Origins of the Vintage Trailer Movement

by Dal Smilie

With the 100th anniversary of the Tin Can Tourists (TCT) and the induction of (re)founders Forrest and Jeri Bone into the Recreational Vehicle/Manufactured Housing Hall of Fame, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the origin of the vintage trailer movement.  But I wanted to understand more about its roots in the West.  So, I set out to learn what I could and put this article together that includes information about early vintage trailer clubs and events across the country.  

First, it is important to note the evolution from “old trailer” ownership to “vintage” trailer ownership.  There have always been people who treasured, preserved and restored old stuff, including trailers, just because they liked a certain thing.  Then with the advent of vintage trailer clubs and the internet, it became easier for owners and enthusiasts to find one another.

Trailer owners have long formed clubs. The Tin Can Tourists (TCT) was established in 1919.  The TCT’s success encouraged a short-lived competitor, the Automobile Tourists Association, in 1939.  Brand specific clubs sprang up later, notably, Airstream’s Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) in 1955.  By 1957 there was an organization called the Travel Trailer Clubs of America that was giving advice and assistance to the founding of these clubs.  There was also club activity specific to teardrop trailers.  But I have found none focusing primarily on vintage trailers during the middle of the last century.

Still, the idea of getting like-minded folk together was percolating.  In 1972, the Recreational Vehicle/Manufactured Housing (RV HOF) Heritage Foundation was founded in Elkhart, IN, and opened its RV HOF Museum in 1991.  By 1982, The Period & Classic Caravan Club formed in the United Kingdom.   By 1993, Bud and Bettye Cooper gathered fellow WBCCI members together to form the Vintage Airstream Club (VAC).  So finally, there was a club focused specifically on vintage trailers.

The Lost Highways Winter Rally, Sarasota, FL, 1995

Todd Kimmel and Kristin Doughty (soon to be Kimmel) decided to take their interest in vintage campers to the next level by starting an all-brand vintage club, The Classic Trailer and Motorhome Club.  Its official publication was called “Lost Highways” and was originally intended to be issued quarterly, but only three issues were printed.  The first Lost Highways Rally was held at March 27-30, 1995, in Sarasota, FL

First West Coast Vintage Trailer Rally – Johnny Agnew, Steven Butcher, Yipsy Borders, Ed Lum at Azusa Ca, 1996

A year earlier, Kimmels ran an ad in Hemmings Motor News seeking vintage trailer enthusiasts.  Johnny Agnew and Steve Butcher were driving toward Monument Valley, working on the movie, “Pontiac Moon.”  They saw the ad, got excited and contacted Todd.  After some back and forth, Johnny decided to hold a Western rally.  

He used the Lost Highways mailing list for the area and contacted others he knew.  In 1996, he located an old campground in Azusa, CA, called Follows Camp.  As many as fifteen trailers came and West Coast rallying began!  Johnny later hosted a rally at Newport Dunes, CA.

Steve and Louise Butcher, Leo and Marlys Keoshian, Tim Haworth and Johnny Agnew at Pismo with Keoshian’s 1935 prototype Bowlus Papoose
https://www.vintagetrailercamp.com/gallery/album30?page=7&imageId=c69d2648-9ee6-40d5-96d9-efd6a362b5ce

By 1999, Craig Dorsey, one of the attendees at a rally hosted by Johnny, stepped in and hosted several at Newport Dunes.  Dorsey was a master of promotion and ran a restoration business, Vintage Vacations, for years.  (I’m sure many of us stole time at work to view the Vintage Vacation site, and dream).  A small group of Newport Dunes attendees, led by Toni and Chuck Miltenberger, founded the Trail to Pismo rally in 2008, which soon became the largest vintage rally in the world.  Johnny and Steve and their crew from Funky Junk Farms are a key part of that rally today.

