Shelburne Museum Visitors Walk Through RV History

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(Host) You’ve tried to pass them on the interstates. You’ve seen them parked in driveways and campgrounds. They take up two, even three spaces at rest stops. They are the recreational vehicles, or RVs, of this world and one in nine households own one.

A new exhibit at the Shelburne museum traces the evolution of the RV industry – a quintessential American business that began nearly a hundred years ago.

VPR’s Nina Keck has the story.

(Keck) It may not be your father’s Oldsmobile, but at the Shelburne Museum you may spot your father’s RV, maybe even your grandfathers’. The earliest RVs were typically homemade – some tarp thrown over a car or wagon. But by the early 1920s, as cars became more common, commercially manufactured camping trailers hit the market. A 1921 newsreel in the Shelburne Exhibit shows Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison and even president Warren Harding savoring an afternoon picnic to promote car camping. One of the best selling trailers in the early 1920s was a small pop-up model called an Auto Camp.

(Valerie Hunt) “I never thought I’d find a trailer that looked like a horse-drawn vehicle but I did.”

(Keck) Valerie Hunt is curator of transportation at the Shelburne Museum. It was her job to track down and restore the fifteen trailers used in the RV exhibition, a nearly three-year task. The 1923 Auto Camp is a beaut. It’ basically a wooden box on wheels. Two door-like pieces fold out to make sleeping platforms. A small wood stove, compartments for food and a kerosene lamp fit neatly between the beds. A canvas tarp provides the walls and roof.

(Hunt) “I found this ad under ‘miscellaneous,’ Hemmings Motor News and it said ‘1923 Auto Camp. . . original mint condition, second owner.'”

(Keck) Hunt says it even came with its original brochure, which she laminated and put on display next to a wall-size photograph of smiling campers circa 1923. Valerie Hunt says at the turn of the last century, traveling to Europe had been the rage. But in 1915, a German torpedo sank the British ocean liner, Lusitania. That event made Americans wary of overseas travel and touring closer to home became more popular. A depression-era newsreel produced by Michigan trailer manufacturer Arthur Sherman shows how the RV industry benefited from that trend:

(Newsreel) “Spring of 1936 found builder Sherman and some 300 other trailer manufacturers working night and day to keep up with orders. Millions of Americans, curious to know what thousands of others already knew, inspected the modern Prairie Schooner and found all the comforts of home – conveniences that make the average trailer nicer to live in than many a summer cottage.”

(Keck) Museum goers can walk through one of Sherman’s top sellers. It’s a 1935 Covered Wagon, complete with bathroom, kitchen sink, stove and original wood interior. There’s also a 1952, turquoise and white Traveleer camper, a tiny 1956 Serro Scotty and a mint condition 1960 Volkswagon Camp-Box van. Several more trailers are on display outside on the museum’s lawn. Curator Valerie Hunt says the museum spent over $100,000 to acquire the trailers and a year and a half to refurbish them.

(Hunt) “This is a 1948 Branstrader and it was manufactured out in the Midwest.”

(Keck) During and just after World War Two, there was a severe housing shortage in the United States. Hunt says 90% of the trailers that were sold at that time were used as permanent homes. She says that’s why the museum made such an effort to display the Bronstruder trailer as an actual, year-round home, complete with kitchen, separate bedroom, striped awning and pink plastic flamingo in the garden.

(Hunt) “What we tried to do was create an atmosphere of the senses here – everything from the curtains to the textiles to the decorations, the things in the cabinets, the music playing are all correct for 1948.”

(Keck) Hunt says she wanted to make each trailer a time capsule.

(Hunt) “And I love to hang out in the exhibit and just listen to visitors say ‘Oh, we had one of those, I remember this,’ or ‘Oh grandma had one of those!’ And what’s really fun is that people can climb on board and sit down and really feel these spaces and these environments and imagine what it was like to go camping or RV-ing.”

(Keck) Eighty-two-year old Lilian Shelden and her daughter Nancy Stone were busy reminiscing about the many family camping trips they took with tents and trailers.

(Sheldon) “It brings back memories like you can’t believe.”
(Stone) “My grandfather took his three oldest grandchildren camping through Europe in the VW bus, just like the one that’s over there, for two months. So, it brings back a lot of memories.”
(Sheldon) “Not just the campers themselves, but the things that go with it. The dishes and some of the equipment. You say, “I had one just like that.” So, it’s fun…
(Stone) “I’d say, ‘Mom, remember that Thermos? Remember those lawn chairs and how uncomfortable they were?’ That table, that probably folds up… yup it does. Games we’d play in the car to keep us happy. So, we’re having a wonderful time seeing it all.
(Shelden) “And glad we’re not still doing it.” (Laughs)

(Keck) While Lilian Shelden may not be RV-ing anymore, over nine million other Americans are. And industry analysts expect RV sales to increase over 10% this year. The traveling exhibit, which traces the birth and growth of this billion-dollar industry, will continue at the Shelburne Museum through October.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Shelburne.

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