The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Bird’s Eye View of Trailerville


Part of an ongoing CLUI research program about manufactured buildings and mobile architecture in America.

TRAILERS ARE EVERYWHERE IN AMERICA, but nowhere more than in Elkhart Indiana. Over 100 trailer companies are located within a 25-mile radius of Elkhart, making half of the recreational vehicles in the country.

Why Elkhart? Well, somewhere has to be the largest trailer production area in the country, and it happened to evolve in Elkhart Indiana. RV historian Al Hasselbart has researched the local industry extensively, and attributes the founding of Elkhart's dominance in the RV world to a few people, but especially to Wilbur Schult, who opened a trailer dealership in town in 1933 after seeing some trailers displayed at the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago's 1933 World's Fair. Milo Miller moved his small Sportsman Trailer Company to Elkhart in 1934, and Schult became his national distributor, buying the company in 1936, calling it Schult Trailer Coach. By 1939, the company was making 125 trailers per week. Customers included itinerant vaudeville and carnival industries.

Many people came and went through associations with this company and started their own ventures in the late 1930's, some of which failed or moved away, others that grew. By the 1940's, there were enough manufacturers, and networks of parts suppliers to feed them, to make the region known as an advantageous place to open a trailer business. By 1949, 35 companies were operating locally, and the trade press touted Elkhart as "The Trailer Capital of the World." As the post war recreation and travel boom continued, Elkhart's trailer companies boomed along with them.

Today at least half of the workforce in the area works in the RV industry, or in companies supplying it. Small towns are flanked by vast assembly sheds, behind which fields of parts and chassis await integration. This is Amish country too, and traditional farmsteads and furrowed fields are interspersed with industrial parts and finished products laid out in organized rows.

CLUI photo
Contrasting carriages in Elkhart County, where Amish country and Trailerville share the land. CLUI photo

Many Amish work in the industry. Some factories have buses that cycle through the rural landscape, picking up Amish employees from outside their homes, as the Amish don't drive cars. It is a curious overlap for the Amish, whose abstinence from transportation technologies keep them bound to horse and buggy, and who are known for their simple practical craftsmanship, yet who work in assembly lines, putting together RVs with lightweight prefabricated material and pneumatic staplers.

CLUI photo
The Appian Way of Trailerville, inside the RV/MH Heritage Museum in Elkhart. CLUI photo

Elkhart itself is the largest town in the RV capital district, which extends throughout Elkart County, but principally the towns of Goshen, Middlebury, Wakarusa, Napponee, and Bristol. In Elkhart, the new headquarters of the RV/Motorhome Heritage Museum is easy to find, at exit 96 of the Interstate 80/90 in East Elkhart, and a great place to go to study the industry. The building was finished in March 2007, and a convention center is going in next door. Inside are two primary display areas, with the "Go RVing" display, which features five of the latest brand-new RVs from some of the manufacturers in the area. Each RV has pop-outs, making them much larger inside. The RV Founders Hall, has a great collection of historic RVs, laid out on a meandering pedestrian road. Upstairs a large study hall and research center has trade journals like Trailer Life, Trailer dealer, RV Companion, as well as old service manuals and old advertisements from the industry.

Forest River assembly building
Forest River assembly building near the company’s headquarters in Elkhart. CLUI photo

Dozens of companies operate in and around Elkhart proper (population 59,000), but one of the largest and most diversified headquartered in Elkhart is Forest River. The company was founded in 1996 by Peter Liegl, a veteran of the RV industry. Leigl built the company through acquisitions and consolidations, creating a $1.6 billion (annual sales, 2005) company in less than 10 years. He was the sole owner of the company when it was acquired by Birkshire Hathaway, billionaire Warren Buffet's investment company. Leigl still operates Forest River, which has nearly 60 plants, and over 5,400 employees, building several different brands of RVs, cargo trailers, recreational pontoon boats, shuttle busses, and manufactured housing units. Billboards around the county tout Forest River as "America's largest producer of towable RVs and cargo trailers," and the "Quiet Company."

Keystone RV aerial, Goshen
Keystone RV, Goshen. CLUI photo

The next largest town in the county is Goshen, less than 10 miles down Highway 33. Goshen is the headquarters for Keystone RV, the "largest producer of travel trailers and 5th wheels in America" (with additional locations in Pendleton, Oregon and Howe, Indiana, just outside the county). Keystone manufactures over a dozen brands, (Sprinter, Outback, Laredo, etc.) and is itself owned by Thor Industries. Thor is an industry giant, and may indeed be worthy of its claim as the largest builder of recreational vehicles. Thor owns three major motor coach companies (Damon, Four Winds, and Mandalay, all of which are manufactured in the Elkhart area), passenger and shuttle buses (including the Champion and El Dorado National brands, the nation's largest airport shuttle bus companies) and "towable" RV companies like Breckenridge, Keystone, Komfort, Dutchman, and Airstream.

