Joe Knowles

This year I have had occasion to pass through Longview several times, and when I'm there I find myself increasingly drawn to the murals in the lobby of that city's historic Monticello Hotel. The artwork isn't really all that remarkable by itself, but the backstory is. And that is what draws me. Behind those paintings is the tale of an eccentric showman named Joseph Knowles (1869-1942), yet another odd figure in the long parade of unique characters peculiar to Southwest Washington.

Knowles was born and raised in rural Maine. After two stints in the Navy, the Mainiac (I learned that's what people in Maine cheerfully call themselves when I hitchhiked through that part of the country) returned home and worked as a trapper and a hunter's guide.

He also like to draw, and his work was professional enough for him to gain a position as an illustrator for a Boston newspaper.

As part of a publicity gimmick to increase circulation for the Boston Post in August 1913, Knowles lived in the woods 61 days initially armed with only a loincloth in an effort to prove 20th Century Man could survive in the wilderness by his wits. He emerged, to great acclaim, from this vision quest adorning a bearskin and seemed to be well fed and in good shape. He later attempted to duplicate this stunt in southern Oregon and Essex County, N.Y. He wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, Alone in the Wilderness. He also appeared in a silent film in 1915, The Nature Man: Or, The Struggle for Existence. John Sisk comments, "He claimed to have lived off the land in a way that put even Thoreau to shame, thereby proving to millions of Americans that their romantic image of the wilderness was valid." Writer Gerald Carson in 1981 entitled his essay on Knowles, "Yankee Tarzan," very fitting as Tarzan was just bursting on the scene in 1912.

Now I have been in Maine in August and even lived in Burlington, Vt., across Lake Champlain from Essex County, N.Y. The bugs alone will eat you alive in the warm months. Knowles' feat seems a bit funny to me. And apparently I am not the only one to doubt this story.

A rival Boston newspaper more or less exposed Knowles as a fake, the whole thing was a hoax. Apparently he had been sneaking into a cabin and eating baked beans. The bearskin had bullet holes in it. And so on. Environmentalist author Jim Motavalli, who is apparently interested in past and modern fake survivalist publicity scams along with our Western Civilization view of the Wildnerness, recently authored Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery. The title tells it all.

Knowles used his fame to hit the Vaudeville circuit. But as Long Beach local historian Nancy Lloyd writes, "By 1917, when the vaudeville work finally gave out, Joe found himself washed up in Portland, Ore. There he got work with the Boy Scouts whose summer outings took them to the North Beach Peninsula [stevenl note: I have never understood why the Long Beach Peninsula is also called the North Beach Peninsula. But, in fact, the latter designation (North Beach Peninsula (Wash.)) is also the official Library of Congress subject heading. Why? But, back to Nancy's quote:] And so Joe Knowles arrived at Seaview, liked what he saw and, on the rocks off of Holman Road, cobbled together a three-room cabin from beach flotsam. He then sent for his wife Edith to come make his home."

OK, when I think of Seaview, tucked right under Long Beach, the first place that comes to mind is the incredibly funky Sou'wester, a wonderfully odd inn that serves as an accurate reflection for what an exotic section of the universe we live in here in SW Washington. The place is a crazy quilt mixture of Airstream rental trailers, cabins, a lodge, and RV hookups. Also, the lodge is haunted.

For geographic purists, I define SW Washington as all points south and west of Oly, with the Cap City being the extreme NE corner. Vancouver, Longview, Kelso, Ilwaco, Long Beach, Cathlamet, Kalama, Centralia, Chehalis, Vader, Raymond, South Bend, Tokeland, Grayland, Westport, Mossyrock, Onalaska, etc. are solidly SW Wash. Aberdeen, Oly, Montesano, McCleary, Satsop, Brady, White Star, Ocean Shores, are on the margins.

Knowles was apparently a friend of Jack London. According to journalist Peggy Lucas, "Joe and Jack were to have made a long trip around the world together for the Hearst papers, Joe to illustrate and Jack to write the travels, but London died before the plans were completed." Bummer.

