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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?