A Tribute to the RV Industry
The RV/MH Hall of Fame offers a library, a convention center, a place to recognize the industry’s leaders and a museum featuring plenty of antique RVs – all under one roof.
Imagine a place where you can see vintage RVs against a backdrop of some of the most dramatic scenery the United States has to offer.
That’s exactly what visitors to the RV/MH Hall of Fame’s museum see when they take a stroll along its black track road winding past more than 50 RVs spanning the timeframe from the 1910s to the 1970s. Those antique RVs are displayed in life-like settings underneath murals depicting some of North America’s most-traveled destinations, from the high desert of the Grand Canyon to the beach-side paradise of the Florida Keys.
The RV/MH Hall of Fame is appropriately located in Elkhart, Ind., home to the largest concentration of RV manufacturers in the world. It’s close proximity to I-80 helps draw traffic to the facility.
While primarily known for housing a collection of vintage RVs, the 86,000-square-foot facility also hosts an industry library, a convention center, a hall recognizing the Go RVing media campaign, and of course the RV/MH Hall of Fame, which pays tribute to the founders and leaders who have helped shape the industry into what it is today.
Industry’s Innovation on Display
The first floor of the RV/MH Hall of Fame is dominated by Founder’s Hall, which houses the museum portion of the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
A total of 55 units – the oldest of which dates back to 1913 – are displayed along a visitor walking path, or “road back in time,” as one would see them set up at a campground. Models from the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are represented, including the prized David Woodworth collection of 34 fully re-furbished antique RVs.
The Woodworth collection is housed in Ingram Hall, which is named in honor of Robert “Boots” and Betty Ingram, who purchased the collection for the museum.
“Probably the most unique unit is a 1915 Model-T based camper that includes multiple slide-outs,” says Al Hesselbart, RV/MH Hall of Fame historian, who bases the decision upon the response he’s received on the camper from visitors. “People are amazed slide-outs on RVs are not a recent development.”
Tom McNulty, the vice president of the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum, says museum visitors tend to be deeply impressed with the ingenuity employed by early RV makers.
“Visitors are just so amazed by the craftsmanship,” he says.
The museum’s Founders Hall also is home to the oldest-known RV (as recognized by the Smithsonian) – a 1913-Earl travel trailer. Donated by the late Wade Thompson of Thor Industries, the antique RV is also the oldest-known non-tent travel trailer.
The most talked about RV in the museum’s collection, according to McNulty, is a deep-blue 1931 Chevrolet Housecar owned by actress Mae West. The chauffer-driven Housecar was built for Paramount Studios to present to West as a gift.
“It was built to entice Mae West off the stage and into a movie career,” McNulty says. “The unit pleases everyone, and not just individuals familiar with history.”
Other notable vintage units include a 1931 Tennessee Traveler motorhome, a 1957 10-foot-long Scotty teardrop travel trailer, a 1967 Winnebago Class A gas motorhome and the 1976 futuristic-looking Cadillac Eldorado-based homemade motorhome. Additionally, the first Coachmen, the 1964 Cadet, as well as the iconic 1974 GMC Class A motorhome, are also housed within the museum’s 40,000-square-foot portion of the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
“It’s a part of history. These units are pristine and you can’t go out and find these anymore – and that is what makes them attractive to the public,” McNulty says. “Many units within this collection create a kind of interest and surprise when people come through here.”
Also included within the RV/MH Hall of Fame museum is a hall devoted to honoring 20 industry suppliers that features their individual company histories and innovations.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the RV/MH Hall of Fame is the museum, which features 55 vintage RVs representing models from the 1910s through the 1970s. Among those remarkable units is a 1967 Winnebago Class C motorhome and a 1931 Tennessee Traveler.
Not Just Another Building
The entire RV/MH Hall of Fame building is 86,000 square feet, encompassing a hall of fame, library, museum and convention center. The building’s features include a two-story atrium with large prominent glass windows, spacious and open display halls, and displays of industry-related art.
One such piece of artwork is the two-story high photo mural depicting the history of the RV industry from 1900. Other mementoes – including 800 bricks with the names of those who have donated money for the RV/MH Hall of Fame’s construction – adorn the entrance surrounding the facility’s patio.
The $9 million building – located appropriately in Elkhart, Ind., the RV Capital of the World – took two years to construct, and its modern architecture can be seen by travelers along Interstate 80.
“Consequently, we get a number of people who have gone by the Hall of Fame once or twice, and say, ‘OK, let’s go in,’” says McNulty. “It couldn’t be in a better location.”
During the prime travel season – mid-May to mid-September – the Hall of Fame can see, on average, about 150 visitors per day, or a little over 900 visitors a week. Conversely, when the upper-Midwest winter sets in, the number of visitors drops dramatically.
Regardless the number of visitors the RV/MH Hall of Fame sees in a day, those numbers are nothing compared to what the building stands for, Hesselbart says.
“I was involved in the origination of the RV/MH Hall of Fame,” he says. “The Hall of Fame is the institution that gives us our credibility, and it was started in 1972 where we were charged with the responsibility of recognizing industry leaders with their contributions to the greater good and development of the industry.”
