Trailer Talk

Sixteen trailers sat in two rows among the fruit trees of a Logan, Utah orchard. It was 1936, 75 years ago.

Sixteen trailers sat in two rows among the fruit trees of a Logan, Utah orchard. It was 1936, 75 years ago. Wheels removed, the trailers sat on concrete blocks to make room for small cellars that sheltered vegetables and coal. The orchard trees provided food in the summer and shelter from strong winds in the winter. Pipelines extended from each unit toward the city proper to supply water and sewage services. Each trailer had electric lights and a coal-burning stove. Logan was the site of Utah’s State Agricultural College. Forty-four residents of this colony were students, and six were babies, some born right in the trailer town; many residents were married couples. The trailer residents rented the orchard communally for $20 a year, with the pipelines costing each family eight to $10 per month.

Julian Thomas, the "mayor" of Logan’s trailer town, came up with the idea. It was the Great Depression, after all. As dormitory rent escalated, students sought an alternative. According to Julian, they could purchase a trailer, or even build their own. Unlike a dormitory or apartment, the portable home could follow them all four years of school, and into postgraduate life. The State Agricultural College’s original trailer colony rested on the parking lot of the school library, but the community quickly grew, necessitating the move to the orchard. The college trailer trend had also caught on elsewhere, often in inventive forms.

It was the summer of 1936, and Emory Bobo needed a place to live. He was a student at the University of Georgia, and money was tight. Before fall term started, he hand-built a trailer, filled it with homemade furniture, and parked it on a vacant lot near campus. The trailer, christened the "Silver Queen," had a kitchenette, so Emory could cook his own food. Across campus, a pair of students crafted a different kind of trailer: Proctor Allen and his friend F.H. Cadle paid $15 for a hot-dog stand that a carnival had scrapped. They parked it near the eastern edge of campus and lived there together.

The magazine Fortune estimated in 1936 that anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Americans lived permanently in trailers. But a decade before, the American trailer home didn’t yet exist. As bacteriologist Arthur Sherman packed for a vacation to northern Michigan in 1929, he thought about the trip that lay ahead. He worried about his family’s prospective lodging options. Increases in automobile ownership during the Roaring Twenties provided Americans with greater travel freedom, but touring motorists were often greeted by inadequate accommodations at new destinations. Vacationers resorted to camping out in canvas tents. Sherman decided this would not do—not for his family at least. So the disgruntled scientist built a wooden box on an axle and pair of wheels, outfitting it with windows, bunk beds, and a coal-burning stove. Sherman named it the "Covered Wagon." It was so successful that soon, dozens of competitors produced similar recreational units. The American trailer home was born.

Seventy-five years ago, the residential experience at Harvard College was also distinct. Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club orchestra played in Kirkland House’s Junior Common Room for their spring dance in 1936. Irving Aaronson and his Studebaker Commanders—a 15-piece broadcasting orchestra from New York—also played in the dining hall, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. That same year, Leverett House finally solved the dilemma of what to do with the flat roof over their dining hall: build a private tennis court adjacent to the House Master’s quarters. Dunster House announced a plan to showcase paintings from New York’s Museum of Modern Art in its common rooms. The Harvard House system had begun in the fall of 1930 when Dunster opened. These Houses had expansive suites, numerous common rooms, individual dining halls, and often squash courts. In light of the Depression, Harvard reduced the cost of room and board for students. To accomplish this, the University cut the wages of groundskeepers, waitresses and porters. The dances, tennis matches, and art exhibitions could go on.

Renowned economist Roger W. Babson made a famous prediction in the Los Angeles Times in 1935: "Within twenty years, more than half the population of the United States will be living in automobile trailers!" He was wrong. But the trailer still meant something to many students. Back at the University of Georgia, dozens of students sent in applications to be Emory Bobo’s roommate, to cook in the tin home’s kitchenette and rest on its homemade furniture. Emory selected Charles Colwell. Bobo’s "Silver Queen" had become a campus icon.