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American Wanderlust on Display


As long as people have traveled from one place to another, they have carried their basic supplies with them… but Americans have taken camping to a whole new level, with RV's - or recreational vehicles.

With a wary eye on international travel, since September 11, more Americans are vacationing closer to home and many are driving rather than flying to their destination. It's a trend that's helped boost RV sales by about 20% this year.

"The love affair with the road and the whole material culture behind the road and travel is just so American and for Americans to have that freedom to go anywhere they want almost anytime they want is a fabulous thing and very rich in our history," says Valerie Hunt, curator of transportation at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

The museum houses one of the most eclectic collections of Americana everything from American folk art, architecture, ships and cars to world class paintings. Step into their newly opened RV exhibit and you're transported back to the early years of the 1900s, when a recreational vehicle was nothing more than a waterproof cloth thrown over a car or wagon.

But by the early 1920s, as automobiles became more common in the United States, commercially manufactured camping trailers hit the market. A 1921 newsreel shows auto industry pioneers Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, inventor Thomas Edison and U.S. President Warren Harding savoring an afternoon picnic together to promote the joys and convenience of car camping. Ironically, a torpedo may have helped the fledgling industry more. After a German submarine sank the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915, Americans grew nervous about traveling abroad and touring closer to home became popular. A newsreel produced by pioneer trailer manufacturer Arthur Sherman in the late 1930s, shows how the RV industry benefited from that trend.

At the Shelburne Museum, visitors can walk through one of Sherman's top sellers, a 1935 Covered Wagon, complete with bathroom, kitchen sink, stove and original wood interior. Other RV manufacturers are also represented. There's a 1952 Traveleer camper, a tiny 1956 Serro Scotty and a mint condition 1960 Volkswagon Camp-Box van.

Because of a severe housing shortage in the United States during and just after World War II, Ms. Hunt says 90% of the trailers sold in the 1940s and 50s were used as permanent housing. She says that's why the museum made such an effort to display a 1948 Bronstruder trailer as an actual, year-round home. "What we tried to do was create an atmosphere of the senses here - everything from the curtains to the textiles to the decorations, the things in the cabinets, the music playing are all correct for 1948," says Ms. Hunt.

She says she wanted to make each trailer a time capsule. "And I love to hang out in the exhibit and just listen to visitors say, 'Oh, we had one of those, I remember this!' or 'Oh Grandma had one of those!' And what's really fun is that people can climb on board and sit down and really feel these spaces and these environments and imagine what it was like to go camping or RV-ing."

That's what 82-year old Lilian Shelden and her daughter Nancy Stone did. They said the exhibit brought back a flood of memories of their own family camping trips.

Mrs. Shelden: "Not just the campers themselves, but the things that go with it. The dishes and some of the equipment, you say, I had one just like that."
Mrs. Stone: "I'd say, Mom, remember that Thermos, remember those lawn chairs and how uncomfortable they were? That table, that probably folds up… yup, it does. Games we'd play in the car, to keep us happy. So, we're having a wonderful time seeing it all."
Mrs. Shelden:: "And glad we're not still doing it."

While Lilian Shelden may not be RV-ing anymore, more than 9-million other Americans are, in pop-up trailers that are not much different than those first campers, to spacious, state-of the art motor homes that are complete apartments on wheels. Officials in this billion dollar industry hope the national wanderlust will keep RVers on the road for a long time to come.

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