The RV/MH Hall of Fame honored its inaugural class of inductees in 1972. However, the organization existed solely as a paper entity known as the RV/MH Heritage Foundation until 1985. Since that time, the RV/MH Hall of Fame took up residence at an office in downtown Elkhart, where its mailing address changed every two years as the Foundation’s chairman retired.
“Once located in Elkhart in 1985, the industry began talking about building a center or fixed-base for the hall of fame,” Hesselbart says. “That fixed base was built by leadership in the form of a supplier, Vern Sailor, who solicited from the industry funds to build a home for the Hall of Fame, which was dedicated in 1990.”
At that time, the concept was to recognize those who had been inducted into the Hall of Fame and to provide a meeting center for the industry, Hesselbart says. However, in 1994, that facility (also located in downtown Elkhart) had yet to host a meeting, but Hesselbart says it had the potential to become a nice museum if the Foundation could acquire more vintage units.
The Foundation solicited the industry for vintage RVs starting in the fall of 1994, and by 1999 the organization had filled the space available to capacity with vintage units.
“So we looked to expand,” he says. “And that expansion resulted in the building we have now – where we went from having 22 vintage units to about 50 vintage units and five new units today.”
On Aug. 6, 2007, the modernistic RV/MH Hall of Fame – including its antique RV displays, a library, theater/convention center and one of the largest Go RVing exhibits, among many RV supplier informational booths – opened its doors for the first time to the public at its dedication ceremony.
RV/MH Hall of Fame representatives say that many visitors to the museum are surprised and impressed by the ingenuity employed by early RV makers, who incorporated features like slide-outs into those units.
Remembering the Industry Leaders
Since the RV/MH Heritage Foundation’s inaugural class in 1972, the total number of inductees into the RV/MH Hall of Fame now includes 322 industry pioneers and leaders.
Of the inaugural class of 1972, 14 men were honored, including Airstream founder Wally Byam and the designer of the first RV toilet with a holding tank, Hal McPherson.
Just this spring, the RV/MH Hall of Fame inducted the Class of 2010, whose honorees included the likes of Jim Fogdall of Ace Fogdall RV in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Raymond F. Bassett of Parkwood Homes and Honey RV, as well as eight other leaders in both the RV and manufactured housing segments of the industry.
The RV/MH Hall of Fame inducts 10 individuals a year, and each inductee is honored with a framed photograph and a plaque that are on display at the facility.
“First of all, the RV/MH Hall of Fame establishes a history of the industry and recognizes the people who help make this industry,” McNulty says. “To be inducted perpetuates all of what has happened in both (the RV and manufactured housing) industries since their inceptions when these units were made in garages.
“The basic premise of the RV/MH Hall of Fame is to perpetuate this history,” McNulty says.
Facility is Not Just for Sightseers
On the second floor of the facility, leading away from the RV/MH Hall of Fame, is a library that houses more than 20,000 books, consumer and trade publications, pamphlets and other RV and manufactured housing-related literature.
“It is the largest collection of industry-related literature anywhere,” Hesselbart says. “The library gets visited by researchers from pretty good-sized universities. On four different occasions, we’ve had researchers in from the Smithsonian, and with some frequency, we’ve had attorneys and other representatives from the industry researching patent documents and materials.
“Not only do people come (to the RV/MH Hall of Fame) out of curiosity for the museum, but to do academic and industry research,” he says.
The library is strictly a resource library – meaning its books, literature or DVDs and other materials cannot be checked out.
In addition, the library houses a collection of 5,000 images (both photographs and slides), as well as two large cases of videos and DVDs with some industry footage going back to the 1930s.
Researchers also will find specific RV brand literature. For example, Hesselbart says a collector donated every service bulletin ever printed about the 1970s GMC motorhome.
“We get vintage RV fans researching the backgrounds of some long, out-of-business companies, or people just reading the most recent trade and consumer publications,” he says. “We get people with all manners of curiosity – and some are just enthralled with the magazines from the 1930s.”
Hesselbart cites in example a 1936 Los Angeles Times article that predicted everyone will be living on wheels in the future. British periodicals from WWII are also quite popular with library visitors, he says.
“Their (British) sense of humor of what was going to happen to the camping industry after the War is interesting,” he adds.
Looking to the Future
While the RV/MH Hall of Fame is dedicated to preserving the past, its leaders are looking to the future. One step they would like to take is to increase the size of the facility’s conference rooms to accommodate more people for dinners and rallies. They would also would like to have its parking lot paved, which will allow for it to increase the size of all types of outdoor shows it hasn’t been able to offer before.
With the RV/MH Hall of Fame’s 35,000-square-foot convention center, McNulty says the group’s leadership intends to bring back the modular housing show.
“We tried to bring it to several locations, but we want to bring it here,” he says.
The RV/MH Hall of Fame also hosts non-industry related events such as weddings, local dance troupes, the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce annual events.
In light of recent financial problems facing the RV/MH Hall of Fame, there has been a debate regarding the facility’s importance to the RV industry and whether it’s worth saving.
For his part, McNulty says it would be a tremendous black eye on the RV and manufactured housing industries if the RV/MH Hall of Fame were to close.
“There are a number of people who care, especially after coming through (the RV/MH Hall of Fame),” he says. “Of course, the naysayers are not looking ahead – and don’t think they need it, but they just don’t understand their history.”