Donald E. Abel, owner of Nappanee, Ind.-based Franklin Coach Co., died Tuesday (Aug. 27) at Elkhart General Hospital. He was 66.
Abel’s father, Paul, founded the company in 1945 and was considered a pioneer in the RV industry. Franklin Coach, a travel trailer, fifth-wheel and park model manufacturer, was in the headlines after an F-3 tornado leveled four of the company’s manufacturing buildings in October of 2007. Don Abel vowed to rebuild and in April of 2010 the firm resumed production, building 12-foot-wide recreational park trailers.
Abel was born Dec. 28, 1946, in Elkhart to Paul and Evelyn (Roose) Abel. He was a 1964 graduate of Wakarusa High School and lived his lifetime in this area.He was very active in the community serving on the Nappanee Smokey Stovers Fire Department for 36 years; seven of those years as chief.
Abel helped to start the Butch Nine Scholarship committee. He also served on the Fourth of July committee, Nappanee Redevelopment Commission from 1994-2007 and the NorthWood Dollars for Scholars committee. He was a former Elkhart County councilman and was named Nappanee Citizen of the year in 2000.
Surviving are his sons and grandchildren, Jim (Heidi) Abel, and their daughters, Sydney and Payton of Fishers and Chris (Mindy) Abel and their children, Bryce and Katie of Nappanee; sister Becky (Johnnie) Moody of Granger; brothers Steve Abel of Nappanee and Rick (Gail) Abel of Wakarusa; and his former wife, Rita Tucker of Wakarusa.
Family and friends may call from 2-4 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Friday at Thompson-Lengacher & Yoder Funeral Home, Nappanee, and for one hour prior to the funeral service at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home. The Rev. Ruben Chupp, pastor of North Main Street Mennonite Church will officiate. Burial will take place with full fireman honors, including a final call at the Nappanee Fire Department and final salute, in Olive West Cemetery.
Memorial contributions may be given to NorthWood Dollars for Scholars.
RV industry pioneer Franklin Coach Co. is lining up dealers now that it has resumed limited production of 12-foot-wide recreational park trailers in a rented facility in Nappanee, Ind.
Devastated by a 2007 tornado that leveled the 65-year-old company’s facility on the east side of Nappanee, Ind., Franklin has undergone a slow but steady revival, according to co-owner Don Abel, son of founder and industry pioneer Paul Abel.
Franklin Coach, which had about 60 employees at the time of the storm, was one of 107 commercial businesses in the southern Elkhart County community affected by the Oct. 18, 2007, F3 twister. Of that total, 28 businesses, including Franklin Coach, were a total loss and 352 residences were also affected.
The tornado not only leveled Franklin’s 65,000-square-foot factory and attached office building – and also damaged the nearby facilities of Gulf Stream Coach Inc. — but scattered debris, including company records, over a wide area on the city’s east side and surrounding countryside.
Company officials talked about rebuilding within a week of the storm.
In fact, Abel, 63, who subsequently bought out brothers Rick and Steve and is currently running the business with son Chris, first tried but failed to get a loan to rebuild on the site of the former Franklin Coach factory. So, he wound up selling off some land there to raise the capital needed to resume limited production.
“We pretty much started from scratch with our old name,” he said, adding that Franklin Coach resumed production earlier this year and by now has delivered six 12-wides to one of its most loyal dealers, Rose’s RV in Palmview, Texas. At the time of the storm, Rose’s RV was Franklin’s top Southwestern dealer. “I contacted Rose’s and they said, ‘Sure, I’ll take six of them.’” Abel relayed.
A skeleton workforce of five production workers today is toiling away in a 20,000-square-foot facility that formerly housed Quality Hardwoods on the west side of Nappanee.
“We hope to be building some of the same things as we did in the past — travel trailers, fifth-wheels and park models in addition to the 12-wides we’re building now,” Abel said. “By the end of this year, we hope to be back in full production.”
Chipping away “little by little” in rebuilding the company is “the only option we had,” he explained. “We couldn’t wait much longer or the dealers would forget about us.”
Abel said the company will resume production of conventional towables soon because few of his dealers handle only park models.
His long-term plan is to rebuild on the old factory site.