on the farm discovered the deposit quite by accident while building a fence. A spring on the side of a bluff contained traces of clay and the owner had the mineral examined. Some of the richest veins of clay in the area were discovered in a 20-acre plot. The Bell Clay Company started operations immediately with 25 men working pond scoops and horses to remove the overburden of dirt and debris. Holes were dug with hand augers, dynamite placed within exploded and then workers dug the clay out with picks and shovels. Afterwards, the clay was loaded on wagons or trucks and hauled to the railroad to be shipped all over the world. 

Mr. Kelly finch discovered clay on his land in 1927. He was digging a square, wood-curbed well to water his livestock when he hit clay and had difficulty digging further. He was an inquisitive man, and to satisfy his questions, he drilled test holes to find the extent of the mineral on his farm. Finding suitable clay, he proceeded to open a mine with eight teams of two mules to a pond scoop. 

Soon after, he started to Zanesville, Ohio, with a suitcase full of clay samples for testing. The train porter, a former employee of Spinks Clay Company, picked up Finch’s heavy suitcase and when finding the contents to be clay, suggested that Finch go to Cincinnati, home of the famous Rockwood Pottery. When he arrived in Cincinnati, his clay was tested and found to be of superior quality. The company suggested that he contact H. C. Spinks Clay Company of Newport, Ky. and Henry County, Tenn., to commercially mine the clay. Finch did this on his return home to Weakley County and, in 1930, H.C. Spinks, father of Harriet Spinks Carothers, leased land from Finch. Although the Finch property is not presently mined, the Carothers family, who control Spinks Clay Company today, has continued to expand the industry throughout the area. 

Gordon Stoker, of the famed Jordanaires, was the first musical celebrity from Gleason. The quartet was on the Grand Ole Opry for many years and traveled and sang background music for Elvis Presley for 15 years. They appeared in movies, on television and had many recordings to their credit. The quartet provided vocal background on many hit albums for such stars as Marty Robbins, Tom Jones, Kenny Rogers, Tammy Wynette, Tennessee Ernie Ford and many others. 

Mike Snider is another Gleason native who has become famous in the field of music. In 1983, he won the National Banjo Competition in Winfield, Kansas. The following year Gordon Stoker heard Mike play and managed to get him an invitation to play on the Grand Ole Opry. When Mike appeared in January of 1984, all of the town of Gleason was there to hear and applaud, thanks to the 1,500 free tickets sent to Gleason by the Opry’s manager Hal Durham. 

Mike Snider became famous in a short time, appearing with Roy Clark, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and many other celebrities. He was on the Hee Haw show until it closed and played in Opryland during the week until it shut down. 

Currently,  he is on the Grand Ole Opry on weekends and occasionally makes tours of the United States. He has a home in Nashville, but most of his free time is spent with his family on a farm near Gleason. Behind his house is an airstrip and hangar for his two planes that he uses to commute to  his appointments. 

His brother-in-law, David Godwin, a former mayor of Gleason, gives Mike credit for many good things that have happened to Gleason within the past two years. Source: The Weakley County Press (Provided to Gleason Online by Joyce Wray).

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