Early recreation vehicles helped to spur the growth and development of campgrounds on U.S. lands.
By Greg Detterbeck, F496S
“Within the last one or two years a new type of trailer has suddenly sprung up, of enormous proportions and outfitted luxuriously for actual living. No longer is the trailer merely a help to camping but it obviates camping altogether. It is truly a modern dwelling on wheels, a moving bungalow provided with beds, cooking stoves, sanitary equipment, running water, ice boxes, and electric lights. Units costing as much as $5,000.00 are in circulation …
“There are two possibilities: either the trailer houses are tolerated and accommodated or they are prohibited.
“Whatever policy may be adopted, there is no doubt that speedy decision is necessary. The summer of 1935 is going to show an immense increase in numbers and in size of house trailers, and it may be an act of justice to their users to settle their status before it is too late.”
— from The Trailer Menace, E.P. Meinecke, U.S. Department of Agriculture, April 1935
At the beginning of the 1900s, America’s early campers settled into rustic accommodations in U.S. national forests. Arriving on foot, horseback, or wagon and later in “moving bungalows,” they typically brought only the bare essentials to set up temporary homes in the natural shelter of the woods.
They may have taken to the great outdoors as a relief from harsh working conditions, which were not as considerate as the modern eight-hour days and five-day work weeks. For some, the Great Depression was the catalyst: after losing jobs and homes, they bought a tent and pitched it near water. They were there to go “gypsying,” and to find relief in the newly reserved national forests.
Thousands of campers were drawn to the scenic beauty of the U.S. national forests. Their arrival was viewed as positive, where the public was utilizing and enjoying the health benefits of the forests, and negative, causing growing problems with sanitation and degradation of the environment. Also, in the Great Depression years, Forest Service funding fluctuated and declined.
But despite the decline in funding, the Great Depression era was a period of facilities expansion, thanks to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Project Administration (WPA), which provided labor and materials for construction.
American industrialist Henry Ford made automobiles more affordable and increasingly accessible to the middle class. In turn, the Forest Service saw a huge increase in campground use. “Motor camping,” or an auto camping fad, took off. People customized their automobiles by adding fold-out tents (which were offered in the Montgomery Ward catalog), cooking platforms, and even toilets (originally chamber pots, such as those in the Pierce-Arrow’s Touring Landau).
In the capitalist order of supply and demand, several companies began to manufacture trailers and motorized coaches, which were outfitted with the greatest in living quarters for that time. Fabricated coaches, trailers, and truck-camping contraptions entered the market and, for those who could afford one, were priced between $500 and $1,000.
Ford and three of his friends — Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs — embarked on a series of summer camping trips. These well-organized trips by the self-proclaimed “Four Vagabonds” included the use of a custom-built Lincoln truck outfitted as a camp kitchen camping car with a gasoline stove and a built-in icebox. During a 1919 trip to the Adirondacks, more than 50 vehicles accompanied them, each modified with compartments for tents, cots, chairs, electric lights, barrels of water, and other conveniences.
Each outing drew national attention, and the media coverage helped to spark a desire in many to acquire a vehicle and ”take their home with them.” However, the growing fame of the four vagabond-campers brought about too much public attention, and the trips were discontinued. Most Americans were unable to afford such luxuries anyway. Even so, some were able to engage in some form of auto camping.
As increasing numbers of people took to camping, and the equipment they incorporated began to develop in convenience, comfort, and luxury, the “auto-camper” grew more popular as well. The Park Service found it necessary to search for more ways to accommodate the influx, even designing makeshift stoves and outhouses, using any leftover material that could be found.
Overcrowding and overused sanitation facilities became so stressed that in 1935 a U.S.D.A. plant pathologist, E.P. Meinecke, sent a paper he had written to Dr. Haven Metcalf, “prinicipal pathologist in charge” of the Forest and Plant Industry (excerpted at the beginning of this article). Meinecke urged governmental agencies to “start the ball rolling in the interest of forest protection and camp regulation” and emphasized the necessity of planning campgrounds and regulating their use “in the interest of protection of recreational assets and of preservation of public safety and good order.” Several government agencies were addressing recreation, either directly or indirectly, as well as the haphazardness surrounding overcrowding, since public demand continued to outgrow existing services.
Adding to the battle being swept along in the winds of the Great Depression was the need for an economic recovery from the 25 percent unemployment rate of this time period. There had to be common plans for forest protection, public availability, and the camping spirit as contrasted with city and town life.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, then-New York governor, won the passage of legislation that allowed the purchase of abandoned or neglected farmlands for reforestation. The following year, Roosevelt set up a temporary emergency relief administration that hired unemployed workers to improve forest conditions and to create recreational facilities for the public. The states of California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, Virginia, and Indiana followed suit.
In his acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for U.S. president, FDR touted a plan to convert many millions of acres of marginal and unused land into timberland through reforestation. The United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression when Roosevelt won the presidency, but after he took the oath of office, he called together several department heads. They drew up a bill that outlined a conservation and development work program related to forestry, grassland, and soil erosion, which would involve half a million young men between the ages of 18 and 25, called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” These men would live in camps under a military-discipline structure and receive a wage of $30 per month, $25 of which they were required to send home to their families.
Within his first 100 days in office, President Roosevelt signed the Federal Unemployment Relief Act into law. The program became known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). By April the CCC signed up 250,000 unmarried, unemployed, healthy young men to work alongside Forest Service and Park Service employees. FDR brought the nation’s young men and the decaying land together in an effort to save both. The result: volunteers gained in physical conditioning, heightened morale, and increased employability.
During the CCC era, the “Tree Army” planted 3 billion trees to help reforest the nation; constructed more than 800 parks nationwide; upgraded most state parks; updated methods of fighting forest fires; and built a network of service and sanitary buildings, along with roadways to these remote areas. Such activity helped to create a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources. From that investment, Americans today can take their families to camp, fish, swim, and be close to nature and the scenic beauty of the nation’s forests. The CCC renewed decimated U.S. forests, worked on recreational development, built more campgrounds and the roads to get to them; and constructed dams for recreational enjoyment, complete with picnic shelters, swimming pools, fireplaces, and rest rooms.
Private campgrounds followed the same path of development in facilities to meet the growing needs and demands of additional services, from the simple convenience of a hardened parking area for RVs to the more technical conveniences needed by some RVers in today’s camping-experience world.
In 1938 the Forest Service claimed 3,587 developed campgrounds used by 3 million visitors. By 1952 more than 4.5 million camping visits were reported. That number nearly doubled to 8 million camping visits 10 years later, in 1962. And according to Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, approximately 8.9 million households own RVs today.
In 2011 a total of 278,939,216 people visited U.S. national parks. The Forest Service now recognizes three types of camping experiences: backcountry (dispersed) for backpackers, campground (improved) for tent camping, and full-service (developed) for RVs.
Whatever means of enjoyment a person or family desires in camping and campgrounds, it all started from many facets of evolution. From rustic to affordable to luxurious, the camping facilities, the campers, and the associations have progressed from what was reportedly the first camping organization, the “Tin Can Tourists,” formed in 1919. Of course, Family Motor Coach Association, established in July 1963, now celebrates its 50th year. Happy 50th Anniversary, FMCA.