Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
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Thompson’s steamer trunks fuse history, craftsmanship


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—History and craftsmanship come together in a beautiful way when John Thompson steps into his workshop.

Widely known as the “Trunk Man,” Thompson builds custom wood chests or what are widely known as steamer trunks.

It is a long and careful process that Thompson relishes, saying, “most people see this as a lot of work, but I can spend hours doing this and enjoy every minute of it.”

He moved to Highlands County from Blue Ridge, Georgia, approximately three months ago, loves this area and looks forward to relaxing and fishing when he isn’t building. This will be his sixth year designing custom trunks and chests and Thompson is delighted with the enjoyment people get when looking at his work. There is quite a bit of history and a sense of fascination that surrounds steamer trunks. “Back in the early days of travel, steamer trunks were the primary means of transporting your belongings. Most trunks were square and could be easily stacked,” Thompson said.

As humans, most of us feel the need to be unique, to distinguish ourselves or our belongings.

Our forefathers were no different.

“Those who were affluent could afford to have a unique trunk designed for them, making it something that could be described to the baggage porter for faster off-loading upon reaching the intended destination, avoiding long delays upon arrival at their destination port,” he said.

“Trunks with rounded tops, barrel tops and camelbacks became a symbol of wealth because they really made a statement by their distinctive design and handiwork,” he added.

There is a great deal of thought and consideration that occurs with every trunk. From the choice of wood, the design style of the trunk, to the accent pieces and hardware that will be applied during the final stages, each part must complement the finished product.

Thompson estimates that “as of last Memorial Day, I’ve made approximately 4,500 trunks.

“I usually work on the larger trunks, but around here, the smaller trunks seem to be more popular,” he said.

His market isn’t limited to local art shows, either.

“I’ve shipped trunks around the country and as far away as Berlin, Germany. I’ve also had people buy them from me at shows to take back home to China and Australia,” he said.

While it may seem that the art should require a great deal of specialized tools, the tools required to make the chest are fairly simple. “A few different types of saws, some clamps and common woodworking tools,” he said.

The tools may be simple, but the process is quite detailed.

“It takes a lot of time to make these chests, from the preparation of the wood through to the final application of the finish and accent pieces,” Thompson said.

The most important choice in designing the trunk is selecting the wood. Of the two top choices among his clients, Thompson said, “Red cedar is very aromatic while ambrosia wood is quite beautiful. Ambrosia wood is also known as ‘wormy cedar’ because the ambrosia beetle is the source of the gnarling in the wood that provides such a rich appearance.”

Thompson has also used walnut or cherry wood on occasion, but most clients prefer the red cedar or ambrosia.

Thompson has been using the same wood mill in Tennessee and said, “I’ve worked with them for many years; they really know what I am looking for in the unique styles of wood and help me out, setting it aside as they acquire it until there is enough for me to make the trip.”

In addition to the quality and design of the wood, the accent pieces Thompson applies are yet another facet of what makes the trunks so distinctive.

“I’m always looking for unique belts or other accent pieces for the trunks. I check out garage sales, thrift stores and flea markets for the belts that are applied to the top of the trunks. Old horse bridles can also be used and are a real treasure to find,” he said.

For years, Thompson worked as a reservist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, traveling to areas shortly before or immediately after natural disasters.

His final project was working a mobile home staging area near Sumter, South Carolina as Hurricane Hugo approached.

“We set up about 6,800 mobile homes, centered in a staging area. I was staying at Shaw Air Force Base at the time, and enjoyed the work, but it does take its toll on you.”

Thompson was also a licensed general contractor, building homes prior to working with FEMA. When the housing market and economy slowed down, Thompson discovered a new outlet for his passion in building and creating.

Thompson began selling trunks on the roadside and at art shows near Chattanooga, Tennessee about six years ago.

He has also been to some of the local craft shows in Florida, including Venice, Wauchula and the Florida Flywheelers Club (located between Ft. Meade and Frostproof).

Thompson understands the trunks can have a great sentimental attachment to them and has gifted trunks to several individuals, saying, “I’ve given a lot of trunks away through the years to people that have meant something to me or seem to try to make a positive world for others.”

Janine Welch works in an office in Georgia and met Thompson a few years ago. During the occasions when Thompson had the opportunity to observe her, he said “she seemed to go out of her way to bring a smile to everyone she met, so I wanted to show her how much her kindness mean.”

In return, Welch said, “He [Thompson] is a very thoughtful person and does a fabulous job making these trunks. They are so beautiful, and the craftsmanship is outstanding – he is a very gifted individual.”

Donna Parker, a resident of Lake Placid, has known Thompson for several years and has many family members who have bought trunks from him.

Parker said: “The trunks are very well made. I received one from John [Thompson] as a gift for Christmas and have never seen anything like it. The trunk is so beautiful and unique. He has a real talent in making these trunks.”

Eileen May, Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce executive director, met Thompson during the recent Caladium Festival.

“He’s a very pleasant individual and his work is absolutely beautiful. He’s a great asset to our community,” she said.

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