The RV industry is observing its 100th anniversary this year, but there wouldn’t be much to celebrate if there weren’t people working to preserve its history. Fortunately, we have Al Hesselbart, the historian at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana; David Woodworth, who has amassed the world’s largest collection of early-day RVs, and Douglas Keister, a gifted photographer who has written and illustrated wonderful books on vintage motorhomes and trailers.
Woodworth runs Model T Tours, which provides vacationers with the experience of driving Model A and Model T Fords, and is the innkeeper at the Tin Lizzie Inn, a Victorian bed and breakfast near the entrance to Yosemite National Park.
His fascination with RVs dates to the 1980s when he would go camping with his daughters in a Model A Ford pulling an old Zagelmeyer tent trailer. The rig attracted attention and people started telling him about vintage RVs.
Woodworth has a keen interest in history and loves to collect things. “If it’s old and rusty, I’m interested,” he says. So, soon he began collecting early RVs.
He took some of his collection to RV shows, and people would come there to tell him about old trailers or house cars that were languishing somewhere. “A lot of them were in horrible shape,” Woodworth said, but that didn’t discourage his interest. Unlike some collectors, he has never insisted that everything he buys be in top shape. “You can always fix it,” he said.
His collection was not difficult to amass because when he started buying classic RVs, nobody else was doing it. People were happy to find a home for RVs they had no use for. In fact, Woodworth said, “Most of my collection was given to me.”
He accumulated 50 vehicles dating from 1914 to 1937. As the collection grew, he hoped to develop an elaborate world-class museum to depict RV history. Each early RV would be outfitted and furnished as it would have been in its time and would be placed in a setting reflecting its era. As Woodworth describes it, the complex would have been an elaborate historical park, with adjoining RV-related commercial enterprises such as Camping World and Cracker Barrel. But the project required a huge investment, and never quite came together.
So when it became clear to Woodworth, now 70, that his dream would not be realized, he allowed the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana, to acquire 30 of his vehicles for its collection. Among those on display are a 1916 Cozy Camper tent trailer that was one of the first commercially produced RVs, a 1931 Chevrolet house car that was once owned by Mae West and a 1935 Bowlus Road Chief Trailer that was a predecessor of the Airstream Clipper.
The museum’s historian and archivist is Al Hesselbart, a former police officer, national field worker for the Boy Scouts of America and automobile salesman, who began delving into the history of the RV business after he became general manager of the RV/MH Heritage Foundation in 1995. That led to a continuing association with the foundation’s hall of fame, museum and library, and in 2007, he published a book, The Dumb Things Sold Just Like That, chronicling the history of the RV business.
Trying to put together an accurate history of anything as complex as the RV business is not easy, with hundreds of companies coming and going over the years. Companies struggling to create new products and turn a profit don’t put a priority on keeping records for posterity, and over time, memories fade. Many key individuals in the early days of RVs died before Hesselbart began his research, but he spoke with everyone who was available. The result is a book that neatly summarizes the history of RVing and tells the stories of 19 fascinating individuals who pioneered and built the industry.
Hesselbart’s book is invaluable, and so are the series of motorhome and travel trailer books produced by Douglas Keister, whose interest in photographing historic houses led him to historic RVs.
Keister has traveled across the country from his studio in Chico, California, to take wonderful photographs of classic RVs that have been beautifully maintained and carefully restored. He began the series by co-authoring Ready to Roll, a Celebration of the Classic American Trailer in 2003. That was followed by three pictorial histories: Mobile Mansions, which traces the evolution of RVs from gypsy wagons and early camp cars to the lavishly appointed vehicles of today; Silver Palaces, which tells the story of streamlined trailers of the sort popularized by Airstream, and Teardrops and Tiny Trailers, which shows the small, vintage trailers of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
The books have hundreds of brilliant color photographs taken in attractive settings, and the vintage trailers are often paired with classic cars. As an example, see our cover this month, which has Keister’s photo of a 1935 Bowlus Road Chief owned by Gar and Mary Alice Williams being towed by a 1935 LaSalle touring coupe. In his books, Keister gives the history of the vehicles and offers fascinating accounts of how RVs developed over the years.
In this month’s issue, we offer photos of historic RVs and a brief history of the industry, but if you want to get a full appreciation of the last 100 years of RVing, you should get Keister’s books, as well as Hesselbart’s history. And if you want to see classic RVs in person, of course, you will want to make your way to the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail email@example.com. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.