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Gems of a Bygone Era Beckon Nostalgia Buffs

Travel trailers from the 1930s to the 1950s on display in Sylmar offer a glimpse at the past.

September 28, 2003|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

There are those who like to take along the modern comforts -- the microwave, the icemaker, the satellite receiver -- when they hit the road in their modern motor homes.

And then there are a growing number of nostalgia buffs who prefer pulling old house trailers that sport knotty-pine interiors and wood-burning stoves with chimneys.

"It's like having a bungalow on wheels. They're comfortable and warm and fun," said John Agnew of Altadena as he showed off his mint-condition 1936 Trav-L Coach on display Saturday at the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar.

"Trailer homes appealed to people's sense of adventure, their freedom, their quest for discovery. They still do," said Agnew, who bought the Trav-L Coach in 1998 after it sat untouched in a Pennsylvania barn for more than 50 years.

With its original black oilcloth exterior and spoke wheels, it was among a dozen trailers from 1935 to 1957 -- all still plying the highways -- that drew comments about their clever use of space and cozy, if unpretentious, furnishings.

"Every little rounded corner is used and everything folds down," said Merle Loer, 80, of La Mesa, Calif., as she took in the details of a teardrop-shaped 1950 Kampmaster.

"This is cool; it looks so homey," said Cullen Englund, 8, of Minneapolis while examining the fully stocked pantry.

Even back in the 1930s and 1940s, designers left nothing out. The smallest trailers, as little as 14 feet long and often resembling canned hams on wheels, were equipped with four-burner stoves, iceboxes, 110-volt light fixtures and fold-out beds. Larger coaches boasted shower stalls, porcelain commodes, radiant heat and roll-down windows, operated by the same type of hand cranks used in cars.

In the 1930s, trailers provided cheap homes for people who couldn't afford permanent housing. But in the post-war 1940s and 1950s, they evolved into a recreational vehicle.

Today, interest in restoring the original "mobile" homes spans several generations, said Douglas Keister, who organized Saturday's event and is the co-author with Arrol Gellner of the newly published book "Ready to Roll: A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer."

"There's been a huge renaissance in restoring these gems of a bygone era, and a big part of it is the baby boomers who have memories of vacations, real or imagined," Keister said. "There's also the big retro craze among the twentysomethings. And the people in their 80s were young back then. They love this stuff because there's something romantic about being on the road in your 20s or 30s."

The resurgence of interest started among car collectors about a dozen years ago, said Steven Butcher of Ventura, who restores the rolling domiciles. "The guy with the '57 Chevy wants to pull a vintage trailer behind his classic car."

Not everyone wants to mimic every detail of a long-ago lifestyle, however. Butcher just finished a $100,000 restoration of a 1947 Westcraft that includes a flat-screen TV, top-of-the-line stereo and solar panels.

And there are those who straddle a middle ground. Semi-retired investor Sherri Hackney, 48, of Reseda owns a 24-foot 2003 Jamboree motor home and two antique trailers. As visitors admired the frilly curtains and colorful linoleum in her a ladybug-shaped 1936 Halsco Land Yacht, she waxed philosophical about the charms of old-style trailer trips.

"These are warm, inviting. At night, when we're camping, they just glow. There's no stinky generator." But, she acknowledged, "sometimes when I'm up in the redwoods, I want the microwave, the TV, the VCR and the full bathroom. Then I take the new one."

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