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U.S. RV Industry Celebrating 100 Years of RVing

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March 18, 2010 by   Leave a Comment

RV historian David Woodworth

RV historian David Woodworth

Editor’s Note: The Toronto Globe & Mail published this recent interview by writer Michael Vaughan with RV historian David Woodworth.

Pump out those holding tanks and grease up the tracks on the slide-out, another RV season is about to begin. In fact, the Recreational Vehicle Heritage Museum in Elkhart, Ind., says this is the 100th anniversary of homes on wheels.

It’s difficult to be precise about the date of the origin of the species but there is no doubt that by 1910 the first homemade campers were being built on car and truck bodies that were around at the time.

By the late 1920s, there were several manufacturers of campers, caravans, mobile homes or, to use the modern term, RVs, and camping clubs were being established.

David Woodworth is an RV historian who built the collection of antique RVs in the Indiana museum at the self-proclaimed RV Capital of the World.

Yes, there will be many good times around the dump-out stations of North America this summer as RVers reflect on 100 years of the joys of being on the road.

Vaughan: So David, you say we’ve had versions of the RV around for 100 years.

Woodworth: At least. I have stories of people auto camping from 1905. This started very quickly. As soon as the automobile was running, people began adapting them for living on the road. They no longer had to go on the rail system and they could pull off the road wherever they wanted. They could stop and enjoy that little brook or river. It was partly the fascination with the automobile and partly to escape the confinement of the rail system. You could now go wherever you wanted to go and stop wherever you wanted. By 1914, there were companies building tent trailers and, by 1918, they were building travel trailers.

Was this a continuation of the old American covered wagon thing?

A lot of people consider covered wagons RVs but they really weren’t. They were for freight – more like 18-wheelers. You’d put all your belongings in the covered wagon and you would walk alongside with the oxen.

When did they start putting the recreation in vehicles?

It probably got started in Florida in the 1920s with the Tin Can Tourists of America. In the early years, refrigeration wasn’t very good so people would eat out of tin cans. When all the people came to Florida to camp in their Model Ts, they weren’t eating at fancy hotels.

It doesn’t seem like camping now. Now it’s about having all the comforts of home. Why not just take a tent and a sleeping bag instead of driving around in tons and tons of equipment?

Well, they used to do that. They called them canvas hotels. And there is an advantage of camping in a tent because when you got home you’re so happy because it was such a miserable experience. RVs today are phenomenal. People always want to travel in comfort. For years, the industry tried to make less expensive RVs with less frills but they could never sell them. The only ones that people wanted were the ones with the really nice TVs and vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Those are the ones that sold. The stripped-down models didn’t.

That was before gas in the United States went to $4 a gallon and the economy collapsed.

Yeah, that’s true. At this point, the RV industry is redefining itself and is working on building lighter units and working on improving fuel mileage. They’re changing with the times like they’ve been doing since 1910.

I’ve heard of people living in RVs. If they keep moving on they can beat paying local property taxes.

Some of that is really true. In the depression in the ’30s they were called motoring hobos, but I think today Americans mostly want homes and roots.

As an RV collector, what are some of your favourite pieces?

I got started almost on a whim, but then it got way past a whim because I ended up with 50 units. And if you were to meet me I actually look smarter than that. But in the museum in Elkhart, Ind., there’s a 1915 Model T Ford pickup with a slide-out camper, there’s a 1916 folding camping trailer on buggy wheels, there’s a 1929 camping trailer built by a company in Michigan that was called Covered Wagon. We even have a 1931 Chevrolet Housecar that was owned by Mae West.

So you think the RV’s best days aren’t behind it?

I’m 70 years old and every year I’ve seen RVs get better and better.

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