Vintage Yard Art

Your Yard Looks Tired –
Classic Southern yard art comes in many forms and puts old items to new use. (Photo/Tom Poland)

Remember these lines from an old Chuck Berry song? “Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio/With no particular place to go.” Well, the next time you have no particular place to go I have a suggestion. Drive into the countryside and see what “vintage Southern yard art” you can find. Take a camera. Look for tree trunks painted white. Look for swings suspended from big oak limbs. See if you can find purple martin gourds, and give yourself extra points if you can find a row of tires half buried in the ground and painted white. You may have to drive many a mile, because vintage yard art is rarer than ever.

Anyone who’s bought new tires knows they have to pay a tire disposal fee. No problem back in the day. Just turn it into yard art. Growing up, it was nothing to see truck tires made into flowerpots. Painted white and featuring scalloped edges, the pots held red geraniums. Around the curve, rows of white-painted trees flanked a driveway, and up by a big, old clapboard home, a homemade swing hung from a big oak. I’d see tires made into swings too. A tire swing is pure Americana, a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Giving junk a second life was alive and well back in the day, though it wasn’t thought of as recycling. A nail-ruined tire could be turned into a flowerpot or swing. People found new uses for things before the era of plastic this and that arrived. And some practicality backed some customs. Painting orchard trees white was considered a safeguard against fungi, disease and insects. The white paint deflected sunlight too. I don’t believe the painted trees I saw were being protected. No, I believe the folks who painted pine trunks white were simply trying to achieve a pleasing appearance.

When I see a pole dangling gourds for purple martins I know I am deep into the country. Putting up gourds for cavity-nesting birds is something you see rarely, if at all, in the city. How many people even grow gourds in the city?

No doubt you’ll spot bottle trees, but they have seen a bit of a revival of late. Once the domain of the Lowcountry you see bottle trees most anywhere. People in the Congo hung bottles from trees to ward off evil spirits, and slaves brought the practice here. Now they please the eye more so than capturing evil spirits as designed. Other oddities include miniature windmills and carved ducks with “windmill” arms that spin with the wind.

For me, though, the true yard art of yesteryear is a row of half-buried tires edging a driveway. It steered you straight and most likely made finding the driveway at night a whole lot easier. Hit the backroads and see what you can find as yard art from yesteryear goes. Take some good photos because you’ll not see the likes of it again. For sure, your grandkids won’t.

If You Go …

Take the lesser-traveled roads, roads like the ones in the 200s and 30s. Highways 34 and 39 come to mind. Should you find an old tar-and-gravel, or even better a dirt road, take those and go exploring.

Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected].

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