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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David Woodworth really likes old things The Californian’s nearly two-week trip concludes on Sunday back where he started — the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.
He collects mouse traps, old outboard motors, even broken down old RVs, according to the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune.
Currently on an RV tour promoting the 100th year of RVing, Woodworth, an RV historian, is touring the country with two RVs, a 1916 Telescoping RV, which is towed with a 2010 Fleetwood Discovery.
“It’s been excellent,” said Woodworth, who has taken similar tours for 17 years but has been RVing for more than 30.
The contrast in the two RVs is amazing.
“The truth of the matter is 17 years ago when I started traveling in new RVs, I never thought that they could improve upon them,” Woodworth said.
“And every year they get nicer.”
It’s hard to imagine anything much nicer than the Discovery.
Besides bathroom, shower and sleeping quarters it also includes four TVs, two reclining chairs, a stainless steel refrigerator, a washer and dryer, automatic leveling jacks and even an automatic awning.
“Anything it does, it does automatically with the push of a button,” he said.
Contrast that with the 1916 telescoping model which was built on the Model T automobile.
It really was not too bad either for the times.
The entire living quarters of the Telescoping RV could fit in the living room of the Discovery, Woodworth said.
But it did offer a sleeping area length of 6-feet, 4-inches, drawers on one side for clothes, a stove and kitchen area which opens to the great outdoors.
All of it folds into half its size for travel.
“It really had outstanding technology for the period,” Woodworth said.
On his tour which has included stops in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, among other spots, half the people come to see the old one, and the other half to see the new one, Woodworth said.
What he found interesting is that at least one of the reasons for using an RV remains the same.
“People in 1916 did it because they could just pull off the road wherever they were and stop whenever they wanted,” he said. “That’s the same reason that they do it today.”
Surprisingly some of the old campgrounds are just as good as today’s.
“Here’s a campground for you,” Woodworth said. “When you pull in it’s on a river, has 800 camp sites, a movie theater, a dance hall, a campers lounge, a restaurant, a hair salon, soda fountain, a billiards table, eight electric washing machines with electric irons and a 9-hole golf course
“That’s Denver’s Overland Park in 1922,” Woodworth said. Now, it’s been turned into an 18-hole golf course, he said.
Today, some campgrounds are better, some worse.
“The thing about campgrounds, they run the spectrum from really just simple mom and pop ones to resorts with golf courses with water running through them and restaurants and a masseuse on site.”
The tour has definitely generated interest, Woodworth said.
But the vibe he gets from the people he speaks to is maybe the most important thing for the RV world.
“The bulk of the people are saying I think next year when I retire we are going to get an RV and do this,” he said
RV historian Dave Woodworth rolled into Philadelphia this week and garnered some air time on WTXF-TV’s “Good Day” to mark the 100th anniversary of the RV industry.
Watch today’s featured video on the home page to see that broadcast.
Good Day New York hosts Rosanna Scotto and Greg Kelly talked live with David Woodworth about RVing on Monday (April 19) on MYFOX New York.
The show’s hosts were impressed with the Fleetwood Discovery motorhome, with Kelly saying, “this is for a rock band!” Woodworth added, “I’d put this up against most flats in New York.”
The segment concluded with a montage of photographs of antique RVs from taken inside the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, Ind.
Click here to watch the broadcast.
RV Historian David Woodworth was interviewed by the NBC Today Show staff. That program was broadcast on Saturday (April 17) and is today’s featured video.
NBC’s Weekend TODAY Show will interview RVIA spokesman and noted RV historian David Woodworth Saturday morning.
The segment will feature a 2010 Fleetwood Discovery and a 1916 Telescoping Apartment RV. The segment is scheduled to air live outside TODAY’s New York studios between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. EST, according to an alert from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
During the segment, viewers will see and hear about the evolution of RVing over the past century. Woodworth will also convey key messages such as the value and benefits of RV ownership.
