Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Celebrate 70 Years of RVing... Introduction

Woodall’s 70th Anniversary Celebrates Growth of RV Industry

Woodall's Campground Directory



A leisurely look back through history illustrates that the art of camping in recreational vehicles has been shaping and enriching family travel patterns for a very long time. If you’re an experienced RVer, you’ve probably already noticed that once your family piles into your rig, good times and lasting memories just seem to happen naturally. And as we celebrate Woodall’s 70th Anniversary, perhaps this is an ideal time to look back at how generations of RVers-and the industry they embrace-have changed over the decades.

It could be reasonably argued that the first RVers were settlers heading West across the U.S. in hand-crafted covered wagons to discover new horizons under the setting sun. But let’s face the cold hard facts. Those early pioneers seeking new homes were probably so busy dodging rattlesnakes and searching for drinking water that it’s doubtful there was much rest or relaxation associated with their purposeful wanderings. Pioneer travels probably qualified more as travails than as recreational pursuits.

A quest for recreational travel did come into play, however, as far back as the late 1800’s. That’s when adventurous folks journeyed on North America’s unpaved trails. They steadfastly and optimistically made their
way on bicycles, in horse-drawn coaches, or on wagons outfitted with tents and such.

The invention, and introduction to the public, of the gasoline-powered motor wagon in 1883, sparked immediate widespread interest in the development of safe, passable roads. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act into law, but unfortunately, subsequent plans to upgrade U.S. roads from dusty, rutted, rugged trails to paved, reliable thoroughfares stalled due to America’s involvement in World War I.

During the ‘teens and roaring ‘twenties the RV camping movement first came to pass. That’s when creative individualists made their own basic “house trailers” or “house cars” by affixing makeshift wooden dwellings onto Model T Fords. Each hand-crafted unit was a unique display of art, grit and ingenuity, assembled with gusto in someone’s back yard. Amazingly, some of the earliest house cars were actually designed to slip both on and off a car’s chassis so that the discriminating owner could alternate between driving a more traditional passenger vehicle and traveling with customized camping accommodations. As time went by, more intrepid manufacturers fashioned homemade trailers from do-it-yourself construction plans published in the trendy magazines of the day.

The Federal Highway Act of 1921 helped states construct two-lane interstate highways and gave impetus to the growth of the automobile industry. With marginally improved roads at their disposal, eager auto campers equipped their cars with tents, bedding, and kitchen gear. They aimed to carry a touch of “home, sweet home” on their road trips. Well-respected captains of industry such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were highly publicized fans of auto camping or “gypsying,” as the outdoor pastime was often called. Ford and Edison’s evident zeal for road trips did much to fuel the flames of the auto camping craze.

Provision of adequate overnight lodging for the resulting onslaught of weary road travelers became the goal of entrepreneur Arthur Heinemen. He answered the call by constructing the world’s first motel in 1925 in San Luis Obispo, California. For a fee of $1.25, Heinemen’s incoming guests were treated to a night in a cozy two-room cottage equipped with a kitchen and attached garage.

During the 1920’s, the “tin can tourists” emerged as one of the first loosely recognized clubs for campers. Members of the spirited traveling group braved the still unpredictable roadways of the day to experience the ultimate thrills of towing their “tin lizzies” across America and eating meals out of tin cans at roadside stopovers.

By the time the ‘thirties rolled in, some auto campers vehicles were already outfitted with simple electrical and plumbing systems, as well as functional dining set-ups and convertible sleeping quarters. Demand for campers grew and companies started mass-producing and marketing travel trailers, which in-turn fueled the nation’s interest in the up-and-coming RV lifestyle. Wally Byam’s Airstream company which debuted in 1936 with their Clipper travel trailer, a riveted, aluminum-skinned travel trailer became an instant American icon.

After World War II, many families embraced the post-war prosperity that was brought about by an increased manufacturing capability and cheap material costs, by adopting a more affluent and mobile lifestyle. Completion of the interstate highway system was realized via the efforts of many key players, including Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and later, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Better roads translated into safer, easier travel for commuters and cross-country travelers alike.

During the nifty ‘fifties, advances in towable trailer designs sparked enough consumer fascination to transform and accelerate the recreational vehicle industry. Modern conveniences such as refrigerators, real plumbing systems, complete kitchen and bathroom set-ups, and built-in generators made RV’s increasingly user-friendly. It wasn’t long before all or most of the comforts of home became a typical part of a ride in a recreational vehicle.

