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Celebrating 100 Years Of Travel By RV

Henry Ford And Thomas Edison Embraced The Freedom Of RVing

From the August, 2010 issue of Rvmagonline

By John Moore

Photography by Airstream, David Woodworth, Ford Motor Company, Larry S. Saavedra

What has come to be called RVing has its origins in the living shelters that people have been constructing on trailer and wagon beds for centuries. Nomadic tribes have been carrying their goods around with them since time before memory.

Medieval kings had luxury wagons fitted out for hunting expeditions and for touring their realms. These were cumbersome, unsprung horse-dawn affairs that must have been packed with cushions to keep their exalted passengers in place against all the bumps and lurches of rutted and stony roads, but at least they gave the traveler a leisurely opportunity to observe the slowly passing countryside, while providing the roadside peasantry with a good look at what they were missing.

It's hard to put your finger on an exact time for the birth of any activity that grew up through an evolving technology. Although many people enjoyed the time and inclination to go camping in the U.S. by the late 19th century when natural horsepower was being nudged aside by the spark plug, handmade motor coaches were being manufactured around the turn of the 20th.

In 1914, about the time that WWI broke out in Europe, there were companies here building tent trailers, though many of these early designs were little more than canvas kits that you could attach to your car or trailer to be rolled out for shelter. People called them “canvas hotels,” but with improvements to automobiles and their pulling power these early designs gave people an alternative to rail travel.

The wealthy could travel by private rail car, but of course the railroads didn't go everywhere, and thus the automobile introduced a wider public to an unprecedented degree of independent and affordable mobility. If you wanted to sleep under the trees or stop to enjoy a bit of fishing, the automobile made it possible. Of course the roads were terrible and often non-existent, but the private vehicle, modified for camping, introduced people to a wide and smiling land full of open choice.

Roger White of the Smithsonian Museum places the birth of RVing at 1910, because by that year there were three enterprises manufacturing true RVs in the U.S., including the elegant Pierce Arrow company. Taking that date then makes this year the centennial of RVing.

In 1910, the Telescoping Apartment Company produced a modified Ford Model T with an extension at the back that featured multiple slide-out drawers and a pair of removable ground braces, presumably to keep the car from tipping backward when the rear space was occupied. Henry Ford himself used to go camping each year famously with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, but their outings were rather cushier.

They did not use what might be called RVs, although they did use Fords modified to carry their gear-silver, china, generator, and refrigeration equipment to keep them supplied with ice cubes. They slept in large, comfortable tents that supplied plenty of shade and cut the drafts.

By 1913, the Earl, an elegant hard-sided, single-axle trailer with double-entry doors at the back and isinglass windows with roll-up shades, was custom-built for two college professors for their fieldwork. It was a beautifully handcrafted advance on the idea that just because you're headed into the field, you don't have to sacrifice the luxury to which your tenure has led you to become accustomed. The original can be seen at the RV Heritage Museum in Elkhart, Indiana, and is believed to be the oldest non-tent travel trailer in existence.

Though the real explosion in the business came after WWII with massive improvements to both cars and the roads, large “trailerite” parks where like-minded travelers could stay to rest and meet began to appear in the late '20s. Notably, one of these, called Trailer City, in Florida offered a place to park for $1 a day, plus 25 cents for electricity. In the 1920s there were in excess of 3,000 such parks in the U.S., and in 1922 The New York Times estimated that there were 15 million campers on the road.

These early travelers were called Tin Can Tourists because refrigeration was primitive at the time, so people ate mostly from tin cans. The parks offered a place to dump their trash and to shake off the dust of the road, but they served another important purpose too: as places to exchange ideas, designs, directions, and improvements.

Thus, in the late '20s, the Wiedman Company of East Tonawanda, New York, founded around 1919, was making modular camp bodies that could be factory-mounted on any truck chassis of the customer's choice, or even shipped by rail to be installed by the buyer. They were pretty roomy, with lots of windows, which saved weight, and could be customized inside by the buyer to his individual needs. He could order appliances for installation by Wiedman or install his own. The Wiedman Company also supplied its units to oil companies for use as mobile temporary housing.

