The RV industry history book by RV/MH Hall of Fame historian Al Hesselbart has been accepted for digital publication and is now available for Amazon Kindle readers.
“The Dumb Things Sold…Just Like That” features stories of the evolution of each different type of recreational vehicle and short biographies of many of the early pioneers and visionaries that have led the growth and development of the RV industry.
It is now available from the Amazon Kindle store or, in print version, from the RV/MH Hall of Fame, the RV Bookstore on line, or from Amazon.
Hesselbart is the RV/MH Hall of Fame & Museum historian, curator and librarian. Besides his duties at the Hall of Fame, Hesselbart is a frequent speaker at RV rallies and events across the United States. Last September, he also served as one of the keynote speakers at the 1st National China RV Show in Beijing.
Al Hesselbart, RV/MH Hall of Fame & Museum historian, curator and librarian, has been invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the 1st National China RV Show.
According to a press release, the event will be held at the Xiedao Resort in Beijing from Sept. 12-16.
The show is sponsored by the FICC Asia-Pacific Commission, the China Tourism Automobile and Cruise Association and the China Tourist Attractions Association.
According to Hesselbart, he was contacted by Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) General Counsel Craig Kirby in June and asked whether or not he would consider being a guest speaker at a large RV show in Beijing. Several Chinese business people who are sponsoring the event had contacted RVIA about providing a speaker on the evolution of the RV industry in the United States.
“When I accepted, I was contacted by Ed Han, director of the RVIA Asia Project, who put me in contact with the show staff in China,” Hesselbart said.
Hesselbart intends to present an illustrated lecture on the evolution of the U.S. RV industry through its first 100 years. “I hope to amaze, educate and entertain the Chinese audience on the rich and varied history of industry products,” he noted.
Besides his duties at the RV/MH Hall of Fame, Hesselbart is a frequent speaker at RV rallies and events across the United States. This trip to China will not be his first. In 2010 he was one of four U.S. representatives who participated in the 3rd Annual Hangzhou China Outdoor Lifestyle Show in support of the growing Chinese RV industry.
Editor’s Note: The following story appears in the current issue of The Smithsonian.
Every Dec. 15, Kevin Ewert and Angie Kaphan celebrate a “nomadiversary,” the anniversary of wedding their lives to their wanderlust. They sit down at home, wherever they are, and decide whether to spend another year motoring in their 40-foot recreational vehicle.
Their romance with the road began six years ago, when they bought an RV to go to ”Burning Man,” the annual temporary community of alternative culture in the Nevada desert. They soon started taking weekend trips and, after trading up to a bigger RV, motored from San Jose to Denver and then up to Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, Sturgis, Devil’s Tower and through Yellowstone. They loved the adventure, and Ewert, who builds web applications, was able to maintain regular work hours, just as he’d done at home in San Jose.
So they sold everything, including their home in San Jose, where they’d met, bought an even bigger RV, and hit the road full time, modern-day nomads in a high-tech covered wagon. “What we’re doing with the RV is blazing our own trail and getting out there and seeing all these places,” Ewert says. “I think it’s a very iconic American thing.”
The recreational vehicle turns 100 years old this year. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), about 8.2 million households now own RVs. They travel for 26 days and an average of 4,500 miles annually, according to a 2005 University of Michigan study. The institute estimates about 450,000 of them are full-time RVers like Ewert and Kaphan.
Drivers began making camping alterations to cars almost as soon as they were introduced. The first RV was Pierce-Arrow’s Touring Landau, which debuted at Madison Square Garden in 1910. The Landau had a back seat that folded into a bed, a chamber pot toilet and a sink that folded down from the back of the seat of the chauffeur, who was connected to his passengers via telephone. Camping trailers made by Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto-Kamp Trailers also rolled off the assembly line beginning in 1910. Soon, dozens of manufacturers were producing what were then called auto campers, according to Al Hesselbart, the historian at the RV Museum and Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., located in a region that produces 60% of the RVs manufactured in the United States today.
As automobiles became more reliable, people traveled more and more. The rise in popularity of the national parks attracted travelers who demanded more campsites. David Woodworth — a former Baptist preacher who once owned 50 RVs built between 1914 and 1937, but sold many of them to the RV Museum — says in 1922 you could visit a campground in Denver that had 800 campsites, a nine-hole golf course, a hair salon and a movie theater.
The Tin Can Tourists, named because they heated tin cans of food on gasoline stoves by the roadside, formed the first camping club in the United States, holding their inaugural rally in Florida in 1919 and growing to 150,000 members by the mid-1930s. They had an initiation; an official song, “The More We Get Together;” and a secret handshake.
Another group of famous men, the self-styled Vagabonds — Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs —caravaned in cars for annual camping trips from 1913 to 1924, drawing national attention. Their trips were widely covered by the media and evoked a desire in others to go car camping (regular folks certainly didn’t have their means). They brought with them a custom Lincoln truck outfitted as a camp kitchen. While they slept in tents, their widely chronicled adventures helped promote car camping and the RV lifestyle.
Decades later, CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt captured the romance of life on the road with reports that started in 1967, wearing out motorhomes by covering more than a million miles over the next 25 years in his “On the Road” series. “There’s just something about taking your home with you, stopping wherever you want to and being in the comfort of your own home, being able to cook your own meals, that has really appealed to people,” Woodworth says.
The crash of 1929 and the Depression dampened the popularity of RVs, although some people used travel trailers, which could be purchased for $500 to $1,000, as inexpensive homes. Rationing during World War II stopped production of RVs for consumer use, although some companies converted to wartime manufacturing, making units that served as mobile hospitals, prisoner transports and morgues.