Anyway, when capitalist R.A. Long started his planned city in the early 1920s on the corpse of the extinct and historic town of Monticello, part of his vision was to have a fine showcase hotel. It was named in honor of the Monticello Convention, an important historic event in 1852 enabling Washington to free itself from the shackles of the fascist Nanny State entity south of the Columbia that to this day won't allow their citizens or visitors to pump their own gasoline. Don't get me started on why Washington was so lucky to be free of the Beaver State.

So, when the question of murals to add fanciness came up, according to John M. McClelland Jr. in R.A. Long's Planned City: The Story of Longview, Knowles somehow offered his services as an artist who would be fast and cheap. He painted 46 images depicting the history of the Pacific Northwest at 500 to 600 bucks a pop. Like I said earlier, the artwork itself isn't exactly earthshaking.

Back to "North Beach Peninsula." Here's a bit by Roger T. Tetlow in the Chinook Observer (Mar. 4, 1987):

"The town of Long Beach once found out that Knowles was no man to fool with, and, because of an argument with Knowles, lost a chance to advertise itself at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933."

"It seems that the state of Washington was to have an exhibit at that fair and allotted the Peninsula a space 3 feet deep by 12 feet wide."

"About the only thing they could think of to put into a space that size was a painting so the citizens commissioned Knowles to paint a picture of the Peninsula to fit the space. Knowles agreed to do it and in three weeks had the painting completed and ready to be shipped to Chicago."

"Knowles painted the Peninsula from a bird's-eye view, and included Willapa Bay, Baker Bay, the Columbia River, the ferries, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and North Head. He put almost everything he could think of into it, including automobiles on the highways, and Angelo Decicco's riding horses on the beach."

"He finished the painting and then called in the representatives from the various towns on the Peninsula to approve it and then pay him."

"All went well until some officials of the town of Long Beach arrived and were horrified to find that Knowles had painted the dreadful legend 'North Beach Peninsula' on the painting instead of 'Long Beach Peninsula', as they recommended. That would not do at all, they said.

"Either change it to 'Long Beach Peninsula' or they would not pay for their share of the painting. That got Knowles' dander up. He liked the painting the way it was and refused to change it. He boxed the painting and sent it off to Chicago where, it was said, it aroused great interest in the North Beach Peninsula area."

"In a letter to editor of the Long Beach Record, Knowles said, 'No hard feelings, Long Beach, for the criticism of your representatives. The map as it stands can do you no harm and if it can do any help, I shall be pleased. It didn't cost you anything so don't kick.'"

"Joe Knowles died in Seaview on Oct. 21, 1942, and today about the only things left of Knowles on the Peninsula is that famous three-by-12 foot painting which is still stored in the back room of the American Legion Hall at Ilwaco, still labeled with the hated legend, 'North Beach Peninsula.'"

Knowles is buried in Ilwaco. My surname side of the family started hiding out in Pacific County around the turn of the century as fugitives for crimes they were of course innocent of in the Old Country of Virginia. But now they are all gone. It would've been interesting to hear what they would've thought of Mr. Knowles. Would he have been praised as a fellow outlaw who thumbed his nosed at The Man, or simply jeered as an aesthetic weirdo?

A nice summary of his career can be found in the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly v. 33, no. 4 (1991) in a long piece by Virgil Elizabeth Hopkins.

Some Knowles quotes:

"There in the wilderness I became convinced that smoking is nothing but a luxury. It is a habit, and harms rather than benefits man. Its companionship isn't worth the smoking."

"There is no question in my mind whether animals have souls. Of course they have souls! If you have ever lived alone in the wilderness you will thoroughly believe that they do."

"The top-notch of society has the least liberty in the world, being bound hand and foot to a rigid social code."

"Modern civilization is a creation of man, not of God. Nature is God's creation."

"My God is in the wilderness-- my church is the church of the forest. I am convinced that he who lives close to the teachings of nature lives closer to the God of creation than those of the civilized life who wrangle over the different doctrines handed down from one people to another."

Actually, having grown up on a farm in the middle of a forest, I find myself being in tune with Knowles as far as his concept of God goes. At any rate, next time you are headed south and have a bit of time to explore, I suggest swinging into the lobby of the Monticello Hotel in Longview and checking out the ordinary paintings with the extraordinary history. You'll also be near the site of the Monticello Convention. The Monticello has a restaurant as well, a bit pricey but well worth it. A must-see for Washington State history buffs.   

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