Wally Byam’s childhood was spent immersed in nature. He worked on a West Coast sheep farm, where he lived in a donkey-towed wagon that was outfitted with a stove, food, water, and just about everything else he could possibly need.
In reality, it was the earliest version of an American classic — just not as shiny. It wasn’t until 1929 that Byam built the first actual, official Airstream.
Byam’s love of camping and the outdoors, combined with American ingenuity, resulted in a product that lasts for decades and is instantly recognizable around the world.
Perhaps best of all, it’s made in Ohio — Byam moved the production to Jackson Center in rural Shelby County right after World War II, and workers there build upward of 120 of the iconic silver bullets every week, all by hand.
Until the pandemic struck, anyone with a few free hours could witness the process in person — from pallets, rolls, boxes, trucks, and hoppers of myriad components to impeccably finished and tested product in just a few thousand steps. The company has not announced a date that the tours will resume, but hopes to do so later this year.
An aura of ‘cool’
Of course, while the manufacturing process itself is amazing, the unleashed product is spectacular. Its power to inspire fierce passion and intense loyalty among owners — especially among owners of vintage Airstreams — is notably cool.
Jim Muncy owns two: a 1960 Tradewind and a 1955 Cruiser. The Port Clinton resident laughed when asked how many Airstreams a person needs.
“At least two, obviously. The vintage styling is just, you know, sexy,” he says. “They’ve got that bizarre Jules Verne look, I’d say. I have zero desire to own a new one.”
New trailer models range from about $50,000 to more than $150,000, but vintage Airstream is not cheap, either. Muncy said he paid about $41,000 for his most recent purchase, and by the time he has it serviced and polished, it will be about $50,000. Despite their age, shiny (and even dull) Airstreams have clout.
“My wife called this campground in Tennessee to make reservations and they said, sorry, they don’t allow anything older than 2005,” Muncy says. “When she told them it was an Airstream, they said, ‘Oh, okay.’”
Go anywhere, be anything
Pioneer Vintage Trailers, in Oak Harbor, Ohio, specializes in Airstreams. Owner Scott Bowe has converted old Airstreams into ice skate rental booths, food kitchens, full bars, and coffee trailers, among other things, though he doesn’t polish the iconic aluminum skins. For professional shiny, they call in a crew from California, and in a couple days they turn blah, faded trailers into shiny spaceship-like eye-catchers. It’s not cheap: A full-sized trailer polish, at up to $195 per linear foot, can run upward of $6,000.
When you start talking Airstreams, start expecting smiles.
“Mine’s pretty much in original condition because it was perfectly kept in a barn up until I bought it,” says Lindy Brown, owner of a 22-foot 1965 Safari named “Mitten Kitten.” “It’s pretty much the original layout except where Pioneer helped me update it with a table and a work area and a kitchen area,” Brown says. “When people find out the age of the trailer, they ask me if it was my father’s or grandfather’s, and I just smile and say no.” She spent the waning days of May at Ohio’s Findley State Park Campground, and before that, Hocking Hills, Chillicothe, the Ohio River, and anywhere else she and Mitten are welcome — which is just about everywhere.
“I knew right away because of the mere shine and the look of it that it would get attention,” she says. “I just didn’t realize how much.”
Brown’s two dachshunds, Gretchen and Kaiser, gladly call wherever she and Mitten stop “home.” “Kaiser has grown up in it from the time he was 3 months old,” she says. “He was house-trained in this trailer, and so he thinks the Airstream is his home.”
Brown lives and breathes Airstream. She operates the Airstreaming Women’s Network, is the membership chair for the Vintage Airstream Club, and is founder of Solo Streaming Sisters.
“For me and a lot of other people, I’d say the Airstreaming community is a very inclusive group of people from all sorts of backgrounds and all different ages,” she says. “I have made some of the most genuine, lifelong friends you could ever hope for, the type of people that, if you were in a bind, which I have been, you could call one person and if they couldn’t get there, they’d find someone who could help you.”
Brown, 53, said she’s doesn’t plan on letting any dust settle on her or Mitten Kitten anytime soon. “Trailerites always have something to do and someplace to go,” she says, and, quoting Wally Byam: “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”
Airstream factory tours are not currently being offered, but the company hopes to resume them later this year. Check here for updates.