As this is a live news program, the segment could be pre-empted by breaking news. Check your local listings to confirm the time the Weekend TODAY Show airs in your area.
RVIA and its public relations agency, Barton Gilanelli & Associates, continue to generate positive national and local RV stories about the RV industry and its centennial celebration.
RV historian and collector David Woodworth today (April 12) kicked off RVIA’s RV Centennial media tour with 15 interviews conducted via satellite with local network affiliates from Boston to Yuma, as well as cable channels across the country. Woodworth’s interviews began airing live at 7:45 a.m. this morning and continued through the early afternoon, according to a news release.
“For a century, Americans have enjoyed exploring what’s over the next hill and around the bend,” Woodworth said during the morning’s interviews. “That pioneering spirit is still alive and well today.”
Woodworth will spend the next two weeks traveling to media markets across the country with a 1916 Telescoping Apartment RV and a modern 2010 Fleetwood Discovery, talking to reporters about the RV industry’s century of bringing families closer together. The tour will include a live appearance on NBC’s Weekend Today show on Saturday (April 17).
“For 100 years, Americans have enjoyed the freedom that RVs provide,” said Woodworth, widely recognized as a leading RV historian. He once owned the world’s largest collection of antique RVs, now on display at the RV Heritage Museum in Elkhart, Ind., and consults with the Smithsonian.
The roots of RVing are as old as pioneers and covered wagons. “The first mass-produced motorized campers were built in 1910,” says Woodworth, the preeminent collector of early RVs and RV camping memorabilia. “Before then, people camped in private rail cars that were pulled to sidings along train routes. 1910 brought a new freedom to people who didn’t want to be limited by the rail system. RVs allowed them to go where they wanted, when they wanted.”
Known as “auto campers” or “camping trailers,” these vehicles were the forerunners of today’s modern RVs.
“The first RVs offered minimal comforts compared to today’s homes-on-wheels,” says Woodworth. “But they did provide the freedom to travel anywhere, to get a good night’s sleep and enjoy home cooking. One notable exception to today’s RV was the bathroom. Back in 1910, it was usually either yonder tree or yonder bush.”
Today, RV travelers are able to enjoy all the comforts and conveniences of home while they’re on the road. RVs can come fully equipped with gourmet kitchens, baths and living rooms, and bedrooms that slide out at the push of a button to create extra space.
“We take great pride in our past and look forward to a bright future,” said RVIA President Richard Coon. “RVing has been able to thrive and grow because people still enjoy the fun and freedom it provides.”
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.
Editor’s Note: The following column by Sue Bray, executive director of the Good Sam Club, discusses the RV centennial, which will be celebrated this year. Her column appears in the February issue of Highways magazine. Affinity Group Inc. is the parent company of the Good Sam Club and www.RVBUSINESS.com.
It was a much simpler world 100 years ago. But with so many technological advances just around the corner, 1910 must have been an exciting time to be alive. Like today’s world, in which the latest computer technologies open up new possibilities, the world of 1910 was opening up to motorized travel. Innovative horseless vehicles were embarking on new highways and byways across the continent.
The lure of the open road had enticed tourists prior to 1910. People traveled to camping spots by horse and wagon, but those trips were restricted by time and distance. A few wealthy excursionists had tent trailers custom-built so they could enjoy the outdoors in relative comfort. But in 1910, the adventure of travel on North America’s developing roads began to change as three manufacturers, led by Pierce Arrow, started building motorized campers. In 1914 towable tent trailers were introduced, and in 1917 the first fifth-wheel appeared on the horizon.
Fortunately, a handful of historians have preserved this past. David Woodworth, for one, has chronicled RV history for decades. In 1986, David arrived at the headquarters of the Good Sam Club driving a Model A and towing a Ziegelmeyer tent trailer. We began working together, and for years David toured the country on behalf of Good Sam, meeting with club chapters and other groups and displaying his ever-growing collection of vintage vehicles. He’s taken his amazing assortment of RVs and RV gear on media tours representing the RV industry. Today, much of his collection is on display at the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum in Elkhart, Ind.
