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History Restored | Summer 2015 Out Here Magazine

Steamer trunks find new life and renewed purpose

By Hollie Deese

Photography by Mark Zaleski


Kerry White restored his first travel trunk when he was just 19. It wasn’t anything he had set out to do, but when he stopped at a yard sale before heading off to Tennessee Technological University to study agriculture business, a used and abused small steamer inspired him to buy.

“I refinished it and actually used it when I went to college to store stuff in,” he says. “Then I was living in Kentucky after college and bought another trunk at a flea market. I finished and restored that one, and it turned out to be just an exceptionally nice trunk and I made pretty good money on it.”

That was the beginning of what has now become a thriving side business for the full-time landscaper, and three decades later White has done well over 600 trunk restorations at his Whites Creek, Tenn., home. Working with wood is ingrained in White, whose grandfather was the lumber grader for Nashville’s Davis Cabinet Company, best known for making Lillian Russell furniture.

“He was well-versed in lumber and always had stacks of it laying around,” White says. “When I was about 10 years old I refinished a little cabinet he brought home from work that was just laying around. That was the first thing I ever refinished, and I still have it. It was just second nature to me. I never studied it; I just kind of figured it out as I went along.”



Labels inside some of the trunks tell where it was manufactured, like this one by R.L. Shilling of Indianapolis.

Repurposing Old Parts

When White blows the charcoal dust off of a burned, round-top piece from 1870, he can’t help but consider what happened to it that landed it in his hands for restoration.

“It makes you wonder under what circumstances it was burned,” he says. “Was it rescued from a house that burned down? How did that happen? I won’t ever know what took place.”

The history of the pieces he restores is always of interest to him, and by nature of how trunks have been manufactured over the years, he seldom sees the same trunk twice.

“There is a huge variety of trunks because back in the late 1800s on up through the early 1900s, you had thousands of small hardware stores, department stores, independent stores — all these different enterprises who would order mass-produced trunk parts, but they would then get their lumber from the local saw mill and they would just build trunks and sell them,” he says. “So you could have a hardware store in some small town in a sparsely populated area and they might put together and sell 15-20 trunks a year.”

To get the desired look of a trunk that has been totally restored but doesn’t look brand new, White has developed a number of techniques over the years, mixing his own paint to get a matte, distressed finish, and burning old trunks to get his hands on their vintage hardware. Especially damaged pieces of wood are cut out and replaced.

“The completed trunk looks old, it does not look shiny and new,” he says. “I avoid ordering new parts and I don’t like to use new leather — I like to get old harness leather and use that because it looks more appropriate.”

White uses tools and techniques to get the desired look of a trunk that’s been restored but doesn’t look new.

Family Treasures

Trunks are usually empty when they cross White’s path, and while he gets the mild thrill of finding an old penny inside, he sometimes finds things that are much more valuable.

“I did a trunk one time with an elaborate tray in it,” he says. “When I opened the little door, it had a pocket watch and some jewelry inside. (The owners) were just incredulous because the pocket watch had belonged to their grandfather, and when he died they never found it and had wondered what became of it for all those years. And there it was.”

But it is the actual pieces themselves that carry the most value for the owners, as almost all of the ones White restores are family heirlooms with poignant history.

For instance, 25 years ago a woman asked him to restore a small trunk of her mother’s that was worth almost nothing monetarily.

But the daughter replied that the trunk meant everything to their family because of its significance. Seems that when her mother, as a young woman, had started to court a man her parents didn’t approve of, she refused to leave him even when they demanded it. Instead, she packed as many of her belongings as possible in that trunk and left home to be with her love anyway.

That man her mother left home for was her father, and the trunk, he says, was a symbol of her family’s perseverance and love.

NEED A TRUNK RESTORED? Learn more about Kerry White at his website,, and contact him at 615-299-8642.

Hollie Deese writes from Gallatin, Tenn.

Summer 2015 Out Here Magazine Home Page