ELKHART — The 1916 Cozy Camper sat off a winding black road near the edge of sand and grass, its orange canvas flaps pulled open to reveal two thin blue mattresses atop metal springs.
Nearby, Margaret Campbell marveled over the back porch included in a blue 1931 Chevrolet house car that Paramount Studios had built to help lure Mae West out of vaudeville and into movies. "I'd be in trouble with that," Campbell said. "I'd be out here waving to all the drivers."
For thousands of recreational vehicle devotees who visit each year, the RV/MV Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., is the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley's Graceland. The 55,000-square-foot shrine to the RV industry showcases America's love affair with camping and the free-wheeling lifestyle that has spawned dozens of clubs professing their loyalty to all things Winnebago.
"They need to see where their roots come from," said Campbell, a Cheboygan, Mich., resident who has made her home in a 40-foot-long motor home since she and her husband, Bill, retired six years ago. "They need to see it. They need to touch it. They need to smell it — even the mold," she said. "I'm just blown away."
Yet like the industry that drove its creation, this temple to travel hasn't had an easy road of late. Elkhart went from being the RV capital of the world to being the unemployed RV worker capital of the world when the recession forced manufacturers like Fleetwood Enterprises, Monaco Coach and Pilgrim to file for bankruptcy. At the same time, donations needed to support the museum and pay for $3 million in loans to cover an expansion plummeted, and the museum's fate seemed as uncertain as that of the industry itself.
But the RV Hall of Fame has something many other struggling small museums don't: a loyal following and an industry that's on the rebound and wants to see its heritage preserved.
"It is our heritage. It's our history," president Darryl Searer, 69, said when asked why the hall matters. "To me, it would have been a disaster for the hall to go under."
The hall has smoothed out its financial road through a restructuring plan that includes an agreement with the family of Robert "Boots" Ingram, a 2003 hall inductee who died in 2010, that gives the hall until 2033 to pay off a $3 million loan. Ingram's family also has offered to match donations up to a total of $100,000.
The plan, along with revenue from the $8 admission price, donations and fundraising efforts, should cover the facility's $561,200 budget this year, Searer said.
"We will be able to meet our obligations. We control our own destiny," he said.
That destiny began forming in 1972, when eight RV and manufactured home trade magazine publishers decided to create the RV/MH Heritage Foundation to honor industry leaders. They voted in the inaugural hall of fame class that year, but there was no physical space recognizing the inductees. The foundation chairman kept the list in a filing cabinet.
In 1985, the foundation moved into a spare office at a bank, and within five years it had received about half a dozen vintage RVs and a small library of books and magazines. Organizers decided to move into a building in downtown Elkhart to showcase the items and advertised in trade magazines that they were looking for RV donations.
"We would show up for work in the morning and there would be a 1930 unit sitting outside the door that was just dropped off in the middle of the night," said Al Hesselbart, the RV hall's historian. "It really made us scramble to learn how to create a museum."
As the collection grew, organizers decided another move was in order. In 2007, they opened the current building, a two-story, glass-enclosed monolith off the Indiana Toll Road that houses the current display, as well as an adjacent conference center that is rented out for wedding receptions, trade shows and other gatherings. Attendance, which had never exceeded 1,000 at the downtown site, grew to a peak of 17,344 in 2008 but fell to 13,148 last year.
Hesselbart says most of the people who visit the hall are either RV owners or those with ties to the industry. It's the vehicles, not the displays about industry leaders like Wally Byam, John K. Hanson and Mahlon Miller, that draw the crowds.
"If we were just a hall of fame and just had photos and little bios of these people, it would probably cut our attendance to 10 percent of what we get here," Hesselbart said.
Mary Rowton, who has been RVing for 35 years, drove nearly 400 miles from East Carondelet, Ill., near St. Louis, with her husband and two friends recently to view the 52 items in the hall's collection and visit nearby RV manufacturers. She closely examined each RV, looking at everything from the steps to the size of the bathrooms.
She was fascinated by the collection, which includes a 1935 Covered Wagon 17-foot travel trailer that was covered on the outside with fake leather, a 42-foot long trailer weighing 9,000 pounds and a 1916 "Telescope Apartment," which is basically a box containing a mattress wide enough for two that mounts on the back of a Model T Roadster. The trailer, which sold for $100, includes two slide-out boxes that swing out to the side, featuring a place to set up kitchen on one side and a storage area on the other.
"You could see how camping has advanced. It's quite a way they've come," Rowton said.
Hesselbart said it's hard to put a price on many of the items because they've never been sold. Several are one-of-a-kinds, including the only 10-foot long Airstream ever made, built in 1958. He believes the house car owned by West and a 1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet house car, one of only three made by the automaker, could each sell for $500,000 at auction. Other trailers would go for $100,000 or more.
"We've got several pretty rare units," he said. "In the real world they're priceless, because they are irreplaceable."