Those opportunities connected with her Native American Cherokee ancestry and formed the basis for her caring, independent, free spirit which includes a vibrant connection to the earth.
Ruth’s long and openly joyous life unfolds as a series of exceptional projects which have allowed her to maintain, expand and share her beautiful and indomitable soul. For more than 40 years Ruth and her husband Jim have lived on Clear Creek at the edge of the Bankhead National Forest. In the mid-1980s, they moved a chestnut log cabin built in 1900 from the Qualla Boundary Indian lands in Cherokee, North Carolina, to their property.
With Jim’s building knowledge and skill, accompanied by his keen knack for repurposing and utilizing discarded materials, they have added rooms and made modifications to the original cabin. He salvaged lumber milled at Boshell’s Mill in Townley from a Saragossa barn and used it to build one section of their home.
With no task beyond this couple’s conquering, when they chinked the original cabin, they found a how-to book, carefully followed the step-by-step directions, and as Ruth proudly points out, there are no cracks. The Manasco’s comfortably lived-in home includes a den directly overlooking the creek with a wall of tall windows. The overall result is a welcoming airiness complimented by other rooms decorated with Native American artifacts and Jim’s Native American paintings.
Determined to save the Sipsey wilderness
Over the course of their lives, Ruth and Jim spent many fulfilling hours hiking, walking in, and discovering the beauty, history, and magic of the Bankhead National Forest. She noted, “We raised our kids in the forest.”
The Manascos were active in the Birmingham Audubon Society, an organization which already appreciated the Bankhead and was particularly interested in the wilderness which bordered the West Fork Sipsey River. That interest sparked the birth of the Alabama Conservancy, which immediately focused its energy on the preservation of what is now known as the Sipsey Wilderness.
Through federal law, commercial logging was allowed in the national forests. But most of this logging had been accomplished by selective cutting where only individual trees were removed.
In 1964 the Department of Agriculture increased the level of commercial timber production in national forests and required the National Forest Service to authorize clear-cutting—the removal of all trees in a designated logging area. As a result, large sections of native hardwood in the Bankhead were being cut and reforested with pine trees.
Ruth and Jim joined forces with members of the Alabama Conservancy and other devoted individuals and spent five years working to have about 12,000 acres of the Sipsey Wilderness included in a preservation program.
Ruth remembers escorting numerous visitors in the wilderness during that time, including Senator John Sparkman, who sponsored protection legislation with Senator Jim Allen. Facing opposition from powerful entities, including the National Forest Service, and creating fear and distrust at the local level, success finally arrived in 1975, after 13 legislative failures.
The Eastern Wilderness Areas Act set aside 12,700 acres of the Sipsey Wilderness, establishing Alabama’s first national wilderness area, and the preservation extended to 25,000 acres in 1988.
While she might have grown tired merely recalling the long, hard battle for the wilderness protection, Ruth’s eyes lit up when she explained, “That is the most important thing and the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life, other than raising my family.”
With their hearts and lives bound up in the Sipsey Wilderness’ allure, Ruth and Jim were happy to share what they knew with others. So they explored the wilderness every Friday and Saturday for a collection of Daily Mountain Eagle articles Jim wrote and Ruth photographed.
On Sunday evenings they spent hours “hashing them out,” as Jim wrote, read what he wrote to Ruth, and edited with her comments and suggestions. In easily understood, often humorous style, this partnership effort described the Sipsey Wilderness’ multiple canyons, magnificent waterfalls, massive trees, strange personalities, rare plants, and unusual wildlife.
The series of articles was later published as a book, “Walking Sipsey: The People, Places, and Wildlife,” by the Lawrence County Schools Indian Education Program.
connection to the earth
About a decade after the wilderness victory, Ruth shifted her focus to basketmaking. She and her daughter Terra turned to their community of friends for instruction in the basics of this art and spent about five years designing baskets from native materials.
One of Ruth’s loveliest baskets is an Appalachian-style egg basket with a twisted vine handle and Spanish moss as well as sea grass woven in for contrast.
Learning how to make natural dye colors for their baskets was a challenge at this time when information was not as readily available as it is today. Undaunted, Ruth and Terra experimented and ultimately discovered a range of gentle, subtle colors — cochineal beetle red, madder root orange, yellowroot yellow, elderberry pink.
Later, when Ruth needed a different challenge, she decided to pursue pottery and Terra accompanied her on the new adventure. Ruth chuckled at their boldness as she candidly admitted that she and Terra named the pottery studio, Dancing Rabbit Pottery, before they even left for an intense week submerged in pottery instruction under the watchful eye of a potter friend.
Clearly, their mother-daughter team’s natural confidence and dedication to hard work led them on a path to triumph as Dancing Rabbit thrives today, after more than 20 years.
Once Ruth steps out the front door of the Manasco’s cabin, she is easily lured across the single-track dirt road to the Dancing Rabbit Studio. It is a trio of Jim-crafted space — a work area where the pottery is born through Ruth’s well-worked, skillful hands, a kiln room where incredible temperatures fire the pottery for permanence and a showroom which looks out over a peaceful pond and warmly presents her finished products.
Ruth spends hours in the studio this time of year, deep in thought while she contently throws pots and makes her own striking blue glaze, as well as other colors, a skill Terra carefully taught her. Once Ruth’s studio work begins, time eludes her as she digs in to prepare for Dancing Rabbit Pottery’s Annual Open House on December 1 and 2.
While mugs, vases, whimsical creatures, and platters are a part of her wide-ranging repertoire, Ruth takes special pleasure and pride in her primitive pots. She describes reconstructing Native American pots as “my big love,” and uses several of them for cooking soup or stews over a fire at Native American gatherings.
The clay for these pots is dug from old cut-away road banks, creek banks, and riverbanks. Year after year, Ruth energetically shares her enthusiasm for Native American pottery with fourth grade students across the area through a partnership with the Walker County Arts Alliance.
The Manasco homestead is always home to a collection of pets, primarily discarded, homeless dogs and cats. Two members of this group are faithfully and somewhat amusingly memorialized in the Dancing Rabbit showroom. A mangled plate displayed on a stand includes the note “Design by Blue Boy- Ruth’s Blue Tick Hound. Not for sale.”
After Ruth threw the plate and it was drying, Blue Boy helped himself to it, leaving obvious teeth marks on one edge. Now it is his forever.
For many years, Milo reigned as the “Pottery Cat.” Delighting visitors from all over the world, he frequently slept in a huge bowl on top of one of the kilns. Stretching post-nap, as only cats can, Milo knocked over a drying mug. Ruth explains that he “altered the mug’s state” and even left his paw print on it.
Today Milo is remembered with his photograph deliberately placed next to his misshapen mug, which is adorned with two white stickers, “Milo’s Mug” and “Not for sale.”
Today at 75, Ruth Manasco happily continues her life of exceptional projects. In her own unique way, she consistently discovers ways to vitalize her connection to the earth and unselfishly shares her discoveries with others.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 205-387-2890.