Airstream museum pays tribute to the venturesome spirit
One of Wally Byam’s favorite pastimes was hiking and camping, but his wife Marion didn’t share his love of sleeping on the ground in a tent. So, Wally decided to come up with a way that they could go camping together, where she would be comfortable and enjoy it as well, and the Airstream travel trailer was born.
Wally’s legacy is now on display at the newly opened Airstream Heritage Center in Jackson Center. Visitors are greeted at the museum entrance, located in the company's Ohio headquarters, by a large neon sign that says Welcome To The Mothership.
Terry Coleman worked full-time as a codes and safety manager for the Airstream company. After he retired he came back part-time as a receptionist at the headquarters and was there the very first day construction began on the Heritage Center.
“It’s ninety-one years of Airstream history, and I was thirty-nine years of that history, so it’s just very special to me,” Coleman said from behind the desk. “It’s just a unique trailer. Everybody recognizes it and you see them everywhere, and they are very well built, they hold their value, and people have just fallen in love with Airstream’s over the decades.”
Beckam Alison and his brother have come today with their grandfather Rick Oral. The trio have been spending the summer touring Ohio museums. “I think they’re really cool,” Beckam told me. “They kinda look like a silver bullet, that’s why I like them.”
“When we were at the Neil Armstrong Museum, that was one of the things the astronauts were contained in while they were in quarantine,” added Rick.
Heritage Center curator Samantha Martin says that her favorite part of working to bring the Heritage Center to life were the incredible stories shared by Wally's surviving family members, people who went on the caravans all around the world, and from retired associates that worked at the company for decades. “Just, really hearing that first person perspective of what this company and this lifestyle means to them was an amazing experience,” she said.
The museum is full of really great vintage Airstreams - some that Wally personally used. One of the oldest models is a 1938 Clipper named Old Grand Dad, the first riveted, aluminum, silver-bullet style Airstream. That shiny, futuristic-looking metal shell has been what’s made Airstream travel trailers so recognizable. “Wally had a saying that the company still embraces,” Samantha says. “Let’s not make changes, let’s only make improvements.”
In the 1950’s Wally started the Wally Byam Caravan Club International for Airstream owners, and if you ever see an Airstream with big red numbers above the front window, that’s the WBCCI membership number. “The big red numbers, that’s what they’re affectionately called,” Samantha said. Wally started that kind of as a practical measure. He would lead caravans through Mexico, Central America, across Canada and through Europe, and he needed a way to number each Airstream so that he knew who was who as they were traveling along. “That became a really big feature of the club,“ she says, pointing to a numbered trailer in the collection. “And Wally himself was always number one. So if you see an airstream with a big, red number one, it belonged to Wally.”
Molly Hansen is the Chief Marketing Officer at Airstream. She got hooked on the brand long before she came here with her first travel trailer, a 1978 twenty-nine foot land yacht named Sylvia. “People personify their trailers,” Molly said. “They name them and they really become part of the family. These are life experiences that they had and the trailer was part of it. Just being part of a group, and people that understand my love for travel, and my sense of adventure, and my natural curiosity, I think that's what makes me proud to be an owner.”
That’s what Wally referred to as the Venturesome Spirit.
Traveling in comfort was the whole idea behind the iconic brand, as Wally explains in this 1954 interview during an Airstream Caravan trip through Canada. “Oh my goodness, it’s the finest way in the world to travel. You see with a trailer you have all your things with you. Why, there’s my long distance radio, there’s my record player, and we have wonderful beds, and we have a good shower and toilet and bath. My wife has a wonderful little kitchen with a refrigerator, and gas heat and gas cooking, and we have everything with us. It’s just, we call it traveling with 5th Avenue on wheels.”
Many of the trailers in the exhibit have wonderful stories behind their origins like the 1938 Airlite which is tied with Old Grand Dad for the oldest Airstream. In the ‘30s Wally was building these small, rounded shaped trailers that are now referred to as ‘canned hams’. “Those were his bread and butter,” Samantha said. “And as far as we know this is the only Airlite in existence and it’s just awesome to have it here.”
Another museum favorite is a 1948 Wee Wind, which was a 16 foot model - the smallest offering that Wally was producing in the late 1940s. “This one is named Ruby in honor of the original owners who were Harry and Ruby Mann,” Samantha explained. “And the really neat thing about Ruby is [that] we have pictures with her out with this Airstream in the '40s. And thankfully that family kept (the trailer) extremely original - even the upholstery still has the original factory tag, which is pretty unheard of for a late ‘40s model. So we’re very fortunate to have her. We’re actually only the 3rd owners. A gentleman named Fred Coldwell, who’s an avid Airstream historian, had it for over a decade and kept it preserved and cared for it, and then he wanted it to come here.”
As guests exit the museum Wally’s recorded words echo through the rooms encapsulating ninety-one years of Airstream travel trailers and memorabilia. “We’ve come a long ways, and I won’t say goodbye, ‘cause, you know we never say goodbye on a caravan…but, we’ll be seeing you down the road.“
“This brand, this lifestyle, this community, has existed long before those of us who are here right now, and will hopefully exist long after us, ”Samantha told me looking around the museum. “So I think there is this really cool sense of responsibility, but also opportunity, to be a steward in the time that you're here, and to honor Wally’s vision and push that forward into today. To honor the Airstreams that came before us and connect them to the Airstreamers of today and the future.”
In September Airstream owners will converge around the Mothership in Jackson Center for the 12th annual Alumapalooza, and although Wally isn’t with us today, his spirit lives on with each new generation.
Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community and Ohio Arts Council.
Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.