As the RV industry celebrates its centennial in 2010, the nation’s oldest consumer RV ”club” is not too far behind.
Tin Can Tourists, an organization whose members primarily own vintage travel trailers and motorhomes, this year marks its 91st year — although with an asterisk because those years were not consecutive. Tin Can Tourists experienced a 20-year hiatus that ended in 1998 when Michigan high school teacher and coach Forest Bone and his wife, Jeri, resurrected the organization.
”It kind of evolved,” said Bone, 66, who spends his time between Bradenton, Fla., and Milford, Mich. ”We were charter members of the Vintage Airstream Club and I was president in 1998. We had begun formulating plans to have an all-makes-and-models club, and we’d known about the Tin Can Tourists, which hadn’t been active in a number of years.
”So, we went through all the trademark searches to make sure we weren’t infringing on an existing organization and we didn’t find anything.”
For the most part, the original Tin Can Tourists were minimalists who might, for instance, have driven a Model T Ford with a tent-like extension used as the sleeping area. ”There was one that even used the running board as a headrest,” Bone said.
Today, Tin Can Tourists typically own vintage units but they don’t have to. ”That’s a misconception,” Bone said. ”Anyone can be a member, and they can take part in anything the club can do.
Still, he said, 75% of Tin Can Tourist members own vintage trailers. Shasta, Serro Scotty and Airstream brands are popular. ”There are lots of ‘canned ham’ trailers that look like Shastas that were manufactured in the ’50s,” Bone said. ”A lot of our members own those.”
The cost of membership in Tin Can Tourists is minimal — only $20 a year. And more than 800 members are led regionally by seven representatives in North America and others in the United Kingdom and Japan who provide input to the organization and run Tin Can Tourists get-togethers.
The Tin Can Tourists originated from early ”RVers” who ate their meals out of tin cans while they traveled because of the lack of refrigeration.
Their formal objective was to ”unite fraternally all autocampers” with guiding principles being ”clean camps, friendliness among campers, decent behavior and clean (and) wholesome entertainment for those in camp.”
The club was formally organized in 1919 with Charles T. Falles, known as the ”Mayor of Easy Street,” the organization’s first Royal Sargent.”
A tin can later became a sign of distress — sort of like a road flair when hung from the radiator of a car. ”If somebody passed by and was a fellow Tin Can Tourist, they would stop to help,” Bone said. ”There was a Good Samaritan aspect to it. Flat tires were a huge problem in the early travel days and there were a lot of other problems.”
The journey from Michigan where the group held its summer reunions in the 1920s to Desoto Park in Tampa, Fla., where the Tourists headquartered in the early 1920s, might take three weeks.
At its height, the number of Tin Can Tourists numbered close to 100,000 and the New York Times published a feature story about the group in August 1926 and Life magazine a pictorial in January 1939.
As the number of Tin Can Tourists dwindled into the 1960s and 1970s, the original club’s last winter reunion took place in 1978 at Eustis RV Park, Eustis, Fla., according to a trove of historic files donated to the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.
The reconstituted Tin Can Tourists’ first ”gathering” in 1998 in Milford, Mich., drew 21 units. The tourists’ 2010 Winter Convention Feb. 25-28 at Lake Manatee State Park east of Bradenton drew 50 RVs and about 120 people on a first-come first-serve basis due to site restrictions.
At the beginning of this year, the club had 834 remembers, down from just over 1,000 at the start of 2009. ”With the combination of gas prices and the economy, we took a pretty good hit on membership,” Bone said. ”But we are slowly returning.”
The Tin Can Tourists 12th Annual Gathering at Camp Dearborn in Milford, Mich., will be May 20-23, along with two other regional gatherings scheduled that same weekend in New York and New Mexico.
In addition, three other local gatherings will be staged this year in Michigan and three in Florida while regional rallies will take place in Canada, California, Washington, Arizona and New York.
John Culp, 84, who keeps a post office box in Clairmont, Fla., attended the new Tin Can Tourists first Florida ”gathering” in 2000.
Culp said he joined Tin Can Tourists after hearing that Bone had started the club again that he had heard of as a youth.
”I joined because of the people,” said Culp, who currently is a full-timer living in a 24-foot 1947 Westcraft travel trailer, a high-end all-aluminum brand favored by the Hollywood movie star crowd, that he and his parents bought new for $3,200.
”It’s pretty much the original,” Culp said of the 62-year-old trailer. ”They’ve stood the test of time. They don’t leak and they don’t deteriorate.”
Karen Campbell and her husband, Kenny, who founded the Southwest Vintage Camper Association in 2003 in Albuquerque, N.M., have been members of Tin Can Tourists since 2005. Karen Campbell currently is the organization’s Southwest Region representative and will host the 2nd Annual Tin Can Tourists Exchange Encampment May 20-23 at Rancho Sedona (Ariz.) RV Park.
”We’re a little more of a social group than traditional campers are,” said Karen Campbell, who has refurbished 29 vintage trailers since getting the vintage trailer bug in 2002, including Shastas, Boles Areos, Airstreams, Streamlines and Spartans.
”We fix them up slowly,” she said. ”It’s not really a business. It’s a joy.”
Vintage RVs appeal to women for reasons that are different than men, she said.
”From a woman’s point of view, we like them because we get to play house,” Karen Campbell offered. ”A lot of women ‘theme’ their trailers with curtains and fabrics and interior things. The thing that men enjoy about vintage trailers is that they are simpler to operate. You don’t have to worry about whether the slide is going to go out or whether the leveler will be working.”