The 1950’s also marked the debuts of what are now considered vintage towables like the Serro Scotty Teardrop and the Spartan Imperial Mansion trailercoach. The Volkswagen camper van is yet another classic vehicle that made its mark on the U.S. scene in the mid-fifties, followed in the early ‘sixties by the Coachmen Cadet and a subsequent parade of memorable motorhomes and van campers from other major auto manufacturers.

Due to the increasing demand for affordable, quality campsites during the late ‘sixties, franchise campgrounds such as KOA and the forerunner of today’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts network were successfully launched. It’s interesting to note that a slot at the first-ever KOA Kampground included a grassy campsite, restroom privileges and hot showers at a daily cost of $1.75. For families of the day, that must have seemed like a pretty good deal for a safe, secure, and comfortable night on the road.

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s also marked the start-up of numerous RV manufacturing firms, including industry giants and trendsetters like Fleetwood and Winnebago, which rescued the town of Forest City, Iowa, from financial ruin. There’s no doubt that all RV production ventures were mightily challenged by the sky-high interest rates and fuel shortages that blew in with the 1970’s. Eventually, the strongest, smartest most innovative RV companies pushed past their competitors to survive and thrive in the ever-changing marketplace.

Self-contained motorhomes appeared on the camping scene in a big – bigger – biggest way. RV designs suddenly expanded in size and length, with thirty and forty-foot-long rigs earning major favor with consumers during the ‘seventies and beyond. The oil embargos and gas crunches of the era did much to derail the industry’s momentum, thinning out the ranks of RV manufacturers and dealer’s alike. Many who survived faced a similar perilous period during the early 1980’s, when interest rates escalated to 20 percent.

The decades that followed saw the gradual, progressive development of several distinct classes and styles of RV’s - Class A motor coaches and luxury diesel coaches, B, B+ and C motorhomes plus an assortment of travel trailers, fifth wheels, and a wide range of imaginative tent trailer designs. What about the incredible versatility brought into the mix with the arrival of single and multiple slide-outs? Newmar debuted the industry’s first slide-out room in 1990, now a stable of RV builders everywhere. Four- and five-slide-out models are becoming more and more common.

And let’s not forget all those built-in conveniences that are currently considered part-and-parcel of a standard recreational vehicle? - Increased living spaces, improved aerodynamics, onboard air conditioning, luxury-level interior décor, and a whole host of electronic entertainment options.

A new hybrid, the sport utility recreational vehicle or SURV, hit dealership showrooms with a bang in the late 1980’s. Alternately called a toy box, toy hauler or cargo trailer in today’s lingo, present-day SURVs, or sport-utility trailers (SUT’s) as they are more commonly known, are comfortable, roomy, upscale rigs that have large “garages” outfitted with easy entry ramps. They handily accept jet skis, motorcycles, snowmobiles or whatever the active driver wants to take along for the ride.

Certainly, the mind-boggling selection of well-engineered RV’s available today persuades people with all sorts of interests to embrace their own individualized RV lifestyle. The burgeoning RV rental business also serves to illustrate that more and more families are opting to “try on” an RV to see if it fits their preferences. After all, the reasons why folks enter the RVing scene are as varied and personal as the rigs they choose to drive. It’s simply a matter of experiencing travel in the best way possible - on your own terms.

All things considered, has the essence of RV camping really changed all that much over the past 70 years? From a technical point of view, it most definitely has. Modern recreational vehicles are bigger, better and more lavish than ever before. And camping resorts have progressed to a new level of quality in terms of service, facilities, amenities and recreational opportunities. Even though we all benefit from the extraordinary technical strides the multi-billion dollar RV industry has made during the past seven decades, it’s also important to remember the other more significant side of the RVing picture.

First and foremost, family camping traditions are highly valued and carefully passed along from generation to generation. That’s because RVing is one of those rare and genuine experiences that forges close relationships and fosters enduring memories. Isn’t it reassuring to know that, no matter how many years pass by, some things never change?

Follow a link below to read more:
A Historical Look of RVing in the Great Lakes Region
7A Historical Look at RVing in the Southern Region
7A Historical Look at RVing in the Frontier West, Great Plains Region
7A Historical Look at RVing in the Far West Region
7A Historical Look at RVing in the Northeast Region
7A Historical Look at RVing in the Mid-Atlantic Region
7A Historical Look at RVing in Canada