Mailbox mirth: even our homes can put on the “weekend clothes”.

No doubt we can find whimsical people everywhere we go, but a established urban neighborhood, regardless of the socioeconomics, isn’t particularly likely to offer one of these:

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Somewhere, amidst the directional arrows for Key West, Cape May, and Bourbon Street, there seems to be a mailbox. And just down the street, there’s another oddity:IMG_7971Yes, the mailbox approximates the house that it serves.IMG_7970And who can resist this one?quirky mailbox at weekend home in Lake BarkleyOr this?IMG_7977In hindsight, I’m not sure why I took such a distant photo. But, for the record, those are flip-flops surrounding the letter “M”. And then there’s my favorite:IMG_7975If it’s not clear what is protruding from the mailbox itself, take a look from another angle:IMG_7976It’s the motor and propeller of an old speedboat, repurposed into a mailbox.

 

Clearly, this isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill suburbia. The glare of the sun impeded the sharpness of the focal point of the photo below, but you can see yet another mailbox approximating the shape of a house.

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But, in this case, the foreground may be less important. The photo below clearly reveals the backdrop that may explain why so many of the homes around here have decided to gussy up their mailboxes.IMG_7982

 

That’s right; all of these back up to a lake. An enormous one, in fact. It’s Lake Barkley in southwestern Kentucky. At 90 square miles and considerable depth, it is among the largest man-made bodies of water in the world. Created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1966, the Barkley Dam impounds the Cumberland River to form this massive recreational spot that, once it attenuates back to a river form in northwestern Tennessee, provides a direct path to downtown Nashville. Lake Barkley is one of a pair of massive lakes in this otherwise rural region; just to the west is Kentucky Lake, which the Tennessee Valley Authority created by impounding the Kentucky River in the mid-1940s, to help service the area with hydro-electric power. Kentucky Lake is more than twice as big as Lake Barkley in terms of surface area, though Barkley holds more water by volume. Together these two lakes—linked by a canal just to the north of the dams—form one of the largest freshwater recreational regions in the country. In between is the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, a massive park and, until recently, part of UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Ultimately, these photos capture a community of lakeside homes, water bodies, and undeveloped forest that forms a territory nearly the size of Rhode Island. Lake Barkley provides a much-cherished weekend getaway for a number of cities within a few hours’ drive: Paducah, Owensboro, Evansville, Clarksville, and Nashville among the closest, but also Memphis, St. Louis, and Louisville. Perhaps a few homeowners live in or near Lake Barkley year-round, but I’d wager their number is small; the area is so remote that it’s hard to find towns large enough to serve as major employment centers. It’s a vast expanse of vacation homes.

 

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Therefore, I must view the social setting that is Lake Barkley from a cosmopolitan lens: most of these mailboxes belong to people who hail from larger cities, and these are their second homes. And most people approach their second homes differently: less focus on order and detail, and a much more relaxed aesthetic. After all, this is where they unwind after five days at work, maybe a full week or two during the warmer months, and perhaps an extended week in the winter. But the homes remain empty or leased (via sites like Airbnb) the remaining 75% of the year. For people with both a primary and a vacation residence, the corporeal equivalent of this duality may be the charmingly dated hairstyle called the mullet (the “Kentucky waterfall”), best characterized by the motto “business up front; party in the back.” Their primary residence is the economic driver, the retreat after a long day at work or school. And the lakeside home is for barbecues, booze, boating, and board games—bonfires in October and out-of-state fireworks in July. Outdoor shrubbery is either blandly low-maintenance or persistently unkempt. The kitchen’s pots and pans are probably a bit chintzy; the kitchenware is chipped and mismatched. Those plates are far more likely to hold frankfurters than foie gras. Appliances are no great shakes; they don’t get a lot of use. Wall decorations are irreverent and unsophisticated: if there’s not a panoply of old rusty license plates, there’s an infantry of beer bottles from obscure brewpubs, and a painting of dogs playing poker is a must. Nobody judges; nobody cares.

I think most readers by now see where I’m going with this. Sure, I’m offering some glittering generalities, but we all know the underlying truth. The lake cottage ethos is what prompts mailboxes with paintings of lip-flops, boat propellers or a largemouth bass. All things that the master and (especially) the mistress of the house wouldn’t tolerate for their “business up front” home back at their neatly kept street in Nashville, Evansville, or St. Louis. In urbanized civilization, you can’t use a mailbox that’ll upset the neighbors; at Lake Barkley, you and your neighbors are on the permanent invite list to the same 48-hour party. Nobody’s going to get too caught up in your frontyard aesthetics, especially when your backyard butts up against one of the largest reservoirs on the planet.