First Annual Trail Along to Pismo Rally, May 2008
https://www.vintagetrailercamp.com/gallery/TRAIL-ALONG-TO-PISMO-May-16-18-2008?page=4&imageId=68061f28-3b8a-4d5f-b690-c34f9829d8d4

Meanwhile on the other side of the Mississippi, VAC President Forrest Bone was seeking a way to gather all brands of vintage trailers together.  This was something that couldn’t be done under the umbrella of the Airstream-only VAC.  He and Bud Cooper discussed this, and Bud mentioned the moribund TCT.  Forrest and Jeri researched the copyright, trademark and related issues, and in 1998, the TCT was reborn.  I think it’s fair to say that the TCT’s newsletter, website, social media presence, rallies, area representatives, and the Bones’ endless efforts have served vintage enthusiasts well and have given many the incentive to start local clubs and rallies.

By 1999, sisters and avid fly fisherwomen Maurie Sussman and Rebecca Clarke saw an unmet need and started the successful Sisters on the Fly.  The club is specifically for women trailer owners (many are vintage trailer owners) and hosts rallies across the country.

Former VAC officer Pat Ewing had been privy to some of the campfire discussions between Bud Cooper and Forrest Bone at the 1998 Boise VAC Caravan.  Pat had hosted WBCCI regional rallies and then hosted the first Mt. Baker Vintage Trailer Rally at the Deming, WA Log Show Grounds in 2001.  That rally is one of the longest running vintage rallies, second only to TCT’s Camp Dearborn Rally and Annual Meeting in Michigan.

Michelle Bone and Paige at 1st Annual Camp Dearborn Rally in Michigan after TCTs renewal, 1998
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tbone2/3974982492
Michelle Bone and Paige at 1st Annual Camp Dearborn Rally in Michigan after TCTs renewal, 1998
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tbone2/3974982492

All of these efforts have given birth to a fulfilling pastime for many people and a growing industry that now includes:  many clubs; vintage friendly campgrounds; a monthly magazine (Vintage Camper Trailer Magazine); rallies, restoration-themed rallies and rally promoters; restorers, repairers and suppliers; and specialized trailer insurers and appraisers.  Steve Hingtgen’s Vintage Trailer Supply greatly accelerated and aided preservation and restoration of vintage trailers.

There is currently no one place to discover the beginnings of the vintage trailer movement. Some of you may know of early vintage gatherings and activity.  I would love to hear about those so I can continue to add to this modest account of the beginnings of our beloved vintage camper movement.

12 comments

  1. What a wonderful article! Thank you, so much that I hadn’t leaned from you yet.
    Appreciate all your research.

  2. Terry
    Thank you for sharing the history of vintage camping & campers. It was fun to read about. Hope all is well with you and your folks.
    Darryl/President
    RVMH Hall of Fame

  3. Hi Darryl – Good to hear from you! Everyone is doing well. Thanks for the feedback on the article. Dal did a great job consolidating this information for us.

    Terry & Michelle

  4. Hi Dal,
    Tom Williams and I started a small gathering of vintage trailers at Stanford U in 1998,which continued for several years.
    Enclosed you will find several years.
    I like your website; keep up the good work. Regards, Leo

  5. Thank you Dal, very flattering and thanks for reaching out, it’s amazing how all this has evolved over the years and many have contributed to what is is today, thank you ❤️

  6. Thanks Dal, I remember the first time I met you in California’s Moderism week! We had exchanged words via the intetnet before that. Was that 2018? I was advertising our Vintage Rally in Post Falls. Thanks for the history and glad your Red chair found it’s way back to you.
    See you this Summer! Linda

  7. Great article! Once I get my hands on one here in Colorado (plenty around here!) I would love to get involved!

  8. Thank you very much for this. Sisters on the Fly is celebrating 25 years as a group. We go beyond just trips. We are a sisterhood that is awesome.

  9. Your article is a marvel. I can only imagine the endless hours spent weaving together a story that occurred in so many places, at different time and with different goals. It has also brought to mind an endless string of good memories.

  10. Great article Dal. As host of Mt. Baker Rally we invite you all to come join us for all the fun. Come experience why we are one of the longest running rallies around.

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