Before minivans and SUVs, families hit the open highway in travel trailers. How one wayfarer rediscovered their lost allure, stumbled on a tribe of true believers, and decided to take the road less traveled
By Mary Melton
Photograph by Dave Lauridsen
I met my fate on a Friday at dusk. It was in an RV campground above Santa Cruz, a place fragrant with redwoods. He was stocky and energetic, with thick brown hair and a predilection for long denim shorts and hiking boots. He later described himself to me as "a Ritalin child" who battled addiction as a young man, got sober, and was born again. After spending time with him, I surmised that he may have been born again twice—once in the name of the Lord, and once more in the name of travel trailers.
His name was Craig Dorsey. Behind him, nestled among towering trees, gleamed his latest project, a 1953 Southland Runabout. Formerly a commercial art director, he had turned his weekend hobby—restoring vintage travel trailers—into his livelihood. This was a safe bet after it took him less than an hour at a Pomona car swap meet to sell his first baby, a 1956 Mercury 14-footer with Formica countertops. He told me how he paid $250 for a '46 Spartan Manor full of nudie magazines and ten gallons of rat droppings, then rebuilt it into a mahogany-paneled movie-star palace. He recalled how tough it had been to let go of that exquisite '51 Spartanette with whom he'd shared 700 painstaking hours of toil and trouble. He explained how it could take days to scrape off green house paint, which looked like it had been applied with a broom, to reveal a metal finish. He had the tan of someone who had spent too much time polishing reflective aluminum under a harsh sun.
"You want to see inside the Indian?" he asked. Sure, I said. I walked through the portal and haven't looked back since.
Travel trailers are those rolling homes-away-from-home, usually made of aluminum or wood, that hitch to a car or truck. I'd seen my share of them during jaunts in the desert or off lonely train routes while I zoned out on Amtrak. Although I live in a 1950s house and am enamored with camping and the outdoors, I never gave them much thought. The old ones looked shabby, and the new ones monstrous. I didn't know anything about their history, that during their heyday, the '30s to the '50s, thousands of different trailer models roamed the highways. That, encouraged by our ideal climate and ties to aerospace, many were manufactured in Los Angeles. The travel trailer had been a potent symbol of Southern California's mobility and adventurous spirit.
And if a core group of fanatics based here has anything to say about it, perhaps it will be again. I discovered this when I stumbled onto the Web site for Vintage Vacations, the travel trailer restoration workshop in Santa Ana run by Dorsey. When I called him on a whim, he invited me to experience one of his new acquisitions, a 1940 Indian, at an upcoming rally.
Had nothing changed in this trailer since FDR gave fireside chats over the radio? The linoleum floor was original, as was the scratchy mauve couch with matching toss pillow. The quality of the workmanship on the bentwood paneling was astounding. I played with the screen-door latch, sat at the dainty vanity. I closely examined the closets and pictured the gabardine shirts that once hung inside. I peered into the petite icebox, placing my hand on the cool metal. I opened the pantry, expecting a Moon Pie to emerge. I clicked the reading lamp on and off, bathing in its glow. It was ship cabin and Pullman car and mountain retreat rolled into one. I was in love.
I was also sleepy. I used my wool jacket as a blanket, but it was the golden walls that enveloped me that brisk night.
Early the next morning I wandered the campground, passing row after row of pre-1960 trailers. I fell for the metal identification tags on their sides, with names like the Traveleze and Rod and Reel, the Vagabond and Gypsy Coach. From their windows emanated soft clouds of warm light. The rally goers were waking up in a forest under their own roofs, with their preferred coffee on the stove and flapjacks on the griddle. They were unfolding vintage canvas chairs and rolling out striped awnings; they were throwing checkered cloths over picnic tables and unpacking Bakelite flatware.
Across the grove was John Agnew, a Teamster from Highland Park, in his 1954 Silver Streak Clipper, and Phil Noyes, a producer from Mid Wilshire, in his 1957 Corvette. There was a retired hand surgeon in a '35 Bowlus Papoose, one of four in the world, and a car collector with a home-built trailer that came with a scrapbook showing the honeymooning couple who had taken it to Niagara Falls in 1936.