Although in 1929, you could still save some money by getting a simple single-axle Covered Wagon trailer with leaf-spring suspension and canvas roof stretched over hooped conduit in the manner of the old Conestoga wagon, Firestone's more dependable tires and the artistry of custom interiors had combined to produce very high-end mobile accommodations.

Through the '30s and '40s, rapid improvements came in building increased utility into small trailer beds as well as larger mobile homes. Trailers began to sprout expandable canvas tents with isinglass windows-not the rapid pop-up and pop-out collapsible tent extensions that we have today, but with some patience (and preferably if it wasn't raining) a small-bed trailer could support the erection of a fairly sophisticated addition of covered space. At the same time, larger trailers that could more properly be called mobile homes underwent large strides in improvements. In the 1950s, 18- to 20-foot travel trailers with bright aluminum weatherproof flat siding, birch wood interiors, and home appliances began taking advantage of the nation's new interstate highway system.

Wally Byam, the developer of the Airstream trailer idea, became enormously influential in helping to mature the business as he traveled the world in the '40s and '50s acquiring the best modular and lightweight components and appliances for his product, importing them when necessary, and many of these elements became standard across the industry or inspired improved variations by domestic suppliers. As a result, improvements became more affordable.

When Winnebago, which had been a successful trailer company with more business than it could handle, was subcontracted to produce motorhomes of a specific design introduced its first self-propelled true motorhome in the 1960s, the business changed again, and today their iconic vehicles are seen all over the country.

Today's RVs range in size from 900-pound tear-drops to luxuriously furnished overland busses, equipped with leather furniture, full kitchens and bathrooms, and all the amenities of home. Many of their appointments are borrowed from the world of corporate jets and ocean yachts, and the cross-pollination of design technologies has benefited improvements in all three.

There was a time when RV enthusiasts were regarded with a certain mild suspicion as gypsies, unconventional rootless people who weren't content to live “normally” in established neighborhoods. Of course, as any of us would happily admit, that was at least partially true and still is. Besides the large population of RV buffs, who also own permanent homes and live “normally” much of the year, over the past 100 years, RVs have given people all over the developed world a comfortable and independent way to travel free of security lines, baggage clerks, and petty restrictions.

RV'ers might be happily ensconced in their homes one day, but when the ancient restless urge to migrate comes over them late in the night, by morning there might be nothing left in the driveway but an oil stain. They can leave conventional neighborhoods on a whim, and in a matter of hours, or days, be taking the curves in the ancient hills of the Appalachian range or cruising through the painted forests of New England, or even out on an endless sea of sagebrush, where the mountains lean against the sky and the stars move in close at night, often falling out of the black silence, far from the scruples of culture.

David Woodworth

He turned a family hobby into a life-long career It's not everyday that the world's largest and respected natural history museum calls to ask a favor. But that's exactly what happened to David Woodworth not long ago.

“I got a call from Roger White of the Smithsonian Institute, who happened to be creating a display celebrating the history of the RV,” said Woodworth.

“It was a real surprise because my interest in all this started out 35 years ago as a way to be closer to my family. I started off collecting the Model A and restored one to go on to become a national winner for vintage vehicles. I decided to keep it and take my girls camping in the Model A, and then it evolved into something with a kitchenette and sleeping area.

“Through the years, I developed a reputation for restoring and collecting vintage vehicles and actually had file drawers full of RV and camping-related literature,” he added.

“I really got the collecting bug after the Smithsonian contacted me and my collection spanned from 1914 to 1937 RVs. That led to work for the Good Sam Club and then becoming the spokesperson for the National RV History Tour of the RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Industry Association).

“I think the industry is doing OK today. It will evolve and the vehicles must get better fuel mileage. But they also have to remain opulent enough for buyers,” he said.

“To show that I haven't given up my old stuff, I have a bed and breakfast in Yosemite with some of my collection on show. If you're ever in the neighborhood, drop by.”

Editor's Note: David Woodworth is known as the country's leading historian of RVs and owner of the world's largest collection of antique and historic RVs. David contributed to our story on the 100-year anniversary of RVing. If you would like to contact him, he can be reached at modelttours@gmail.com or by logging onto www.tinlizzieinn.com.

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