While Elkhart, Indiana may be better known for its Amish community, this small town also carries the title for being the capital of Recreational Vehicle (RV) production in the United States. Thanks to the Hoosier spirit and innovative approach to travel, the RV explosion had its epicenter in this quiet community.
The people of Indiana have a great history, one that spans inspirational sports stories, hilarious writers, and even delicious Hoosier Beer. One of the lesser-known stories is how a simple idea about recreation and design spawned an industry and an American pastime.
Mr. Miller’s travel trailer
Milo Miller earned a living as a salesman in Elkhart, Indiana in 1931. His job required him to travel, but he didn’t want to leave his family behind at home. Rather than abandon his wife and children, Miller built a small travel trailer for his family.
As they journeyed along the road, Miller received countless offers for the ingenious addition to his car. Before Miller’s novel idea, travel trailers sat awkwardly on top of cars. The idea of traveling and living in style like the Miller family attracted a lot of attention.
He sold the first one, built a second, and he soon had a buyer for that one, too. Miller quickly assessed that his idea had great potential.
Miller founded a small company selling motor homes to the public. Other people in Indiana copied his ideas and started building trailers as well. In 1933, Miller displayed his RVs at the Chicago World’s Fair. They impressed a man named Schult so much that he bought Miller’s company.
Schult went on to start Schult Homes, one of the biggest manufacturers of RVs today.
The use of recreational vehicles spread quickly across the United States. Americans loved traveling by vehicle, and the idea of living on the road — and not having to depend on hotels — had people reaching for their wallets.
Even Hollywood embraced the trend. Chevrolet offered the blonde vaudeville star, Mae West, one of the earliest models to entice her off the stage and in front of Paramount’s film cameras. Called a Housecar at the time, it included an ice box, tea table, white vinyl seats, wood paneling, and even a little porch on the back where she could wave to her fans.
The beloved TV couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made the film, The Long, Long Trailer, a comedy inspired by misadventures on the road while traveling by RV. The film was a big hit, and it remains a film classic today.
The Next Chapter
RV travel remained a trend throughout the ‘60s and’70s. Camps equipped with hookups for water and electricity became a cheap alternative for families traveling on a budget. Of course, entrepreneurs established camps and sites for RV travelers all over the country, including several in Indiana. Many people still enjoy the camps today.
RV parks now offer modern amenities like complimentary Wi-Fi, along with traditional hotel perks like swimming pools. While RVs continue to get bigger and fancier, many enthusiasts look to the earlier models, like the Airstream, to express their love of travel and the unencumbered lifestyle.
Indiana and RVs today
Indiana continues to dominate the RV market, producing more than 80% of these unique vehicles. So, if you see an RV anywhere in the world, it was likely built in the Hoosier state with craftsmanship and dedication.
Indiana hosts many motor home conventions that RV enthusiasts from around the world attend, including the Crossroads to Fun convention in Indianapolis, an annual gathering for more than 90 years.
What keeps Americans in particular so devoted to their RVs? Is it the cool new innovations that manufacturers pack into each model year after year? Some people love the technology and design as well as the secret compartments and clever spaces.
Or perhaps the devotion comes from a yearning for simpler times and the love of the road. Either way, there’s no question that Americans have a long, devoted history with travel and adventure.
The next time you see an RV, give Indiana a nod for being the birthplace of this great tradition. It’s a great way to tour the country while enjoying all the comforts of home.