Fascinated by the evolution of the RVing industry, David Woodworth’s interest in the past has resulted in one of the finest antique RV collections in the world.
By Pamela Selbert
Like an island in a sea of new, state-of-the-art motorhomes, trailers, and fifth-wheels, David Woodworth’s RV was quite conspicuous at a recent RV show in St. Louis, Missouri. His trailer may have been on the cutting edge of recreation vehicle technology at one time, but that obviously was awhile ago. The cardboard and glue exterior of the 9-foot 3-inch gray-and-black trailer belied its age, yet it still was a bit surprising when Mr. Woodworth said that it was built in 1930.
A look inside revealed a most primitive version of today’s sumptuous counterparts, with an icebox, a black Coleman stove, and a rather crudely constructed white wood bed. And the car that pulled the trailer “” shiny black, fully restored, and gorgeous “” was a Ford Model A roadster with a rumble seat that was new in 1929.
However, unlike the throng of dealers trying to drum up business for the latest RVs, Mr. Woodworth, 65, a regular at RV shows such as this one, had not come in search of a buyer for his travel trailer and Model A. His interest is in acquiring historical motorhomes and trailers, not selling them. And this particular trailer is part of the vast collection he’s been working on for more than 20 years.
Most of the vehicles in Mr. Woodworth’s collection “” approximately 50 at the time of this writing “” were built before 1937. His oldest is a 1914 seven-foot Kozy Kamp tent trailer with buggy wheels, while the collection’s most contemporary RV is a 15-foot travel trailer built in 1949 by the company that would become Winnebago Industries. But motorhomes and trailers are only part of Mr. Woodworth’s vast array, which also includes just about every sort of item you can think of that would have been used at a campsite during the early 20th century. Among these are collapsible canvas buckets (that hardly leak); antique tin cups, plates, and flatware; lanterns; gasoline-powered Coleman stoves used to heat an RV as well as for cooking; tables with folding legs; and much more.
Fascinated with the vehicles and their accoutrements, and having had a long personal history with them, Mr. Woodworth enjoys sharing his knowledge with others about early RVs, their evolution, and the rich impact RVing has had on American culture.
According to Mr. Woodworth, a 1922 New York Times article estimated that some 15 million auto campers were on the road. At the time, he said, campgrounds, some with as many as 800 sites, provided a variety of services, from gas stations and repair shops to hair salons and movie theaters.
A gregarious man with an infectious laugh, Mr. Woodworth, who lives in Tehachapi, California, joked that he was practically born in an RV. His parents were homesteaders on land near Anchorage, Alaska, at the time of his birth, but while he was still a baby, his father purchased a 32-foot Detroiter travel trailer and moved the family to Maine. From there they trekked on to Florida, where Mr. Woodworth’s earliest memories of RVing were made. The family, which also included a younger brother, lived in the Detroiter for about seven years.
“My dad was a welder in a Maine shipyard during World War II, but the job ended with the war,” Mr. Woodworth said. “After that he went into carpentry and followed work across the country to Florida, Texas, Arizona, and finally California, where I grew up in Morro Bay.”
After high school Mr. Woodworth joined the Coast Guard. He joked that he made this decision “because of the way the pretty California girls flocked around guys in uniform.” But instead of basking in the Southern California sun, he was stationed in Seattle, Washington, and Michigan. During his duty in Michigan he was sent to a six-month school in Norfolk, Virginia, where his life was changed.
Mr. Woodworth planned to make the military his career, but during his stint in Virginia he visited a Christian fellowship center one evening where he listened to a speaker discuss whether it was reasonable to believe that the Bible was true.
“I had never been very interested in Christianity, but after that I started studying the Bible on my own,” he said.
Rather than staying in the military, Mr. Woodworth decided to attend Dallas Bible College in Texas, and soon was leading Bible studies. He didn’t plan to be a full-time pastor, but eventually he received calls to several churches and served as pastor at Woodland Hills Baptist Church in California for nearly 20 years, until 1987.
