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R.V.’s Go to Iowa to Meet Their Maker

Category: RV, Winnebago
Source: New York Times
Publish Date: Sunday, September 28, 2008
Summary: For owners of recreational vehicles made by Winnebago Industries, like the Carrs and Laskos, Forest City is home — literally. As the huge blue water tower that hovers over the town reminds visitors, this is where Winnebago and Itasca motor homes are made, and have been for nearly 40 years. To buy one is to be adopted by an extended family of like-minded R.V. enthusiasts, not to mention by the company itself.

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By JERRY GARRETT

On a late summer evening in this small community in north-central Iowa, fireflies twinkled despite the hints of fall in the air. A line of large recreational vehicles parked in the tidy campground seemed to glow like the fireflies, lighted from within.

Between two of the motor homes a folding table was being set for dinner. Cathie Carr spread a gingham tablecloth and arranged stoneware, silverware and glasses for iced tea. Two local specialties, picked from a nearby field earlier in the day, were on the menu: fresh corn and watermelon.

Mrs. Carr’s next-R.V.-neighbor, Janice Lasko, 66, arrived with the corn, piping hot from her microwave oven. Mrs. Lasko’s husband, Gabby, 83, was close behind with a heaping bowl of melon slices. Mrs. Carr’s husband, Bud, who had been tinkering in their immaculate 40-foot motor home, an Itasca Horizon built by Winnebago, materialized soon after the food arrived.

The Carrs and Laskos criss-cross the country in their R.V.’s year-round, and they often find themselves veering off for a stop in Forest City, the home of Winnebago Industries. They are not alone; thousands of other owners of Winnebago products make the pilgrimage much as swallows flock back to San Juan Capistrano.

The Carrs, whose last permanent home was near Livingston, Tex., explained to a guest — an impromptu invitee to share in this feast — that they had just driven here from western Canada, on their way to Florida. The Laskos came here from an R.V. meet in Gillette, Wyo. Now they have a notion, as Mr. Lasko noted, of “heading south,” perhaps to Branson, Mo., or Texas.

Never mind that Forest City isn’t really a logical midpoint on either of those itineraries.

“Forest City is on the way to everywhere,” Mrs. Lasko said between bites of the sweet corn.

“For full-timers, nothing is out of the way,” Mr. Carr agreed, using the expression for people who have left ground-bound homes behind.

The lure of a stop in Forest City was potent enough to cause the Laskos and Carrs, not to mention other R.V.ers in the campground, to add hundreds of miles to their journeys.

For owners of recreational vehicles made by Winnebago Industries, like the Carrs and Laskos, Forest City is home — literally. As the huge blue water tower that hovers over the town reminds visitors, this is where Winnebago and Itasca motor homes are made, and have been for nearly 40 years. To buy one is to be adopted by an extended family of like-minded R.V. enthusiasts, not to mention by the company itself.

“We needed to replace a plastic water tank that cracked,” Mr. Lasko said.

The company was happy to oblige.

“You don’t even have to have an appointment, although they would probably prefer that you make one,” Mr. Lasko continued. “But even if you just show up unannounced, somehow they’ll get you in, and get you fixed up.”

Since the early 1970s, Winnebago has welcomed owners of its products to stop by for parts, service, repairs and upgrades, or just to talk shop. Across the street from the service facility, the company provides a campground where visitors can hook up their rigs for the night.

The Laskos and Carrs were staying free in the 1,544-hookup campground, where electricity, water and sewage dump facilities are provided, saving the $40 to $50 a night it can cost for an R.V. park hookup. Owners can stay until the parts they need arrive and their turns for service come up.

It’s not that there are maintenance issues with Winnebago products, Mr. Carr and Mr. Lasko hastened to emphasize. “It’s just that every so often something needs to be touched up,” Mr. Lasko said.

“They make an excellent product,” Mr. Carr added. “And they stand behind them.”

Mrs. Carr expressed some remorse that service on their vehicle was likely to be finished quickly. “Dang! I hope they don’t get that part in,” she said. “I want to stay for a while. I could spend several months here.”

It doesn’t take much — the Laskos’ leaky water tank, the Carrs’ broken drawer latch — to provide the impetus for Winnebago owners to reroute themselves to the family-friendly confines of the company’s parklike campground, formerly a municipal golf course.

“People come throughout the summer,” said Kelli Harms, a spokeswoman for the company, “although some weeks are busier than others.” She estimated that some 60 owners would be arriving in the coming week, a slowdown from the peak summer season because schools were back in session and family campers were done for the year. As the weather turns colder, the stream of visitors will recede to a trickle.

“Our customer service facility remains open year-round,” Ms. Harms said. “Not everyone, though, wants to come to Iowa in the winter.”

But many owners return each summer, like migratory birds.

“We need to reconnect,” Mrs. Carr said, relating the story of a woman whose husband had died last year. “So she learned, at age 80, how to drive the rig herself so she could come back this year.”

Owners come not only to renew acquaintances, but also for scheduled service, upgrades, instruction on the latest operating and maintenance techniques — and even for collision repairs.

Each July, these reunions take on an especially festive spirit when the company sponsors its Grand National Rally, open to all 16,000 member coaches of the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers Club.

The six-day rally features nightly musical acts in a 3,000-seat amphitheater, craft and trade shows, carnival rides for children and other down-home attractions. Weddings have been held in the conference center. Dozens of free seminars are also offered, on topics ranging from “Know Your Chassis,” and “The Joy Is the Journey,” to “C.P.R. for Friends and Family.”

Up to 1,600 R.V.’s have come to past rallies; during such occasions, Forest City’s year-round population of about 4,000 easily doubles.

“This year, we had about 1,300, which was still quite a nice turnout,” Ms. Harms said. “Some people were staying closer to home, maybe not being gone for as many days. If they needed work done, they might have gone to a local dealer instead.”

The rally will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, Ms. Harms said, “and we expect a big turnout.”

That is despite the bleakest R.V. sales year since the economic slump in the Carter administration. This summer, Winnebago Industries closed a satellite manufacturing facility, laid off some workers and did not fill job openings created by attrition. But the company’s commitment to the rally, and its owners, continued nonetheless.

“We continue to remain busy with customer service,” Ms. Harms said. “Some owners do stay over, but others just drop off their coaches and take their tow cars sightseeing.”

The Laskos’ turn for service came the next morning. They passed the time in a wood-paneled customer waiting room along with two dozen fellow campers while their motor home received its care and service. Gabby Lasko read, his back to a television blaring daytime network fare; Janice Lasko crocheted.

The part Cathie and Bud Carr were awaiting still had not arrived, so they were out riding together through the rolling farmland that surrounds Forest City on the Honda touring motorcycle they haul behind their rig.

They were looking, they said, for some more freshly picked sweet corn for that night’s supper.


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