 

IMG_7978IMG_7979The Lake Barkley worldview isn’t just a recreational thing; to a large extent, much of what I described here characterizes rural areas in general, where the vast, unincorporated spatial distances almost ensure that neighbors aren’t up in one another’s businesses. But most of the homes in the Lake Barkley area that I surveyed, while comfortably situated, are hardly sitting on huge lots; the majority of lots measure no more than an acre or two. Not farmsteads, and the land owes its value from its proximity to water, not from its agrarian utility. Still, the ruralness of Lake Barkley lets these mostly metropolitan-minded denizens eschew some of the rules by which they must abide in much of suburbia. Take this cookie-cutter suburban vignette, which shows what they’re trying to escape:

IMG_7995The mailboxes are so blah. It’s possible that a Homeowners’ Association (HOA) enforces that uniformity; regardless, sometimes even the municipalities themselves have regulations that preclude mailboxes from getting too outlandish. Something tells me many American suburbs wouldn’t tolerate an old boat propeller for storing the mail; either that or a neighbor would complain that it’s “degrading the neighborhood character”. (Translation: “it potentially threatens the resale value of my house.”) Compare this mentality with the second home communities along, say, beachfront properties in Florida. Many of those more urbanized enclaves face the same anal-retentive restrictions that the wives of Stepford might impose. But coastal Florida consists of a string of cities, not the backwoods.

For the weekend getaway home, the likes of which we see in Lake Barkley, the source of value isn’t the house itself but the land it rests on, and even that is filled more with fire pits and tire ruts left by ATVs. The home owes all its charm to the appeal of the land. In most of the homes featured in these photos, the back yards are the real centerpiece. And who’s to begrudge these people of their recreational getaways? By working hard and playing by the rules during the urban weekday, they’ve more than earned the right to let their hair down on the weekends. It may not be the 80s anymore, but thanks to Lake Barkley and the numerous freshwater weekend hotspots that dot the Heartland, the mullet has a counterpart in domestic living. And with those playful mailboxes, the party isn’t just in the back yard; they’re wearing the Hawaiian shirts (or decorative boat propellers) when they greet all the passers by. Or maybe it’s teased bangs?

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14 thoughts on “Mailbox mirth: even our homes can put on the “weekend clothes”.

  1. AvatarHeather Ricketts

    Love it! You did a great job capturing the “lake attitude”! Just wish I’d gotten that coat of paint on my fish mailbox before the pic😂

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Great! Thanks, Heather. Sorry that the mailbox is so hard to maintain–I’d guess the crazy change of seasons takes its toll on many different paint jobs. Still worth it though.

      Reply
  2. AvatarBrian M

    I would note there are exceptions to your rule. 🙂 My County is the home of an “outsider artist” named Phil Glasshoff who makes sculptures out of discarded mechanical detritus. Old oil tanks, chain saws, pipes, and the like. And you see his work throughout the region. But…usually in rural settings (not always, though!)

    This is one of my favorite places in Northern California!!!!
    https://glashoffsculptureranch.com/

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Thanks for the link! At first blush, this artist (and his popularity within the city that he operates) reminds me a bit of Isaiah Zagar in Philadelphia, who I have referenced in my blogs. https://www.phillymagicgardens.org/about-us/about-isaiah-zagar/ Zagar’s habitat, though, is almost exclusively urban.

      While idiosyncratic artists probably have a more immediately accessible customer base in urban settings, many city-dwellers are too shackled by rigid expectations for what constitutes “good art” within the broader taste hierarchy, so the art brut movement kinda flounders. Rural areas are more prone to an “anything-goes” attitude that makes them far more receptive to weirdness that wouldn’t pass muster in cities because it’s too lowbrow or (even worse) middlebrow. Weird mailboxes might pass muster in some cities, but covenants and design regulations often squelch that creativity in a way that will almost never happen in unincorporated America, where there’s not enough of an administrative body to build these regulations, let alone to enforce them. I can’t help but wonder if Glasshoff’s art might almost seem like a safety/public health threat in an urban setting, while in rural environments its just cool and smartly conservationist. Just my guess.

      Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        Riffing off your comment…there is a kerfluffel in one of our more…affluent…suburban areas. A place with very nice houses almost all done in California’s official color and style: beige stucco “Mediterranean”. 🙂 So…those who have bought into this tyranny of taste are majorly offended by one homeowner who painted (her?) house bright blazing yellow…with bright orange trim and bright orange roof tiles. 🙂

        As anal and regulatory as my agency is, even we do not get involved in personal taste of individual homeowners….to the dismay of the neighborhood which wants “us” to “do something”.

