October 2018 – The region around Elkhart, Goshen and Shipshewana in the northern part of Indiana is the heart of the RV industry, and a trip there is a must for everyone who loves RVing. One of the coolest things to see is the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum (“MH stands for Manufactured Housing, not “Motor Home”).
We visited Elkhart, Indiana, back in 2009. That visit was during the very dark days of the recession, and the entire RV industry was in total free fall as it plunged to miserable depths in a very steep nose dive. RV manufacturers that had been around for as long as forty or fifty years were dropping like flies.
At that point, unfortunately, darker days were still to come. It was hard to imagine when or how the economy, especially the RV manufacturing industry, would ever recover.
So, what a marvelous shock it was this year to arrive in Elkhart and find the place absolutely humming with activity. The economic rocketship ride has taken Elkhart and the RV industry by storm, and there were help wanted signs in front of every manufacturing plant and on every street corner.
When the RV manufacturers are running at full tilt, everything around them takes off at a sprint too.
There were RV transport trucks towing sparkling new trailers everywhere we turned. Each transporter was embarking on a trip to haul the attached trailer to a dealership in some far corner of the country, and every RV manufacturer’s lot was filled with rows and rows of rigs waiting their turn to be shipped out.
The mood was almost giddy, and there were help wanted signs at all the supermarkets, restaurants and fast food joints. I don’t think there was a company anywhere that was suffering. One coffee company even cracked a joke about needing new hires right on their sign.
Wages were ticking upwards too. One small manufacturer of specialty trailers told us the starting wage for assembly line workers at their plant — once they’ve proven themselves for a month — is $27 per hour. Wow!!
But besides the exuberantly happy mood we felt around town, we were having a blast just being right smack in the heart of the RV industry where something like 90% of the RV-related corporations have their headquarters. Every direction we looked we saw a familiar brand of something.
The manufacturing plants go on for miles, and all the big corporations have many many plants.
The companies and the residents are all very much tied in with each other, so it was no surprise to see familiar names on the Adopt-A-Highway signs too.
Every RV manufacturer offers factory tours of some kind, and we made it a point to do quite a few. But just driving around Elkhart, Goshen, Shipshewana, Middlebury and Nappannee, it was amazing to discover how enormous this industry is and how vast its many manufacturing plants are.
Of course, lots of other kinds of vehicles are made in the Elkhart area too. How cool to see a zillion shuttle buses hot off the assembly line out gleaming in the sun.
Much of this area is Amish country, and every so often we would come across signs letting us know their horses and buggies were in the area. How fun to see the horse tie-ups at the supermarkets and to see the horses and buggies waiting patiently outside various businesses. We saw the Amish working in the plants too.
It was also the peak of fall. At a cider mill the pumpkins were stacked high and the cider was selling fast (yum!).
Even though we had visited the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum the last time we were here back in 2009, we wanted to see it again this time. It is unusual for an industry to celebrate itself and its products with so fabulous a showcase in such an impressive building.
Don’t miss it if you drive by on I-90 (you can see it from the highway!).
Out in front of RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum there’s a statue of a star spangled elk. He’s decorated with the painting of an RV, and very close to his heart is the RV’s front door. Perfect!
There is a lot to see inside the museum, but the coolest attraction is the Go RVing Hall which houses an incredible collection of vintage RVs.
The RVs are lined up along a road that is painted on the floor, and this road winds all around a huge room and even goes over a small bridge. At the beginning of the road the RVs are arrayed in more-or-less chronological order, so you can see how the RV industry developed as you move from one rig to the next.
One of the first rigs is a 1913 Ford Model T towing a 1913 Earl Trailer.
Another early rig was a “Collapsible Automobile Camping Outfit” that could be attached or detached from any roadster.
The museum shows a page from the May 1916 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine that has photos of this inventive contraption in action. Note that they’d already figured out how to get hot water for showers… over a century ago!
The early days of RVing was a time of enormous creativity as people tried building all kinds of crazy contraptions to get themselves up off the ground while camping and have a little storage space for clothes and food as well.
Some were simple popup (folding) tent trailers that were obvious precursors to today’s popups. Others were very high end and fancy “house cars” that were early versions of motorhomes for the wealthy.
Some of those early companies were wildly successful. Covered Wagon was one of the most successful. At their peak they turned out 40-50 trailers every day.
World War II put a quick end to that success, however, and by the end of the war the RV industry had virtually collapsed. Almost every manufacturer went out of business, including Covered Wagon.
That meteoric rise and sudden crash of the RV industry seemed eerily familiar to what we saw happen after 2008, especially in the trailer industry.
All of the wonderful trailer manufacturers that had built good quality, solid trailers for a modest price for decades up until 2008 were gone by 2015. The rest consolidated under two main conglomerates. At the same time, all the suppliers save a few also consolidated under a single conglomerate.
Sadly, this has left the current trailer customer with a million different models of trailers to choose from that are all extremely similar except for the graphics and the name on the outside of the trailer.
But so go the wheels of invention and maturity in every industry. The great fun of the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum is seeing things like the first trailer that Fleetwood built in 1950.
And an elegant trailer by Yellowstone Trailer built in 1954.
Early trailers had all kinds of interesting shapes. The 1967 FAN trailer had a flip tail at the back end.
Underneath the trailer, tucked between the two wheels, was an early version of MORryde’s rubber equalizer system. When we toured the MORryde plant we learned that they had spray painted the equalizer on this trailer silver to match the trailer and to make sure people could see it.
We savored every minute in the museum, and I went back again a second time for more.
Mark loved the early mechanical systems — imagine a regular shower head screwed onto the outside of your trailer or an air-hose system to pump air into the water tank to pressurize it — and I loved imagining people of an earlier era taking these fun and crazy travel pods out to the National Parks to breathe the fresh air and see the wonders there.
I’ll have more for you from this trip to the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum. In the meantime you can see more cool antique RVs in our 2009 blog post about the museum. They’ve moved a few rigs around, but they are all still there.
Most important, if you are planning a trip that will take you anywhere near Elkhart, Indiana, check your favorite RV manufacturer’s website for their factory tour schedule, and be sure to visit to this special museum.
Never miss a post — it’s free!
More info about the Elkhart Area and RV/MH Hall of Fame aand Museum:
- RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum
- RV Parks and Campgrounds near Elkhart
- Locations of the towns around the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum
Other blog posts from our RV travels in Indiana:
- RVing Through History – 80 Years of RV Travel! 11/09/18
- Elkhart, IN – A Visit to the RV/MH Hall of Fame 06/30/09
- Elkhart, IN – RV Factories and Amish Country 06/27/09
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