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Fold up the Zagelmeyer, rev the Model A

DAVID WOODWORTH is looking for a few happy campers. Happy campers who happened to have hit the highways and byways of America in motor camping's infancy, about 1908-1930, and have memories to share about it. For Mr. Woodworth, it's all a matter of saving a wonderful but vanishing slice of Americana. During the end of those years, 15 million campers were tenting and trailering America's fruited plains and mountain majesties in $250 Model T Fords and Maxwell Roadsters with such accouterments as Zagelmeyer fold-down trailers.

There are stories to be told of the spirit of the great auto camps of those years (some with movies six nights a week) and of interdenominational church services on Sunday - not to mention pool halls, barbershops, recreation rooms, and grocery stores.

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Auto camping was so popular that in 1925, the New York Times reported that more than 5 million cars were used in camping trips that year, more than half the cars in the country.

John D. Long's 1923 opus, ``Motor Camping,'' has photos of dozens of Model T Fords lined up in parallel rows outside Grand Haven State Park, Mich., waiting to get in. Near Valencia, Calif., town fathers started an auto camp to attract outsiders to the community, but soon had to introduce a cover charge to keep the riffraff out: 25 cents a night.

With his Model A Ford Phaeton, Mr. Woodworth has been towing his own Zagelmeyer of late. It looks like a small covered wagon. ``It has a fold-up table, shelving for books, two double beds with five-inch-thick mattresses, a screen door, and windows that open and close,'' he says. ``When fellow campers see it, they make comments like, `I didn't know they had great camping equipment like this way back then. I didn't even know people camped that long ago in America.'''

Oh yes, says Woodworth. He loves to show you the antique RVs and camping gear - trailers, tents, lanterns, stoves, cots, and cooking utensils - that he has been collecting for some years now. Part of his extensive collection is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Woodworth crossed the United States this summer in his Model A - making stops in Albuquerque, N.M.; Amarillo, Texas; Oklahoma City; Wichita, Kan.; St. Louis; Nashville; Philadelphia; and Detroit - trying to uncover more memorabilia. And soon he will open the nation's first RV museum.


``Nobody seems to remember the number of campers then numbered about 15 times the number of campers today, even with recent surges in RV sales,'' Woodworth says. That's a pretty big slice of American pie, he adds, and if somebody doesn't begin preserving it now, a lot of memories will be gone for good.

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Besides amassing the paraphernalia of American camping's past, Woodworth wants to find and record verbal histories of the early years as well. ``If in 10 years we don't find some of the people that joined those early clubs - such as a Florida group known as `Tin Can Tourists' - and record their stories for posterity, it'll all be lost.''

Woodworth was recently retained by the Good Sam Club, a currently thriving group of RV enthusiasts, to begin a new museum that would be housed in offices near Los Angeles. Other memorabilia will be collected, repaired, and restored for lending to museums all over the country.

Exhibits will include equipment of the past and written or oral histories from those who participated in the early years of motor camping, as well as personal photographs.

It all started about eight years ago when he took two daughters camping in his old Model A.

``Somebody called me and said they had some stuff that would go with it. I bought a few items, one thing led to another, and so far as I know, I'm the only one doing this in the entire country,'' he says.

Part of Woodworth's new position as historian includes setting up displays of RV memorabilia across the country, describing how equipment works, and recounting the rich history of RV'ing, one of America's most popular past times.

He says that camping was most popular in the '20s when Americans were encouraged to see the US before going to Europe. The depression slowed things down, but toward its end great public-works projects resulted in better roads - which meant greater use of trailers than tents for camping. By the late '40s and early '50s, travel speeded up and motels filled the need for lodging, changing the patterns of travel.

Arab oil embargoes in the 1970s stymied the phenomenal success that RVs enjoyed during the '60s, but lower gasoline prices in recent years have sent RV sales soaring again.

``Mobility has always been what America is all about,'' says Woodworth. ``I just want to make sure the early part of the story gets told.''

Those interested in contacting David Woodworth through the Good Sam Club may call toll free 1-800-423-5061. In California, call 1-800-382-3455.

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