Amidst Elkhart’s Bucolic Splendor: Celebrating the History of Recreational Vehicles


When my friend Jackie Hughes pulled into the parking lot fronting the large expanse of glass accented with metal exterior of the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, I have to admit I was less than enthused. I love this area of Northern Indiana with its Amish farms, horse driven buggies and quaint towns that mix so well with the urban cool of Elkhart, a riverside city filled with trendy restaurants, museums, public gardens, a grand entertainment center, and shopping. But a museum dedicated to recreational vehicles and motorhomes? That didn’t sound like my cup of tea at all.

“You’ll love it,” says Jackie, most likely in response to the look on my face. And, indeed, from the moment I stepped into this huge museum dedicated to this area’s major industry, I found it much more interesting than I’d imagined. The 80,000-square-foot museum includes an exhibit titled “Road Back into Time” that traverses two huge rooms showcasing recreational vehicles dating back to the early auto age. Who would’ve guessed.

And when I came back recently for a second look, there was even more to intrigue and hook me. Charles A. Lindbergh, who won a Medal of Honor for his solo flight from Long Island, New York to Paris, France not only liked to take to the skies but also the road. The museum recently added his aluminum skinned, end-to-end axels, custom built 1939 travel trailer, valued at $200,000.

RVMH Hall of Fame - Dave Miller

Just steps away from the Lindbergh trailer, both in metrics and historical connection, is the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief trailer, the personal trailer of Hawley Bowlus. When Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic on his history-making trip, he was flying “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Built by Bowlus, the plane is on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Like Lindbergh, Bowlus also liked road tripping. Using the same skill set as he had for “Spirit,” Bowlus sought to create the ultimate travel trailer.

Hollywood, Backroads and Primitive Camping—RVs for All

As I travel the “Road Back into Time,” the RV/MH vehicles catching my eye include the 1931 Chevrolet Housecar built for buxom blonde actress Mae West by Paramount Studios because she didn’t like to fly. The chauffeur- driven vehicle is a glamorous looking sleek blue with wood paneling inside and a small open observation deck in back. One can only imagine her rolling down the window and smiling at some young handsome man and using her trademark statement of “why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” Same year but a whole different look and way to travel, the museum’s 1931 Model AA Ford Housecar by Tennessee Traveler features boxy looks like that of a brown sided box car or trolley with a big back engine in front. Don’t know if Mae would’ve taken a ride in it, but I’d have jumped aboard.

RVMH Hall of Fame 2 Dave Miller

What Makes Elkhart RV/MH Central?

A study released by the Virginia-based Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, its first-ever economic impact study, showed that the RV industry had a national economic contribution of $49.7 billion in 2015. Over 80 percent of global RV production is based throughout this area of Northern Indiana, earning it the title of “RV Capitol of the World” and its own museum.