        There was another house down the block painted bright white with blue trim. A little slice of Mykonos in the parched suburbia of Northern California. I don’t think it was quite as offensive, though. 🙂

        More directly on topic: There is one town in Northern California, Sebastopol, where the neighbors all participated in a neighborhood art project. Google street view “Florence Avenue” in Sebastopol. Pretty amazing cutesy outsider art sculptures on many of the properties along this older (1920s) street. But Sebastopol is a bit of a hippy-artsy town for good and bad…one resident attends EVERY City Council meeting wearing (LITERALLY) a tin foil hat to protect her from TEH EHF….which is everywhere. 🙂

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Very nice…I wasn’t far from there last November. Too bad I didn’t learn about Sebastopol, though I enjoyed the hour that I spent in Fairfax, about an hour’s drive to the south. Is Patrick Amiot, by any chance, the artist in question, and does he live at one of the homes and his neighbors buy his fixtures? Or is that too simple of a scenario?

          The word you used that is most striking to me is “official” as in “California’s official color and style”. Was this a literal or figurative use? I’d certainly presume figurative; it would be hard to impose something like that at a state level, not only because consensus would be impossible but it wouldn’t even be culturally accurate. Northern and inland California have a very different vernacular from the coastal areas most people associate. But, as you no doubt know, it really is official in smaller communities like Santa Fe, NM, which undoubtedly has an impact on home prices in a region that might otherwise be more affordable (at least slightly), though that homogeneity of appearance is also a huge contributor to its aesthetic and tourist appeal.

          Reply
  3. AvatarBrian M

    Figurative, of course. “Production” homes are just that. Even in a “nicer” neighborhood like “Green Valley”.

    I don’t really mind so much….too much of the rest of the country has this kind of bland fake colonial and rancher style with hardee plank “wood” siding, and I like the distinct regional character of California and the Southwest. Seattle, for example, has housing that looks exactly like my hometown in Indiana-no regional style at all.

    Reply
  4. AvatarAlex Pline

    Also, many of these lake life places are in rural areas where locals who have been there a long time have very libertarian attitudes and would bristle against any proposed rules to legislate this kind of thing. My wife grew up in one such place (Lake Lotowana MO) and I have spent a lot of time at Deep Creek Lake in Western MD that is very similar in attitude.

    BTW, the old Evinrude outboard is my absolute fav of the bunch. I love it, very creative!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Agreed, Alex, and this tendency you observe also explains why libertarian attitudes usually tend to thrive in areas with less governance overall–i.e., states with comparatively little local government. Virtually nothing touching Lake Barkley is incorporated, and county government isn’t likely to ever invest energy in this sort of regulation, not only because the constituents would promptly vote those people out of office, but because there’s no capacity (no budget) to enforce it.

      Thanks for teaching me about Evinrude; I had no idea it was a well-known brand. In suburbia, such a mailbox wouldn’t likely pass muster because people would complain that it’s too dangerous. I’m glad people can be a little cheeky when they’re outside the grid.

      Reply
  5. AvatarJeffrey Jakucyk

    Could be worth exploring how mailboxes clutter up the landscape. Cities generally don’t have mailboxes at the curb, they’re at the door. This keeps the sidewalk clear and works fine when the mail carrier is walking from building to building. Older more affluent suburbs also tend to have door slots or boxes at the porch. They might have a mailbox out near the street, but still on the driveway, much to the chagrin of the postmaster https://goo.gl/maps/cRytNXdQi2jx1PFu9 These are the sorts of areas that also tend to have door-to-door trash pickup rather than at the curb, to reduce clutter at the street. The post-WWII suburbs have the individual mailbox at the street, taking on a more rural typology, but making it almost unbearable due to its pervasiveness. Newer subdivisions and apartment complexes have single large mail centers that are easy to stock for the mailman, if not so convenient for the residents. They all have their pluses and minuses.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Good points, and I strongly suspect it has more to do with density and the auto-oriented settlement pattern in most post-1950s housing. It’s hard to imagine anyone looking at my suburban photo seen here and thinking that the mailboxes are aesthetic. But they’re so ubiquitous that they’ve essentially morphed into infrastructure, not much different from power lines. That image you showed me is surprising; frankly, an affluent municipality like Highland Park, IL does seem like the type that would regulate the height and position of mailboxes, if not the appearance.

      It would be interesting to learn from the USPS where they have mapped the mail routes to distinguish where their carriers predominantly deliver mail by car versus by foot. I’m sure it broadly parallels the dichotomy you outlined, which in turn largely reflects density (housing units per acre). The mailbox emerged organically as it became clear that it was far too inefficient for a carrier to have to walk across multiple front yards that were nearly a half-acre in size to deliver through a slot on the front door. Levittowns are, by conventional middle class suburban standards, fairly high density; a quick scan at Pennsylvania’s Levittown (the only one I’ve visited) suggests that it does not use mailboxes. My guess is that any density level lower than that would probably prompt a push for mailboxes, with some friendly persuasion from coming from the local post office.

      Reply

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