This week’s evocative object is a small piece of knotty pine paneling you see pictured on this page. To you this might appear to be an object with little to no significance, but to me it evokes a universe of memories and meaning. Before we delve into what this little piece of wood means to me, let’s take a look at its significance in a more general sense.
For starters, with all the vast information that is at our fingertips out in that seemingly endless oenline universe, it seems no one is particularly interested in knotty pine. Even our old friend Wikipedia doesn’t say a thing about its significance or its history–guess this is my cue to emerge as the resident Wikipedia knotty pine expert. The only site I found was a quaint one with a cute name: www.knottyisnice.com. According to this not-so-helpful site, knotty pine paneling, which enjoyed its golden age in the period from 1946 to 1963, was, and to a small extent still is popular for four reasons. First, it is “inexpensive and durable.” Make that WAS inexpensive and durable, because prices for this cute decor item have skyrocketed in recent years. Second, it is “easy, attractive DIY material.” Many knotty pine panels came with tongue and groove construction that made piecing the individual panels side by side a relatively easy process. Of course, what’s easy for someone else might turn into a construction disaster for me. Third, knotty pine is a “respected material used since colonial times and suited to Early American decor” (a fifties style not so popular these days, however). And, fourth, “Knotty pine is nice.” What better explanation do you want?
The picture on this page shows a panel of knotty pine from my parents’ motel–Kelly’s Motel–that I’ve written about many times, and the place that gave my column its name. This particular panel, along with two others I own, was chainsawed from a motel room before Kelly’s Motel was totally (and sadly) demolished about ten years ago. Interestingly enough, Kelly’s Motel was built in 1948, right at the dawn of the Knotty Pine Era (KPE). The walls in every room of our motel were covered with this paneling, and guests (and my family, who also lived there) were frequently creeped out by the knotty pine eyes that stared down at their every move. The panel on this page reminds me of those stereotyped aliens you see in so many sci-movies and accompanying alien abductee accounts (bogus as they usually are). It is quite possible that my love for horror and sci-fi films might indeed stem from my knotty pine years. And I find it amusing that in the 2014 season finale of the FX TV series “American Horror Story,” titled “Tonight I’ll Be Your Knotty Girl,” Fiona (played by the much-awarded Jessica Lange) finds herself screaming when she realizes that the knotty pine room in which she finds herself is in actuality Hell itself. Lucky for me, I never had any such horrific experiences during my formative years living in the motel, although I did have some rather bizarre moments–the recounting of which may forever remain unwritten. Don’t worry–there were no dead bodies hidden behind any of our pine panels, although I did keep hidden a stash of magazines (I’ll let your imagination run wild at this point) between my shower stall and the pine paneling in my bathroom; before she died, my mom revealed that she knew they were there all along.
In our history classes my students and I focus on how we can use evocative objects to gain insights into private and public history. For instance, I use my knotty pine panel to recount how living in a motel has shaped my life in so many nearly incalculable ways–from my love of music (see Part One of this month’s series) to how the experiences I had meeting a diverse group of guests eventually led to the creation of this column, based as it is on the wild and wacky world of popular culture.
This panel also evokes several other histories. First, it represents the evolution of interior design during the 1950s, when families often designed their homes around the installation of their new TV set–a prominent room in our motel was the infamous “TV Lounge” (maybe this was the room Fiona screamed about in “American Horror Story”). Second, mirrored in its knotted surface is the history of travel and tourism, especially how this development altered the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the Appalachian mountains. My dad, who was born in Western North Carolina, traveled with his brother to Detroit and Chicago during the Depression years, where they worked in a series of hotels that gave both of them dreams of owning their own tourist establishments when they returned from their northern sojourn. Our motel was ideally located near the Blue Ridge Parkway, which became a major tourist mecca in the post-war years after being financed by the government during the 1930s and 1940s as a military evacuation route. Third, and closely tied to the previous histories, is how my wooden panel recounts the history of the automobile in America, and how that history forever altered our lives. I vividly recall checking the license plates on our guests’ cars each night to see where they came from. In fact, the picture that accompanies this column each week is me, at a very early age, standing on the running board of a pickup truck parked in our lot. As you can see, all history eventually comes down to personal history, and my knotty pine panel is a perfect example.
This week I urge you to find an evocative object of your own and see how many private and personal connections you can trace from it. “To see the world in a grain of sand,” as the poet William Blake urges us to do.
See you next week with the final installment of this Valentine’s Month series.