Airstream is a bit of an industry aardvark, up until it was sold in the 1970s, and became more like other RVs in design. Before then, it was headed by its visionary founder, the fiercely independent Wally Byam, who led Airstream caravans around the globe, encircling the pyramids, and such. Airstream, under Thor, has recently rediscovered the retro power of the brand, and is now manufacturing new units in the old rounded aluminum style. No Airstreams are made around Elkhart though. They are all manufactured at the company's original location in Jackson Center, Ohio. Another company conspicuously absent from Elkhart is Winnebago, whose main manufacturing site is in Forest City, Iowa.

Coachman Industries aerial, Middlebury
Coachman Industries, Middlebury. CLUI photo

Middlebury, otherwise a small farming community ten miles northeast of Goshen, has three large RV companies that were established there and continue to operate today. Jayco was founded in 1968 by Lloyd L. Bontrager, a family man and inventor, who started with a design for a fold-down camper. Now the company does a full line of travel trailers, and employs 1,600 people, making it the largest privately owned independent RV manufacturer in the area. Pilgrim was founded by Dave Hoefer, who was the founder of Dutchman Trailers and Four Winds Motorhomes, both of which are now owned by Thor. He started Pilgrim just a few years ago, a company focusing on towable trailers designed to be simpler, with fewer options, to make them less expensive. The company was one of several in the area whose production increased dramatically with post-Katrina orders from FEMA.

Coachman Industries was founded in Middlebury in 1964, and also claims to be one of the largest full-line RV manufacturers, making travel trailers, motorhomes, and manufactured housing. It also has plants in Georgia and Michigan. Over the years Coachman Industries has produced nearly 600,000 RVs, and today makes around 15,000 a year, with 1,600 workers.

Wakarusa, ten miles south of Elkhart, is dominated by two companies, Monaco Coach, and Utilimaster. RV building started out in Wakarusa in the 1950s with the Holiday Rambler Company, founded by Richard Klinger. It was later bought by Monaco, which manufactures in Wakarusa, and in Coburg, Oregon.

Horizon Transport logistics yard, Wakarusa
Horizon Transport logistics yard, Wakarusa. CLUI photo

Getting RVs to their wholesalers and retail customers is an industry in itself. Several transportation companies work exclusively with manufacturers in getting their product to market. Family-owned horizon Transport of Wakarusa is one such company. It was started in 1994, and specializes in drive-away and tow-away (as opposed to big trucks carrying lots of small trailers). The company's contractor base of 1,400 trucks (mostly dually pickup trucks), drive 50 million miles delivering 80,000 vehicles, annually. They have another location in Coburg, Oregon, the other production center for Monaco Coach. Horizon did a lot of FEMA deliveries post-Katrina.

On the north end of town is the headquarters for Utilimaster Trucks. While not an RV manufacturer, the utility truck and trailer industries use the same material base and manufacturing process as the RV industry, as indicated by the related businesses owned by diversified RV companies like Forest River, and Thor. Utilimaster is one of the largest makers of walk-in vans and delivery truck bodies. It was started by Richard Klinger, the local founder of Holiday Rambler, in 1973. Nearly 1,000 employees work at the company, building boxes on to chassis made by ford and others, creating fleet delivery trucks for companies like Fedex, Frito Lay, Budget Truck Rental, and Cintas (uniforms), as well as mail trucks for the United States Postal Service.

Rows of chassis and parts at Utilimaster
Rows of chassis and parts at Utilimaster, in the industrial cropland of Trailerville. CLUI photo

Wakarusa is also the home of a unique individual, Devon Rose, who worked as a draftsman for Holiday Rambler. In his spare time, over the years, he made a miniature version of the town of Wakarusa, circa 1965, in his basement workshop, a workspace he made with scraps and castaway materials of the local RV industry. His models of the buildings of his town, over 150 of them, show great detail, and are made from scratch, using popsicle sticks and toothpicks, at a scale of one inch to five feet. His hand-made art, made slowly over the past 40 years, comprised what he calls the Bird's Eye View Museum, and it stands apart from the rapid full-scale prefab factories that surround his town, turning out transient, and ephemeral, recreational vehicles. 

An airplane hangs from the ceiling above the miniature landscape of Wakarusa in the Bird's Eye View Museum
An airplane hangs from the ceiling above the miniature landscape of Wakarusa in the Bird's Eye View Museum. CLUI photo
aerial of Bird's Eye View Museum
A bird's eye view of the Bird's Eye View Museum, in the heart of Trailerville. CLUI photo