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A Shrine to Kings of the Road

Category: UNSPECIFIED
Source: Chicago Tribune
Publish Date: Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Summary: Some have saunas, full baths, and double-door refrigerators. Barbour's $79,000 vehicle isn't quite in that league. An RV exhibit was one of the more popular ones at Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair in 1933-34. Miller, chairman of RV giant Newmar Corp., was reportedly torn about entering the hall.

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By Bob Secter

Jun. 26, 2007 (McClatchy-Tribune News Service delivered by Newstex) -- ELKHART, Ind. -- If there's a guiding principle for the recreational vehicle industry, it might well have been summed up years ago by John Hanson, the father of the Winnebago: "You can't take sex, booze and weekends away from the American people."

So it is in that spirit that the industry has chosen a time when fuel prices are in the stratosphere to erect a shrine to their ultimate gas hog.

The gleaming new RV Hall of Fame, a museum that celebrates the freedom of the highway, has just opened -- appropriately -- along the Indiana Toll Road, here in a spot where 50 million vehicles whiz by each year. At today's record pump prices, that's a $12 drive east from Chicago in a Toyota Camry, $56 in a 7 m.p.g. Winnebago tricked out with a satellite-linked entertainment center, gourmet kitchen and bedroom suites.

Indiana officials expect the museum to be a big tourist draw. For avid RVers, Elkhart is the equivalent of Cooperstown and Detroit combined. Half the units in the country -- and there are more than 8 million on the road -- are made in this area.

The formal dedication of the $8 million facility isn't until August, but already enthusiasts have begun to wander in off the highway. The U.S. has plenty of car museums, but the Elkhart facility is laying claim to being the world's largest collection of vintage campers, trailers and RVs, some dating to pre-World War I days when the height of convenience was a potbelly stove.

Among those exploring the exhibits the other day was Suzanne Seagers, who has no permanent address but lives with her husband Gary out of their $165,000, 37-foot-long Newmar . "Our home is wherever our six wheels are," she explained.

Rising oil prices and stagflation left the industry reeling in the late 1970s, but the record fuel price surge these days has caused only a slight ripple. Thanks in great measure to the demographic bulge of Baby Boom empty-nesters, experts say this is shaping up to be one of the best years on record for RV sales.

When it comes to opinions on RVs, there are two types of people in the world: those who swear by them and those who swear at them while stuck behind one on a curvy mountain road.

What the RV-less don't understand is that pokiness can be part of the experience, explained Charles Barbour of Gary, who takes off several times a year in his 35-footer with wife, Bobbie, and a few grandchildren.

"We're not in a rush to get to that next point," said Barbour, managing partner of a data processing firm. "We don't have to pull over to use the restroom. We've got our hotel right there so we're more tempted to pull off the main road and explore things."

Barbour is also president of the Steel City Cruisers, an RVers club in Northwest Indiana that heads out in a caravan each summer .

This summer's venture will head to Quebec, but Barbour says high gasoline and diesel prices have led some regulars to beg off and plan shorter getaways instead. A fill-up for a unit like Barbour's can run $270 these days.

RVers may bend in the face of the raging fuel costs, but there's no sign they are breaking, said Al Hesselbart, the new museum's archivist. "They may stay in a park within 150 miles away from home," he said. "The range of travel is declining dramatically, but the amount of time they spend away from home is the same."

And when they go, they don't exactly leave the comforts of home behind. The cramped and rustic cabins on wheels of years ago have evolved into luxury mobile apartments, with price tags that can reach $1 million. Some have saunas, full baths, and double-door refrigerators.

Barbour's $79,000 vehicle isn't quite in that league. But it has sections that slide out 3 feet in either direction when parked, giving him ample room to move around. Panels on the outside open to reveal a 25-inch satellite-linked TV and a refrigerator, so Barbour doesn't have to miss any of his favorite shows or even go inside for a cold beer when he's roughing it under the stars.

A 2005 study by the University of Michigan found that RV ownership in the U.S. had soared 15 percent since the beginning of the decade and appeared on track to grow another 8 percent by 2010. The prime age range for ownership was the heart of the Baby Boom generation, the survey found, and one in ten vehicle-owning households of Boomers aged 55 to 64 boasted an RV in their fleet. Probably not in the garage, but more likely out in the driveway.

The appeal of the new museum here stems from that loyal and growing fan base.

"People love it for the same reason that the early pioneers couldn't sit still and had to see the world," said Hesselbart. "Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone were just RVers born 200 years too soon."

Americans have been intrigued with the notion of motor camping since the days of the Model T. In 1916, a San Francisco company started producing a telescoping tent-like apartment that bolted to the back of the roadsters Henry Ford was churning out. It cost $100 and provided ample room when expanded for a double bed, chest of drawers and full kitchen.

By the early 1920s, a Chicagoan named James Morrison organized the first motorized camping club. It catered to Midwestern farmers who would haul their shiny trailers down to Tampa where they would park for a good portion of the winter. Floridians belittled them as "tin-can tourists," and the running local joke was that they showed up with a Model T, $10 bill and one shirt and didn't change any of them until they went home.

Chicago also played a role in the development of the RV industry in Elkhart. An RV exhibit was one of the more popular ones at Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair in 1933-34. A few Elkhart entrepreneurs made the 120-mile trip, fell in love with the concept, and went home and started tinkering.

At one time the Elkhart area was home to more than 300 RV makers, though the number these days stands at a little more than 100. Many of the factories draw workers from the Amish and Mennonite communities in the countryside, leading to the seemingly incongruous site of plant hands commuting on bicycle or horse and buggy to build a vehicle that is the antithesis of plain.

In 1990, a foundation backed by trade magazines opened a smaller museum in an out of the way location in downtown Elkhart. There really is a Hall of Fame, too, and the foundation that runs the new facility has been adding inductees for years. These are the Babe Ruths and Lou Gehrigs of the RV world, visionaries who built an industry by figuring out how to add flush toilets, fiberglass bodies and other technological advances.

Among the inductees is Mahlon Miller, class of 1998, the father of the slide-out panels that have rendered modern RVs as spacious as living rooms. Miller, chairman of RV giant Newmar Corp., was reportedly torn about entering the hall. An ordained minister in the Beachy-Amish Mennonite Church, Miller fretted about whether it would violate his church's admonition to remain humble. He accepted the honor, but declined to attend the awards dinner. "This is the only museum of its kind in America," said David Woodworth, a retired Baptist pastor from California who is donating his collection of about three dozen antique campers and RVs to the Elkhart facility.

"The appeal of RVs is the same today as its always been. The only thing that's changed is the equipment. People have always tried to travel in comfort."

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(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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Newstex ID: KRTN-0007-17723993


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