“During those years I also wanted to travel, but as a pastor I didn’t have the money for motels,” he said. “Then at a garage sale I found a 1927 tent trailer with wooden spoke wheels and bought it for $200.” He already owned a 1928 Ford Model A to tow it. For the next six years Mr. Woodworth and his daughters, Sarah and Heather, spent their vacations crossing the United States in the antique vehicles.
“We were celebrities of a sort “” the RVing pastor and his daughters “” and appeared on local TV in many of the towns we passed through,” he said with a grin. “The experience got me started collecting antique camping equipment.”
Mr. Woodworth said that after his first marriage ended (he married his current wife, Sheran, 13 years ago), he began to devote his time to developing his RV collection and thinking about one day opening a museum. Several years ago representatives from the California state park system approached him about purchasing his collection for a museum. He was offered $1.5 million for the lot and he agreed, although he said he couldn’t replace it for $6 million. Because of California’s poor financial situation, however, the sale has never been completed, although the state spent $80,000 to catalog Mr. Woodworth’s assortment.
More recently, he has been invited to develop a museum to display his collection at a soon-to-be-built RV complex in Franklin, Kentucky, called Garvin’s. Construction of the complex was expected to be announced by Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher on March 10. It reportedly will include a showcase of new RVs, a large service center, a Camping World store, a campground, restaurants, a hotel, and RV fueling stations.
In the meantime, although much of his collection is packed up and ready to go in California, Mr. Woodworth continues adding to it and stays busy as a representative for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
Every April or May for the past 15 years, RVIA has provided him with a new motorhome “” different make, different model each time “” that he takes to RV shows in a variety of cities. There, at a campground, park, or other site, he sets up a historical display alongside the new coach to show people what used to be and how the vehicles have changed. He often appears on local television and radio programs to talk about RVing.
One of his favorite displays features an elegant 26-foot Pierce-Arrow motorhome with stained-glass windows. When purchased new in 1928, it cost a hefty $3,500, and it came with a shower and a toilet, he said. The Model A Ford with a rumble seat, which he said makes it especially desirable, also turns up frequently. He paid a somewhat extravagant $385 for the car, considering its condition at the time, and estimates that he has since invested approximately $17,000 to restore it.
Besides collecting antique RVs and acting as a spokesman for RVIA, Mr. Woodworth also has started an intriguing enterprise he calls T-Tours. The company, which is located in Fish Camp, California, just outside the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, offers visitors the opportunity to drive an antique Model A or Model T through the magnificent park. T-Tours (866-488-6877; www.driveamodelt.com) offers a variety of packages from June through the end of November (depending on the weather) that can include meals, lodging at fine hotels, tickets to Yosemite attractions, and more. The basic one-day outing (gasoline provided) costs $400 per couple, while the extravagant six-day tour begins at $4,900. During October the company also offers its Coast & Castle Tour in Cambria, California, which includes tickets to Hearst Castle and four days of touring towns along the California coastline. The company also will open a bed-and-breakfast in Fish Camp later this year called the Tin Lizzie Inn.
Mr. Woodworth currently owns a dozen Model Ts but just two Model As that are used in the venture, which he said is growing in popularity. But, joking that he has “an amazing capacity for making bad decisions,” he said that Model Ts require far more maintenance than Model As, so he plans to reduce their numbers and buy more Model As.
Soon to begin its fourth season, T-Tours turned a profit for the first time last year, he said. “But having fun is the most important part of everything I do,” he said, also referring to his career in the world of antique vehicles and RVing. “Making money has always come second.”
Quoting from the original brochure for the 1930 trailer, Mr. Woodworth said, “With an RV you don’t need to endure inconvenience on your travels, there’s no luggage to pack around and no labor to spoil your holiday.” He continued, agreeing that with the RV “you have the freedom to stop wherever you are “” and be at home.” But he shook his head and laughed while reading that traveling by RV is a “good way to save money,” then added, “Even though it can get pretty expensive, for me it’s still the only way to go.”
Mr. Woodworth credits his parents and early RVing experiences for giving him a feel for this country, for the richness of the United States. “It’s made me more well-rounded “” but not literally,” he said with a laugh, patting his slim midsection. “When families go RVing, everybody learns together.”