Vintage campers a growing trend for outdoor fun

MADISON

Those who manufactured what are called vintage campers mostly decorated with colors from a different crayon box.

They strayed from the elemental to define their mobile living spaces, stressing aqua, turquoise, pink, pale yellow and mint green over dark blue, deep orange, hard green, bright red, though red does seem to sometimes cross boundaries.

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Today, the campers are called “vintage,” and drivers may be referred to as “tin can tourists” and identify strongly with a bygone era from the mid-1930s to the early 1970s, depending on parameters set by private clubs.

Some call 1969 a cut-off. Some groups call anything older than 25 vintage. The campers in general have a passionate following and bring smiles to faces on sight, from those steeped in nostalgia, to those too young to remember.

Wherever drivers steer their oldies-but-goodies vehicles and park long enough to strike up a conversation, their campers make friends.

“People drive by and give a thumbs up,” said James Rodwald of Crawfordsville.

He and wife Shannon had their 1964 Franklin parked in the rain at a camper rally at Clifty Falls State Park in late fall, sharing a weekend of conviviality with other enthusiasts.

Color is a clue on vintage campers. Along with age. Along with size. They are nothing like the behemoth, bus-sized recreational vehicles which by comparison are Hiltons on wheels when it comes to spaciousness and modernity. Those big boys are more akin to train cars while the campers — the word alone offering a hint — are meant to be hitched up and towed by automobiles.

Camper can be a catch-all term with sub-groups such as pop-up camper, trailer, antique, and classic.

“Older people see them and say, ‘Man, I had one of those,’” said Shannon Rodwald.

One aspect of vintage camper living is cost. As in cheap, low-cost, discounted prices. Unlike a new RV, which can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for an elaborate vehicle, old-style, old campers can be had for a mere few thousand dollars on the secondary market. They may need work, but that is seen as an opportunity to personalize and where else can you obtain a second home for $3,000?

“I actually found it on ebay,” said Royce Austin, 65, of Bloomington of his 16-foot-long, double-bed 1962 cream colored camper that he paid $8,000 for and called “a bargain.”

As an example of how interiors become reflective of age and owner, Austin has a 1962 issue of Outdoor Life hanging in his vehicle, a link to its era.

The first how-to camping book was published in 1869 and featured the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The first so-called RV, or recreational vehicle, was called the “Gypsy Van” and the monstrous, 25-foot, eight-ton vehicle and a family drove it from New York to California, according to Smithsonian Magazine, attracting great fanfare.

The magazine said this represented the confluence of a back to nature movement and the invention of the motor home, which gradually expanded in popularity between 1915 and 1930 and again after the Great Depression and World War II.

Perhaps teenagers may think vintage campers look dorky, especially if their parents or grandparents are enamored with them. Setting up a tent in the backyard overnight may be liberating for 10-year-olds. Taking the car to a campground and laying out a sleeping bag in a tent may be romantic with a 20-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend.

But there comes a time when backs creak, when 100 degrees and humidity or 35 degrees and frost lose their attraction.

“Our tent camping days are long gone,” said Elizabeth Pruett, of Bloomington, who was sharing a 1962 Trotwood camper with husband David at the camper rally. “We finally decided it was time.”

The duo, in their 50s, said tent camping, once quite the lark as a younger couple, had lost its appeal. Rain. Heat. The elements became too much of an issue, so the weather, combined with the soreness after a night of tossing and turning on hard ground, led the Pruetts to shop.

“We’re empty-nesters now,” Elizabeth Pruett said. “We used to camp a lot before we had kids.”

They began scanning the marketplace for a vintage camper. It took some time, but they found their just-right camper in Saginaw, Mich. The internet is alive with vintage camper deals, enticing, come-hither pictures portraying the way life used to be in Life magazine and with too-good-to-be-true prices (often of fixer-uppers) costing a fraction of a new car, never mind a new, decked-out RV.

One ad, as of Monday, read this way: “Completely Restored with original stove and refrigerator in excellent working condition. All new tires, and a spare. Brand new Ac/heat unit mounted on roof. Sleeps 4 , no bathroom. Two closets. Weight 2400 lbs Has clean title and operating key. Also has two doors, one on either side. I fixed leak in roof and back frame, replaced birchwood paneling that was stained. Roof has had Rhino liner applied and seams sealed with 100% Silicone. Brand new electric panel was installed and all signal lights work. 16 foot, Tows super easy. This camper is located in Asheville NC. $12,000.”