After the war, the returning GIs and their young families craved inexpensive ways to vacation. The burgeoning interstate highway system offered a way to go far fast and that combination spurred a second RV boom that lasted through the 1960s.
Motorized RVs started to become popular in the late 1950s, but they were expensive luxury items that were far less popular than trailers. That changed in 1967 when Winnebago Industries Inc. began mass-producing what it advertised as “America’s first family of motorhomes,” five models from 16 to 27 feet long, which sold for as little as $5,000. By then, refrigeration was a staple of RVs, according to Hesselbart, who wrote “The Dumb Things Sold Just Like That,” a history of the RV industry.
“The evolution of the RV has pretty much followed technology,” Woodworth says. “RVs have always been as comfortable as they can be for the time period.”
As RVs became more sophisticated, Hesselbart says, they attracted a new breed of enthusiasts interested less in camping and more in destinations, like Disney World and Branson, Mo. Today, it seems that only your budget limits the comforts of an RV. Modern motor homes have convection ovens, microwaves, garbage disposals, washers and dryers, king-size beds, heated baths and showers and, of course, satellite dishes.
“RVs have changed, but the reason people RV has been constant the whole time,” Woodworth says. “You can stop right where you are and be at home.”
Ewert chose an RV that features an office. It’s a simple life, he says. Everything they own travels with them. They consume less and use fewer resources than they did living in a house, even though the gas guzzlers get only eight miles a gallon. They have a strict flip-flops and shorts dress code. They’ve fallen in love with places like Moab and discovered the joys of southern California after being northern California snobs for so long. And they don’t miss having a house somewhere to anchor them. They may not be able to afford a house in Malibu down the street from Cher’s place, but they can afford to camp there with a million-dollar view out their windows. They’ve developed a network of friends on the road and created NuRvers.com, a Web site for younger RV full-timers (Ewert is 47; Kaphan is 38).
Asked about their discussion on the next December 15, Ewert says he expects they’ll make the same choice they have made the past three years—to stay on the road. “We’re both just really happy with what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re evangelical about this lifestyle because it offers so many new and exciting things.”
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A noted RV historian as well as other American representatives of the RV industry are speaking at the Hangzhou International Outdoor and Leisure Fair in China March 4-7.
Al Hesselbart, historian of the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., said he was approached by representatives of the Chinese RV industry while at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., last December.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” said Hesselbart. “This is an exciting adventure and an honor. Somebody someplace thinks I did a good job, I guess.”
Other American RV representatives speaking at the event include Joe Laing, director of marketing, El Monte RV in El Monte, Calif., and Bob MacKinnon, owner of MacKinnon Campground Consulting, Murrieta, Calif. The European RV industry will be represented by Wolfgang Bock of Munich, Germany.
The men will be speaking to Chinese provincial government officials as well as industry trade leaders on their assigned topics.
Hesselbart will talk about the evolution of the RV lifestyle and its effect on American society.
“I am going to show the evolution of what camping was like from the World War I era up to today when 30 million people are a part of it,” he said.
“What they are looking for me to touch on is the future of the RV rental market in China,” Laing explained. “I will talk about what has happened in the United States in the RV rental market over the course of time and what we see as some possibilities in China. They have an affinity for this, but need education and understanding. They need to develop campgrounds, their publications and infrastructure.”
“What we see for China is this is not something that will happen overnight, but we think this has great long-term potential,” Laing added. “If the RV industry develops in China, there is the potential for Chinese tourists to come and rent RV’s here in the United States.”
MacKinnon will present an overview of campground development.
“I will be talking to them about the key issues a campground developer is concerned about, including site selection, market conditions and design of a park,” he said. “I hope to walk them through what they need to look at when they are selecting a site, and get them thinking about key markets to look at. This is an important initial step in their determination to move forward with their own RV industry. The site selection and design are contingent on the market they are going to serve.”
Outdoor Lifestyle Hangzhou is jointly organized by the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Light Industrial Products and Arts and Craft, and Hangzhou Municipal Government. The event will be held at the Hangzhou Peace Exhibition Center. For more information visit www.outdoorhangzhou.com.
The upcoming visit to China is the latest in a series of cultural exchanges between the RV sectors of the two countries.
A large delegation representing the growing Chinese RV industry attended last December’s National RV Trade Show in Louisville, meeting with U.S. manufacturers and suppliers, touring the show booths and attending a reception the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) hosted in their honor, the RVIA noted.
The delegation of approximately 60 included Chinese manufacturers looking to form joint ventures with U.S. manufacturers, companies looking to develop campgrounds in China, government officials, and private equity firms. One delegation was led by the Beijing office of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Several RVIA member companies reported enjoying substantive conversations with the Chinese delegates about the burgeoning industry’s plans for the future.
“I was impressed by the number of Chinese representatives who attended this year’s show and the great interest in RVing that seems to exist among the Chinese people,” said RVIA President Richard Coon, who was interviewed extensively by Chinese media during the show. “Next year, the Department of Commerce hopes to bring an even larger delegation over and to schedule additional meetings between U.S. and Chinese manufacturers.”
In addition to attending the National RV Trade Show, some of the Chinese delegations also visited campgrounds in Nevada and California as well as RV manufacturing facilities in Indiana and California.
In May 2008, a delegation representing the American RV industry attended the 2008 China RV and Camping Show in Shanghai. The American delegation encouraged Chinese manufacturers to adopt U.S. standards and educated Chinese government officials on internal infrastructure issues within China that might affect the RV market there.