RV History: The evolution of campgrounds

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    By Al Hesselbart

    In the earliest days of recreational travel, there were very few campgrounds with amenities for travelers with campers.” At first,  tenters were the majority of traveling campers and by and large were pretty self-sufficient. They only needed a place with a water supply to pitch their tent, dig a latrine hole and build a fire. Tents on wheels, both permanently erect and fold-down styles, were the first popular RVs.
     
    As hard-shelled trailers began to appear, trailerites wanted water, outhouses and, a bit later, electricity. By 1920, a few national parks had facilities for campers and several cities in Florida and the Great Lakes area began to build city-operated campgrounds to attract seasonal groups of travelers like the Tin Can Tourists of the World, the first major organized traveler club.
     
    Still, until the late 1920s, the most common summer overnight, or short-term, destinations for family campers were rural one-room schoolyards. These schoolyards provided clear land, an outhouse, and a water well the equivalent of full-hookup camping, until electricity became popular when appliances and lights were added to the campers.
     
    The early clubs were as much a self-help organization as a social group. Folks who chose to carry their lodging about with them were looked on by many as disreputable and undesirable. The terms “Gypsy,” “Trailer Trash,” and “Tin Can Tourist” were common epithets applied to early RVers.” The “tin can” reference was not based on the skin of the trailer, but because the lady of the family was so irresponsible as to prepare her family meals from food sold in cans and did not provide proper” scratch meals from fresh ingredients. The canned provisions were necessary as portable refrigeration was unknown and they assured safe food.
     
    Club members wore identification pins and marked their vehicles to be able to identify one another as friendly if assistance was needed. Tin Can Tourist members, who numbered more than 300,000 by the mid-1930s, soldered a soup can to their radiator cap to be quickly recognized. The Tin Can Tourist organization only required prospective members to take an oath to camp responsibly and leave their campsite better than they found it, and to purchase a small lapel pin to be considered lifetime members. In their early club days, they determined to have no dues and no fees and therefore no treasury, which eliminated any opportunity for graft or malfeasance on the part of the club-elected officers.
     
    Most RV clubs today pattern their rules and organization after those of the TCT begun in 1919, including such items as behavior guides, local chapters, and scheduled get-togethers and rallies. While most current clubs have minor annual dues or fees, there still are a few brand-name owners’ clubs without dues where every owner of a brand is automatically a member of the organization.
     
    Today some super RV Resorts feature such luxuries as on-site golf courses, individual swimming pools, and mini-lodges on each site that include kitchens, bedrooms and garages. Residents can no longer be identified as camping.
     
     
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    7 Comments
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    Patricia Panuccio
    2 months ago

    I grew up in a Florida Tourist Court and I think it gave me the bug to travel. Every winter a lot of the same folks came down from the frigid north, we would fill up right after Thanksgiving and empty just before Easter. One of my jobs was to help clean the bathhouse, I am old enough to remember when most trailers didn’t have bathrooms.

    Eddie
    3 months ago

    The first camping trip I remember was at Lake Texoma on the Oklahoma side. Mom gave us boys a quilt to lay on or wrap up in and we laid there at night and looked up at the stars. She cooked over an open fire. This was camping. Today I don’t camp, I travel. The more isolated location the better. My quilt is now a 28 ft RV trailer with solar and an outside kitchen that I thoroughly enjoy using. I enjoy the nice comforts of everything I need while I tour this great country enjoying every sight I can see.

    Donald N Wright
    3 months ago

    “Camping” covers a wide range of activities. Many of us connect to our roots at campgrounds and RV parks by setting up fabric shelters, from “easy Up’s”, Gazelle tents, and a few of us with shelter logic / military tents. I still marvel at folks with tarps, poles and ropes going everywhere.

    Ron Twellman
    2 years ago

    While in Alaska last year we met two gentlemen from Iowa traveling in their Ford Model Ts. One towed a 1920s vintage pop-up trailer. They had equipment and skills to handle all possible maintenance issues. Now that’s RVing!

    Ric
    2 years ago

    Love the ttt picture from Gainesville, Fl. I live 20 minutes south. Kinda the roots of today’s RVing. Ironically Gainesville today has no RVers in town and is very RV unfriendly. It’s just a politically correct college town that doesn’t like to get it’s hands dirty.

    Winnebago Bob
    3 months ago
    Reply to  Ric

    Ric, I’m with you. Gainesville’s population com planes about pollution, but you see almost everyone there carrying a plastic water bottle and throwing it in trash. It is not an easy town to drive an RV though, best to head west to Newberry or Trenton. More campgrounds and friendly folks!

    Tommy Molnar
    2 years ago

    20+ years ago when we switched from tent camping to a 25′ travel trailer, I had a heck of a time calling what we now were doing – “camping”. To this day I still have a problem calling it “camping”, but I do because all our friends readily call it “camping”.

    We just load up the trailer and “take a trip”. For some reason, the word “camping” conjures up visions of my Boy Scout years with canvas ‘baker’ tents, latrines, and everything that needed to be cooked, cooked on the campfire.

    Maybe I’m just getting old . . .