Airstream – (Hand)made in America

With Airstream,

every day has a silver lining

As soon as I approached the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, all I saw was a field of silver glinting in the sun.  I wish there’d been an overlook hill to provide even better perspective, but Jackson Center is a small town of 1200 in the flat, flat farmland of northwest Ohio.

IMG_8848

And, as such, I wondered how many people would be on this free factory tour. I envisioned myself as a lone curiosity-seeker, willing to drive two hours to see how Airstreams are made. But I was not unique in my quest to explore this silver mecca; there were nearly 40 of us for the tour!

IMG_8853

The tour begins here, at the desk of Don, our tour guide

The tour began with a brief introductory talk about visionary Wally Byam. Born in Oregon in 1896, Byam worked on a farm, living on a wagon equipped with a stove, food, water, and everything he needed for shelter. Hhmmm… a wagon that had all the essentials he needed inside…

It’s easy to see where he got his inspiration. Add a love of camping and the timely invention of the Model-T, and the idea for the Airstream was born.

Byam’s first prototype was built atop of Model T chassis in 1929. He tweaked it enough to make something functional that was featured in Popular Mechanics (a magazine my engineering father read religiously throughout my childhood). Demand was immediate. At first, Byam sold DIY blueprints for $5.00 a pop, but by 1931, he’d opened a small factory making mobile campers for others.

From those early beginnings, Airstream took off and became a travel-trailer icon. The curved edges and silver frame are its trademark, but until you see inside one, you don’t realize the craftsmanship that goes into creating each one.

IMG_8862

When you walk into their manufacturing plant you understand immediately what is so special about an Airstream: everything that makes an Airstream is crafted right there (except for things like TV’s and microwaves). The wood is cut for the cabinets, the bed frames, the floorboard, the storage cabinets and tables. Every piece has rounded edges to decrease the injury of bumping into sharp edges in a moving vehicle.

The metal is cut and riveted together by teams of people. Each rivet is individually bucked to piece together the silver frame.

IMG_8860

If you’re there during one of their free factory tours on Monday-Thursday, you may see teams of two riveting the pieces together. Tours that take place during work hours require that visitors wear protective goggles and earplugs. I’m sure it’s a very noisy environment. But on Fridays, workers get off after a half day, so by 2:00, the plant is cleaned up and empty of workers. It makes it easier to hear and look at things up close, but I would have liked to see some of the work being done.

I was so impressed that the curtains for the Airstreams, the metal frame and white-topped roof are all made right there at the factory in Jackson Center. Other parts like the chassis are brought in from Elkhart, Indiana, which isn’t all that far from the plant.

Airstreams have become so popular in recent years that there is a back-order of 2400 trailers. Every Airstream is made in Jackson Center. Each takes about 230 man-hours, or 3 days, to create. Each shiny silver trailer I saw on the premises was already sold, some even being shipped to Europe or Australia. It was a source of pride for the county, the state, and the country.

Construction is already under way down the road from the plant to build a massive new plant that should add 300 jobs to this small town in a county still heavily dotted with farms. You can tell that the employees take pride in their work. Maybe it’s because each person has a part in making each one.

IMG_8858

I know if I were hitting the road in an Airstream, I would feel confident that it was made with attention to every detail. I’d prefer a motorhome rather than a trailer that needs to be pulled by a truck, but Airstream isn’t concentrating on that model currently. Hopefully they will by the time I’m ready to hit the open road and enjoy the silver lining of retirement. Possibly in an Airstream!

If you had an Airstream, where would the road take you?

16 responses to “Airstream – (Hand)made in America

  1. How cool! I had no idea these were made in Ohio, and no idea the craftsmanship that went into both the design and production. I’m bookmarking this for a fun family trip someday…

  2. Lovely! I love Airstreams but they aren’t so plentiful in Australia, in fact I would lie to live in one. Thanks for the tour.

  3. I had blogging friends who went to the Airstream headquarters to pick up their Airstream that they took out on a 6-month project. When I was RVing we met up with them and checked out their unit. Such a beautiful design and I love the brand!

  4. An icon of quality, Juliann, and has been as far back as I can remember. My dad had an Airstream trailer once and lived in it on a beautiful site overlooking the Umpqua River in Oregon. Quite appropriate given Byam’s original source of inspiration. –Curt

  5. I love hearing odd facts about Ohio from you. I also love Airstreams and never knew how close to home they were made. It’s like their airplanes that you pull behind your car. Way cool.

  6. I had no idea that Airstreams were made in OH and how impressive they are all made by hand and are 2400 behind! Wow! I do like that they shut down early on Fridays and give their employees that extra time off!

  7. This is really cool! I love that airstreams are making a comeback – so much so they’re on backorder! Must have been cool to see so many up close. I also love they’re still made by hand. Thanks for this interesting post!

    • Thanks, Eileen! It was cool to walk into the factory and see all the different facets of assembly. I always think of cars as such as simply being put together on assembly lines. Not so here!

  8. This is actually pretty cool and I’d do it if I was in the area – especially being free! I’ve always wanted an airstream but definitely can’t afford one right now haha. I now understand why they may have a hefty price tag though.

We'd All Love To Hear Your Thoughts:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.