RV Capital of the World: Elkhart’s RV Hall of Fame & Museum
By Mary Giorgio
In the early 1900s, America’s love affair with travel lead to the development of a booming RV industry. By the 1930s, Elkhart, Indiana, had become home to an extraordinary market share of the emerging RV business.
The ancestors of today’s modern RV have been around for about 100 years. The first camping trailers debuted in Canada around 1910. In the 1920s, homemade RVs began popping up across America. The first of these RVs were trailers that could be towed by other vehicles. In the 1930s, the first commercially available trailers hit the market.
These early RVs were basic models compared to today’s fully loaded versions. They had no plumbing, no bathrooms. Over time, these models were improved and more amenities were added. Early leading brands included Ford, Winnebago, and Airstream.
In the early 1930s, a chance of fortune led Elkhart, Indiana, to become a leader in the production of RVs. It all began with Milo Miller, a salesman from Elkhart. He had to travel frequently and wanted to bring his family on the road with him. In 1931, he built a trailer designed to improve on earlier models that perched awkwardly on top of cars.
Miller’s invention gained so much interest that he was soon selling his trailers. Miller founded a small company to sell his trailers, and in 1933 displayed his popular model at the Chicago World’s Fair. Shortly thereafter, Miller sold his company to Wilbur Schultz. Schultz took the company to new heights, turning it into one of the largest RV manufacturers in the country.
Inspired by Miller and Schultz’s success, competing RV companies began to crop up around Elkhart. By 1948, there were 100 RV companies producing models in the Elkhart area. Soon, the press had labeled Elkhart the “Trailer Capital of the World.”
Today, the RV industry continues to have a strong presence in Indiana. It still produces 80 percent of the world’s RVs. Success is aided by Indiana’s strong manufacturing labor force and the inexpensive cost of operating a business in Indiana.
As a tribute to the history of RVs and Elkhart’s prominent role in their development, Elkhart is home to the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum. It features the world’s largest research library on RVs (over 20,000 volumes!). The museum houses historic models of trailers from the 1920s to the present, photos, and other memorabilia. It’s a fun place to explore the history of recreational vehicles and witness their evolution. It’s also an excellent place to discover the legacy and importance of manufactured housing, another, similar, leading industry in Elkhart.
The RV Hall of Fame, managed by the RV/MH Heritage Foundation, currently has 396 inductees. Its rolls include industry leaders and pioneers.
Today, RVs have evolved from camping tools and cheap homes to a way of life. Luxury models help Americans travel the country in style. Today’s RVs can be customized to provide all the luxuries of home. Almost 90 years later, Hoosiers continue to play a prominent role in the manufacture of these iconic vehicles.