It is no surprise there is a website www.vintagecampers.com. One camper for sale there Monday, asking price $4,750, was a 21-foot Alma from 1948, but the outside looks as if it may have weathered a fire. There is also a www.tincantourists.com website with a classifieds section. In keeping with the feel of the period, one item for sale at $195 was a checkerboard floor, rolled up, unused. It is kitschy and appropriate if you like black and white. You can play chess in the kitchen.

For a mere $11,500 on that site, one can be wooed by a a 1957 “Cadillac” of trailers. The ad reads in part: “This beautiful piece of history is a 1957 Catolac Deville “Canned Ham” trailer. Deville trailers were manufactured by Catolac Corporation in El Mote, California from 1927 to 1970. It is a single axle trailer that is 13’ and an approximate towing weight of 1,700 lbs. Original stove/oven, ice box, windows, screen door and light fixtures all in working order. “

Note the “canned ham” designation. That is a signature description of the shape of many vintage campers, much like the food’s packaging. Those rounded bodies differ dramatically from square-bodied RVs, cars and trucks all over the road. It’s one way to be set apart from current Detroit or Toyota productions.

Historically, and even currently, Indiana has is a camper haven. Northern Indiana has been a hub of manufacturing, from Elkhart and Goshen to Peru and Middlebury.

“Northern Indiana is the RV capital of the world,” Shannon Rodwald said.

A linchpin of the Indiana vintage campers crowd is Jennie Sandlin of Spencer, who spreads the word about how much fun and companionship can be had with the gang at get-togthers. She has an affinity for past models over new-style camping vehicles.

“I’d take the vintage any day just the way they look,” Sandlin said.

Sandlin, 63, came to vintage campers through hardship and a need to embrace something new in her life. Her husband and her parents died within a short time and she was their care giver. She looked for something to make her smile again and fell into this world

“I’ve got to find something to do,” she told herself.

Sandlin obtained a 14-foot 1962 Shasta Airflyte in Michigan a year-plus ago and talked up her experiences to friends and relatives. Several of the camper clans clustered in Madison were lured to vintage camping by Sandlin. Her daughter Michelle, of Bloomington, was with her.

Sandlin spruced up the interior of her Shasta, giving it a light-colored and light-hearted taste. It is basically a blast from the past.

“I get a lot of compliments on it,” she said.

Still, it is nothing elaborate and without heat and not even a bathroom, the camper must camp at a campground. Sandlin likes simple, and doesn’t hang in the camper for very long at such gatherings. It’s all about mingling outdoors.

“If I want to go camping, I want to be outside by the camp fire,” she said.

Finding a comfort zone doesn’t have to mean fancy.

“Why old is new is that new is more expensive,” Sandlin said. “The newer ones have modern conveniences. Even a flat screen TV.”

That may appeal to campers of a different ilk. Austin, who said he has made good friends through these camping events. prefers a different style.

“We accessorized with the north woods look,” he said of himself and his wife Bonnie.

A keen fisherman, Austin said he would love to hook up his boat, which is bigger than the camper, and tow it around, too. He’s still working on a plan.

Rocky and Stephanie Shearer of Mooresville, though she used to live in Seymour, may be the king and queen of accessorizing. Their camper is a rolling antique collection, or at least a period collection. Stephanie Shearer delights in adding items whose prime of life was around the same time their 1974 Yellowstone was new.

“We try to find stuff,” she said.

Their camping spot featured a sign with their names on it and they parked a croquet set outside.

“We played as kids all the time,” Rocky said.

The Shearers had major travel plans for the summer of 2020, to far-off destinations, until the COVID-19 pandemic intervened and kept them within Indiana.

Even just touring the Hoosier state in the camper brings attention.

“We’ve had people say, ‘Oh, my grandmother had one like that when I was little,” Stephanie Shearer said.

The fire crackled, smoke blew and at last rain ceased near the end of this round-up. The dampness might well have made sleeping bag and tent camping miserable, but everyone here stayed dry and snug in their little homes of vintage colors and flavors, ones in many cases they were able to design without zoning restrictions.

“It was a blank canvas,” said James Rodwald. “This is definitely a step up from tent camping.”

The great irony in vintage camping is that manufacturers are now even making new old ones. That is, they are making new versions of old campers from decades ago, only fresh off the assembly line. Same colors, same canned ham shapes, only brand new.

“They make new ones that look vintage,” Stephanie Shearer said.

Replicas. Faux vintage. Sounds like an Elvis Presley imitator. Or a $5 reprint of a rare Honus Wagner 1909 baseball card.

Not really the same to Sandlin. When someone buys a vintage camper that rode the roads in the 1950s or 1960s providing shelter it was the genuine article and the purchase provides a gesture of respect to the past.

“You saved a piece of history,” Sandlin said.