Our 1949 Airstream Liner Southwind Breeze will always be known as Mrs. Smith
By Forrest Bone
Jeri and I first learned about an old Airstream at an Airstream International located only a few miles from our home in Dearborn, Michigan. We traveled to Brandon, Manitoba, in 1994 to attend our first Airstream International. While in Brandon, we were invited to participate in the Metro Detroit Unit breakfast. Vintage trailer owners were still a novelty to the Wally Byam Caravan Club, so there were a lot of questions regarding how we got involved in the Vintage Airstream Club and about our 1964 Airstream Safari. One of the ladies at the table indicated that she was a real estate agent in the Dearborn area and had seen an older trailer. She provided a general description of the site where she had seen the trailer, and upon our return to Michigan, Jeri and I went on a vintage quest.
As we drove down Avondale Street, we sighted a heavily oxidized Airstream nestled under the pines. It crossed my mind that I had passed down the road numerous times over the years and had not noticed the trailer. The years and the wheelless Airstream Liner had sunken its moorings further and further with each change of seasons.
We parked in the driveway and walked toward the house that had fallen on hard times. The open garage housed an old Ford Fairmont that hadn’t moved in years and an assortment of broken lawn care equipment. If it hadn’t been for the kittens living in and around the Fairmont, we might have given up our quest to get an up-close look at the Airstream. Our knocks on the side door went unanswered.
A week or so later, we returned with the same result. We left a note introducing ourselves on our third visit and stated our interest in vintage trailers. A few days passed before we received our first call from Mrs. Alfreda Smith. She indicated that the trailer was not for sale, but we could come by and look at it. She had not answered the door because of physical limitations, but if we came by before 3:00, her help would be present and assist. We made the necessary arrangements and our first visit with Mrs. Alfreda Smith.
We were immediately impressed with her feistiness. Here was this frail elderly lady moving around her house with a sit-upon-wheeled walker. Little kick steps got her from room to room. Communication was difficult because Mrs. Smith was hard of hearing and failing vision. Through it all, it was evident that she was well-educated both academically and socially. I sat up straight and was on my best behavior whenever we met. She had a commanding presence despite her physical limitation.
Our conversation revealed she had been a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and that Mr. Smith had been the public relations director for Henry Ford. Our interest peaked when she said they had been invited to acquire an Airstream when Wally Byam, owner of the Airstream Company, had been a dinner guest. She indicated they had hosted him during a visit to Ford production facilities during World War II. Airstream production ended, so available aluminum could be used in aircraft production.
She said that they had a trailer built by Byam in 1943. Making the trailer would have violated the defense department’s mandate forbidding producing aluminum products for commercial purposes. She indicated that her brother-in-law had picked up the trailer after her husband’s death in the late 70s. She spoke of how he used the trailer for religious pilgrimages to Montreal and yearly fishing excursions in his home state of Massachusetts.
After this informative conversation, we first looked at the ’49 Liner. We hadn’t seen many ’40s Airstreams, and those we had seen had bare interiors. But now we were looking at a trailer that was the way it came out of the factory. The front and rear windows were not the oval Plexiglas I had seen in the promotional material showing an Airstream being towed by a bicycle but were awning type. Later, Mrs. Smith explained that the windows were specially ordered because of her claustrophobia. Over the next few months, we could stop and share Mrs. Smith’s travel recollections. Her tales reflected her love for the Liner. She hadn’t set foot in the trailer in years, but she was sure all it needed was a little clean-up, and it would be ready for the road. I had gotten the habit of asking seasoned travelers about their favorite destinations. She responded without hesitation that West of the Continental Divide was the place to go, particularly Vancouver, Canada.
Weeks passed with little contact, then I received a call from Mrs. Smith. She began by once again stating that the trailer was not for sale but had decided to give it to us. She wanted the trailer to stay in her yard until she died. She dictated a bequest, and we were to pay one dollar in consideration. It would be our responsibility to see that the trailer got back on the road to be seen and appreciated.
Mrs. Smith died in 1997. After months of challenges to her will, we were told a settlement had been reached, and we were free to remove the trailer from the property. Of course, it was mid-January, and the hubs were sunken and had to be exhumed from the frozen earth. A flatbed was hired to move her to a storage facility for the remainder of the winter.