The trailerites, about the swellest bunch of people I'd ever met, taught me about the hard-to-find wood models from the 1930s and the easier-to-find flat-sided tin ones from the '50s, called "canned hams," that you could pick up in the Recycler for 300 bucks. They traded polishing techniques and towing disaster tales, ate potluck and watched Lucy and Desi in The Long, Long Trailer as the film seeped through the bedsheet screen onto the shiny surface of Dorsey's Southland Runabout. By Sunday morning, I must have looked vulnerable.
"So," Agnew asked me, "when are you going to step up to the plate?"
AMERICANS BEGAN STEPPING UP TO THE plate—that is, buying travel trailers—in the '30s. Before that, campers visiting our new national park system were likely to sleep in canvas A-frames or primitive pop-up tent trailers. The itinerant population looking for work during the Depression fabricated crude homes-on-wheels using salvaged plywood and truck chassis. We began to crave leisure just as a burgeoning airplane industry was shaping metals into the most aerodynamic forms possible. Taking cues from planes, travel trailers evolved from wood contraptions into riveted aluminum bullets—would that they moved that fast.
One of the industry's early innovators was glider designer William Hawley Bowlus. He had been the plant manager at Ryan Aircraft when the San Diego company built the Spirit of St. Louis. In 1934, at his Bowlus-Teller Trailer Company in San Fernando, he devised a tapered, aluminum-framed tube wrapped in a skin of lightweight alloy. Before "trailer trash" became an unfortunate part of our vernacular, he made expensive toys—a basic model started at around $1,050—aimed at the wealthy.
Too expensive, perhaps. Bowlus overspent on fancy materials and went bankrupt. One of his salesmen, Wally Byam, took over production. Byam was a showman, and he called his company Airstream because the trailers rode "like a stream of air." Byam's first mass-manufactured trailer, the Airstream Clipper, charged out of a brick factory in Van Nuys in 1936. "Man, it sure did look a lot like the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief," write Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt in their 2000 history Airstream.
Byam led trips around the world. Airstream owners formed Wally Byam Caravan Clubs, with members wearing blue berets adorned with patches bearing his mug. Though Airstreams were the most visible travel trailers out there, and rightly heralded for their iconic design, hundreds of other manufacturers filled tourist camps—by 1940 there were 35,000 such places in the United States—with their own visions. A surplus of airplane materials after World War II led trailer companies to open in El Monte, Long Beach, Cypress, Gardena, Sun Valley, and elsewhere. In 1950 John and Donna Crean of Compton began selling venetian blinds for travel trailers through their California Coach Specialties Company; in 1964 they changed the name to Fleetwood, and it is now the largest recreational vehicle manufacturer in the world. Travel trailers would peter out by the '70s, a little too "mountain cabin" when consumers wanted something more "three bedrooms and a satellite dish." Of the 300 trailer companies that operated in 1936, only Airstream has survived.
There has been lots of talk in recent years about the rediscovery of Airstreams, how collectors in Japan and celebrities like Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, and Tim Burton covet them—and inflate their value. MTV put one in the lobby of its Santa Monica headquarters; chef Fred Eric is opening the Airstream Diner in Beverly Hills in April. Hard-core trailerites would never say it out loud in a campground full of Wally Byam fanatics, but many find the Airstream played out, even a little gauche. I've heard one go so far as to say that Airstreams are to trailers what condos are to castles. They're too cookie-cutter. Their aluminum interiors are too cold—the exact quote is "butt ugly"—when compared with the cozy woods of their bygone competitors. Where's the sense of discovery? The neglected treasures—those are the mysteries. They hide out, in weeds behind beauty salons, on the fringes of Kmart parking lots, under freeway overpasses. A 16-foot 1963 Airstream Bambi might set you back $14,000. On the other hand, you can spy a 14-foot 1963 Shasta behind a cinder-block wall and knock on the house's front door, only to be told, "Take it, just get that thing out of my backyard."