David has a wealth of information on RVing’s early days. He even has a collection of collapsible coat hangers! He tells how auto pioneers Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, both avid campers, made plans for RV manufacturing while on a train ride in 1915.
David’s also researched the evolution of campgrounds. In the 1800s, he relates, many towns built wagon yards where visitors could release their horses and store their wagons when they were passing through. By 1914, the now-obsolete wagon yards were converted into free municipal campgrounds. “After World War I,” says David, “cities started charging 25 cents a night to camp in their campgrounds, basically in an effort to weed out the undesirables.”
In 2010, the RV industry will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Events recognizing the milestone will be held at the Elkhart museum and various RV dealerships, shows and campgrounds around the country.
The Good Sam Club is sponsoring a special RV History Caraventure en route to the Louisville Rally, which runs July 22 through 25. Up to 100 RVs, both old and new, will meet at the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum in Elkhart, travel to Dearborn, Mich., to visit the Ford Museum, then drive on to the 2010 Rally in Louisville. Seminars held along the way will offer insights into today’s RVing experience and RV travel’s fascinating past. (Caraventure contact information is available at (800) 829-5140.)
At the Rally, we’ll have a special area for vintage RVs to park and display life as it was in the early days of RV travel.
For David Woodworth, RVing is here to stay: “It’s gone through World War I, the Depression, World War II, high gas prices and high interest rates and it’s still such a popular activity.”
We RVers know it’ll keep on going and we look forward to the next 100 years.
RV historian and renowned RV collector David Woodworth was presented with the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association’s (RVIA) prestigious “Spirit of America” award in recognition of his two decades of service to the industry as an enthusiastic ambassador and media spokesperson.
The presentation came during “Outlook 2010: Let the Sun Shine,” the kickoff event to the 47th National RV Trade Show held Tuesday (Dec. 1) in Louisville, Ky.
Woodworth spoke to the audience of 1,000 RV industry members about the growth of the RV industry over the past 100 years, the evolution of RVs and RVIA’s plans for the RV Centennial Celebration, to kick off in 2010, according to a news release.
Tracing the history of the RV industry since its inception in 1910, Woodworth said that, after a slow build in popularity from 1910 on, “The RV industry exploded. In fact, in the mid-20s, The New York Times estimated that there were 15 million auto campers on the road.” He added, “It wouldn’t have been unusual for a family traveling in an autocamper in the 1920s to visit a park with 800 campsites, a movie theater, a nine-hole golf course and a salon.”
Woodworth went on to say that the Great Depression damaged the RV industry following its “Roaring ‘20s” heyday, but that the freedom of the open road appeals to Americans just as much now as it did then.
RVIA Public Relations Committee Chairman B.J. Thompson said in presenting the award, “David has been of great service to our industry as a media spokesman over the past two decades. He’s been an enthusiastic ambassador on 18 RVIA media tours throughout America, and he’s always put a friendly and memorable face on RV history.”
Following the breakfast, Woodworth spoke to show attendees at the RV Centennial booth, where some of his antique RV memorabilia is displayed.
In April, Woodworth will lead a two-week RV Centennial Media Tour from New York, N.Y., to Elkhart, Ind. The Tour is slated to feature antique and modern RVs to showcase the advancements the industry has made.
RVIA is also planning to offer media interviews with David Woodworth on location with antique and modern RVs via satellite to generate more coverage of the 100th anniversary in media markets across the country.
RVIA’s Spirit of America Award was established in 2002 to recognize prominent Americans for their extraordinary dedication to the values of freedom espoused by the RV industry. Woodworth joins previous honorees including Olympic Gold Medalists Kerri Strug and Rulon Gardner, the actor and RV fan Matthew McConaughey and NBC Today Correspondent Mike Leonard, who chronicled his family’s RV journeys.