The estate withstood numerous challenges and compromises before it was settled in January 1998. Except for the trailer, the entire estate was left to the Capuchin Kitchen, a Detroit soup kitchen run by Father David. The estate’s lawyer informed me on a bitterly cold January day that the trailer could be removed.
Although Alfreda had assured us numerous times that all we needed to do was put the tires on, find the hitch in the basement, and take the Liner on a trip. After all, Mr. Smith had prepared the coach for travel just before his death. Unfortunately, he died in 1976, and the Airstream languished under the pines, gradually sinking with the passing of each spring thaw. Twenty-one springs had just about put the hubs below the surface.
Step one was to disengage the hubs from the tundra and mount the tires Mrs. Smith had me dredge up from the basement years earlier. A jack and every implement that had the potential to penetrate the frozen earth was used to exhume the hubs.
Step two was to contact a towing service with a flatbed to move her to storage in Milford, Michigan, our future home base, near Camp Dearborn. Within hours, she sat proudly on her newly inflated tires.
That spring, Jeri and I hosted the first Annual Gathering of the renewed Tin Can Tourists, and “Mrs. Smith” was allowed visitors, but she was in a sorry state. The front third of the floor was rotted and unsafe, but the wasp nests had been removed from the vent screens, and Jeri swept and removed most of the surface crud.
A TCT charter member, Clyde Wagner, ensured the hitch functioned properly and repaired the brake lights.
During the summer, with the help of Maynard Sellers, Jeri’s father, we tore out the rotted flooring and began the replacement. A new schedule forty-center pipe was installed, and I reassembled the metal plates, flooring, and wood shoe that attached the center pipe to the trailer. Trailers of this vintage hitched schedule forty to the tow vehicle through the hitch and dragged the trailer along.
During some short trips from the storage lot to Camp Dearborn or a welder, we were delighted with her tow ability. She did not squeak or squeal as she moved down General Motors Road to camp. The only causality was a slight scrape on the chimney stack cap, which blew off on a return trip to the storage lot. It was retrieved and quickly remounted. Damage was minor, and new screws secured her future.
The fall found us unable to travel, so we purchased an RV cover and plastic fly to eliminate further water damage. She survived the winter without further damage.
During the year, Bud Cooper, a 1948 Airstream owner, counseled me regarding possible options in the restoration process. Bud had been working on a frame-off restoration of his ’48 and was a valuable resource as we developed our plan.
Since so much of the Liner was intact and functional, we decided to forgo the installation of holding tanks and retain her original character. We used a blue boy when sewer hookups were unavailable and a stainless water tank with a pump handle rather than an electric pump. Without 12 volt, we will be relying on natural lighting. On the plus side, we have an electric refrigerator and an icebox.
The following summer, we refurbished the city water lines, upgraded the electric connections, and finished the floor. Not much was accomplished in 1999 while we settled into Bradenton Castle Park, Bradenton, Florida, and re-established a Winter Convention. The only downside to my coaching football that fall was not getting to Florida until December 1. A joyous occasion caused our late departure; Walled Lake Western went 14-0 and won the Michigan State Championship in Division One.
After a winter immersed in the renovation of our 1926 cottage at Braden Castle Park, which TCT members founded in 1924, we returned to Camp Dearborn ready to complete our “Mrs. Smith” restoration. We returned in April and focused on the renewed Tin Can Tourists’ third Annual Gathering (2000). After the Gathering, we refinished the Liner’s interior wood, repainted the interior walls, and installed new carpeting and foam for the unique rear bunks.
She was officially honored at the Fourth Annual Gathering on May 19, 2001, during the open house.
She has participated in Airstream and TCT events, traveling to Florida, Arizona, and Vermont. Given a new lease on life, she will only be too happy to roam the expanse of this great country.
If you read of any UFO sightings during October or April, you will know that Mrs. Smith’s energy is flowing down I75 to Florida or returning to Michigan.
With another vintage trailer, 1949 Masonite-sided American, added to our “collection,” we decided to sell the ’49 Airstream Liner. We were delighted to sell her to Doug and Sharon Cuyler, long-time TCT members and great friends. Mrs. Smith left Camp Dearborn in July 2004