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Robert Hecker of Coventry, R.I., stands next to his 1965 Serro Scotty camper.

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Road to the past

Fans show off their restored vintage campers at Dummerston campground

DUMMERSTON—Camping by car has been around for more than a century, but the golden age of the camper was in the 1950s and 1960s, when families took to the road to see America with their overnight accommodations attached to the back bumper.

Compared to today’s condos on wheels, the travel trailers of the post-World War II era are smaller, lighter, and much more spartan. But for those who like to spend time outdoors but would rather not sleep in a tent, vintage campers have a special appeal.

On June 12 to 14, the Brattleboro North KOA campground on Route 5 held its seventh Vintage Camper Rally, with more than 50 campers ranging in age from a 1946 TearDrop to a 1982 Scotty on display to visitors.

Beverly Kenney, co-owner of the campground with her husband, Ernie, said they hold these vintage camper rallies twice a year, in June and in September.

Many of the campers on display were found on Craigslist or eBay. Most of the wood and metal trailers started out in various states of disrepair, but others were found more or less intact.

“Most of them end up sitting outside and the weather raises hell with them,” said Jack Judson of Taunton, Mass. He and his son Paul restored their 1963 Ace Traveler from the wheels up.

“We bought it about 10 years ago,” Paul Judson said. “We found a couple of bad spots, and then we had peel the skin off because ants got inside and ate the wood.”

The Judsons’ camper, and the rest that were on display, all still looked like they did in their hey-day, right down to the vintage coolers and lawn furniture sitting along side them.

“It’s all about finding the right accoutrements,” said Robert Hecker of Coventry, R.I., as he stood in front of his 1965 Serro Scotty.

Hecker says vintage trailer fans end up trading accessories with each other, and many have their eyes peeled for the same items at flea markets and tag sales across the country.

Restoration and preservation go hand-in-hand in this hobby. Bob and Mary Heibler of Chatham, N.Y., had the oldest camper, a 1946 TearDrop. Their daughter Amy found it on Craiglist and Bob and Mary picked it up for $500.

“We put a lot of love and labor into this trailer,” Mary said. That included stripping off five layers of paint to get down to the original aluminum skin.

TearDrops are the smallest and humblest of campers, with a full-size bed in the front and a two-shelf galley compartment in the back to use as a kitchen. You’re on your own for running water or a toilet, and there’s no provisions for anything electric.

Bob said that this particular California-built trailer was among the first built after World War II, when aluminum from warplanes began to be recycled into peace-time products. “You see the rivets that were used to put it together, like on an airplane. You can imagine this was to keep the people who were building planes during the war employed.”

Tyler Bessette of Shelton, Conn., wanted a camper less bare bones than the TearDrop, but not as ostentatious as his in-laws’ 38-foot motor home. He ended up with a 1964 Shasta Astrodome that he rebuilt in 2011 and uses about six times a year.

“The new motor homes don’t have the personality of older campers,” the Worcester, Mass., native said. “These are so much cooler.”

Lee Pumilia and Carol Ortlip of Spofford, N.H., found their circa-1960 Fan camper in Milton, Vt. “We came to this rally last year and got inspired,” Pumila said. “Now, here we are. A few thousand dollars poorer and a whole lot happier.”

Some of the owners paired vintage vehicles with their vintage campers. The most eye-catching was a 1946 Chevrolet pickup that towed a 1958 Sero Scotty Sportsman Senior camper to Dummerston from Shelburne, Vt.

The combo is owned by Bucky and Melonie Hartwell. Melonie said that her husband “has always been restoring cars and trucks” but they got into fixing up old campers a few years ago.

“We’ve always liked camping, but we got sick of tenting,” she said. “The Scottys are the best. They handle nice, have good suspensions, and they pull so easy.”

Judy Hitchcock of Brookfield, Mass., considers herself lucky. She found a 1968 Roadrunner that was original, and in good shape.

“I got it from a guy in Boston. He bought it in Arizona and towed it to Massachusetts so he could live in it until he found a place to live. Once he did, he had no use for it, and put in storage.

The Roadrunner looks as small as the old Shastas and Scottys, but as Hitchcock said, “it’s a lot bigger on the inside.” And it is, thanks to an efficient use of space, with a good-sized kitchen, dining area, and a bathroom.

Kenney said when the campground started the vintage camper weekends, they had a dozen campers and about two dozen visitors. It has gotten bigger with each event, she said.

“The people are great, and love to show off their campers,” she said. “Nostalgia is definitely a factor, but I think this is a couples sort of hobby. You have a spouse that likes decorating, and you like fixing old cars, put them together and you get a restored camper.”

Kenney also said that restoring and owning vintage campers “is relatively inexpensive to do and, compared to modern campers, it takes less fuel to haul them around.”

She says one reason why the vintage campers like coming to Dummerston is that she has “a vintage campground.” The Coolidge Highway Gift Shop opened in 1942, and a motor court with “tourist cabins” was built seven years later. The site became an RV campground in the early 1970s.

The Kenneys are part of the hobby too. They turned a 1969 Banner travel trailer into a snack bar for the campground. They also own a 2014 Shasta Airflyte, a modern replica of the 1961 Airflyte with modern amenities.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #310 (Wednesday, June 17, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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