I've been chatting with travel trailer owners for a while now, and have determined a few things: They tend to be men in their late thirties who were car collectors in their twenties. They are handy with a jigsaw and relate to propane tanks. Like truckers on CBs, they know each other's eBay handles; they don't hold much of a grudge when a pal outbids them on a 1948 Trailer Topics magazine or an original Spartan sales brochure. They have understanding neighbors. Some own only one and call it ah, my dream trailer, while others own a few dozen and have yet to find Mr. Right. When they chug a trailer up an incline, they're never sure if the car passing on the left is going to give them a thumbs up or the finger.
Trailers signaled leisure and wanderlust. If it was the American dream to own a home, then how cool was it that you could own a home in which you could see America? Transcontinental roads were new in the '30s, and people were unafraid to pull over and ask a farmer if it would be all right to camp out for the night. "Home is where you stop," said Wally Byam.
Trailers may remind us not of those fabled good old days, which were so bad for so many, but of something else. "They are just so cocoony, womby, engulfing," says David Wilson, the founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, as he sits in his parking lot office, a splendid 34-foot 1951 Spartanette. Maybe that's it: Travel trailers provide us with something that we've been missing since the day we were born.
IT'S CALLED "THE GLOW," THE BUZZ OF LIGHT thrown by honey-colored wood that radiates from travel trailer windows. "It's unlike any other light," says Phil Noyes, who cowrote an upcoming book, Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America, and is producing a PBS documentary on the subject. "That glow makes you want to be around them and in them."
I experience the glow again at the next year's rally, held at a campground in Newport Beach. (This year's will also be at the Newport Dunes Resort, from May 16 to 19.) I meander the aisles by day, bewitched by a 1953 Happy Home transformed by its owner, a surfer and personal trainer, into a tiki wonderland. There are many friendly faces from the previous get-together, but there are also some strangers.
Tourists and looky-loos are roaming around. I suppose this is Craig Dorsey's hope—to garner interest and raise the profile—but some of the trailerites are grumbling. They fear they might get boxed out by the well-heeled Johnny-come-latelies. They point to Roseanne, for instance, who is overheard making an offer (of $11,000, to no avail) on the tiki trailer.
Saturday night, my husband and I visit with Phil and John and their pals Steve and Ed outside John's lovely Westcraft. We sit around a campfire on '40s rattan furniture. John's girlfriend, Yipsy, is mixing chi-chis in the kitchen. The guys are chatting about cherry trailers they'd seen that day and a few that were not ("I don't think he's ever going to get that cat smell out of there"). They're not thrilled with the remodels bursting with Betty Boop and Route 66 kitsch, but as John puts it, "There's room for everybody." Working full-time, they lament, means that they rarely can enjoy camping like this. The guys would have more time if they weren't always buying and selling trailers, I needle them.
‘As for those good old days, "there's no better time than now," says John, who is black. "In the '40s, I wouldn't be polishing my trailer, I'd be polishing your trailer. I wouldn't be kicking back having cocktails with a pretty Mexican girl by my side, hanging out with a bunch of white guys in a campground." A few drinks later, I'm beat. I don't have a trailer to sleep in this year, so we bid them good night. As we walk through the hushed campground, the glow is intoxicating.
We are staying at a Best Western on Pacific Coast Highway. The $89-a-night room is at street level, and the traffic appalling. It is prom night in Newport Beach, and about a dozen drunken seniors party in adjoining rooms until dawn. The mattress, the pillow, the bedspread—the horror. The front desk is unsympathetic. Our complimentary breakfast consists of stale Danish and nasty coffee. This is no cocoon, it's a flame-retardant mausoleum. The glow! How I yearn for the glow!
A few months later, while driving across the Mojave, my husband and I glimpse a travel trailer parked behind a junk shop. We screech to a halt. I've never heard of the model: a 1950 Glider, made in Chicago, with a tag that proclaims it "Graceful as a Bird in Flight." It is a beauty. A woman named Betty Sue has called it her desert home for the last 40 years, and no offense, gentlemen, it shows: The inside is spotless, with birch cabinetry, a little Dixie stove, and an icebox. A back bedroom closes off with a sliding door, and there is even a tidy bathroom stall with a showerhead and a mint-green toothbrush holder. It needs a couple of new windows and a paint job. They want $2,000 for it, but we think we can talk them down to fifteen. We have no idea where we'll put it, or even how we'll get it home. But none of that matters now.
It is time to step up to the plate.