Indiana museum showcases RV history

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

Visit the Henry Ford museum and its “Driving America” display and you’ll see a mini-campground with a tented pop-up trailer, an aluminum Airstream trailer and a Volkswagen camper van.

At RV/MH museum, a road-style path leads visitors through the history of camping in recreation vehicles.

If that display only whets your appetite, there’s an entire museum devoted to recreation vehicles and their history, though you’ll have to drive about 175 miles beyond Dearborn to just east of Elkhart, Indiana.

Sitting adjacent to the Indiana Toll Road’s East Elkhart exit is the RV/MH Hall of Fame, Museum & Library (yes, there’s an extensive library devoted to the subject). RV, of course, is short for recreation vehicle. However, MH does not stand for motor home. Motor homes are RVs. In this case, MH is short for from manufactured housing, another big industry in the Elkhart area, and there’s an example of the craft at the museum.

But the focus of the museum is on wheeled camping vehicles, and includes what is believed to be the oldest of its kind, the Earl Travel Trailer, custom-built by a carriage maker in 1913 for a professor at Cal Tech. The Earl is pulled by a Ford Model T and is parked next to another Model T, this one carrying a 1916 Telescoping Apartment, a very early motor home complete with a fold-out kitchen, slide-out sleeping chamber and shower with hot water.

The main museum display is laid out along a walkway that looks like a paved road meandering through a campground-like setting. Many of the RVs are furnished inside and out as if the owners will be back any minute.

Wander along the path and you see the history of RVs, from the Earl to the earliest Airstream and a unit made for Charles Lindbergh. There’s the Michigan-made Covered Wagon travel trailer and Clark Cortez Motorhome. Tiny teardrop trailers. The huge and futuristic 1974 GMC Motor Home and 1988 Star Streak. And a variety of “housecars,” including the unusual Hunt and a unit commissioned by Paramount Studios in its effort to lure Mae West from the vaudeville circuit to Hollywood.

At RV/MH museum, a road-style path leads visitors through the history of camping.

RV/MH Heritage Foundation president Darryl Searer, who oversees the museum, said big motor homes like the ’74 GMC are popular with people who restore RVs. RV restoration is a growing hobby, to the point that Shasta has introduced a retro-looking but modern-equipped Airflyte version of its 1950s-era “canned ham” camping trailer.

But all sorts of vintage RVs are being restored.

“You know who’s doing it?” asked Searer, who immediately answered his own question: “It’s women who are restoring old trailers!”

He explained that it’s women — married and single — who are buying and restoring RVs because they want to travel but may have a husband or significant other who’d rather stay home in his man cave. They restore and often modernize but their vintage RVs and join others in what is called “glamping” — short for glamorous camping.

The RV/MH museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. For information, visit the museum’s website at www.rvmhhalloffame.org.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.