We really enjoyed our time here at the factory in June for the Alumapalooza rally. This time I wasn’t sure how we would like it without all the excitement of the rally. No need to worry, it was just as great this time around.
Airstream has a small camping area with full hook-ups called the Terraport. Our appointment was on Tuesday after Labor Day so we arrived on Thursday figuring we’d spend the holiday weekend in the terraport and skip the crowds at all the campgrounds.
We picked a spot that had our windows looking out on the factory and it was fun to watch all the comings and goings—workers leaving at the end of their shifts, half-finished vans driving around, semis dropping off vans to be made into Airstream Interstates.
The best was watching the steady parade of finished trailers leaving the lot. It was the end of the month so I’m sure they were trying to get as many out the door as possible. We’d watch pick-up trucks arrive, stop at the guard house to check in and then a little while later stop back at the guard house to check out, this time with a brand new trailer in tow. Amazing that this is how all those trailers get to the dealers, one pick-up at a time.
Even with all the noise of the factory machinery, the train that goes through town, semis coming and going, and tractors hitching up and moving trailers (back-up beeps galore), it was a calming place for us to be. There just something about being where people are building beautiful, functional, portable living spaces by hand.
Friday morning our phone rang and the service advisor said they had a free technician and wanted to start us early. We quickly dressed and stowed everything, just in time for the tractor to arrive and pull our trailer into the service bay.
We went over all the work with the tech and then headed down to Dayton to grab lunch and run errands. We returned just before they towed our trailer back out to our spot in the terraport. The tech was proud to show us all he had finished up, including a new skylight replacing one that had cracked.
We spent the weekend relaxing, watching the always interesting parade of trucks in and out of the factory, and getting things done around the trailer. I had tried to find a local fair or event to visit, but had no luck.
On Monday, bright and early at 7am, the technician was back to pick up our trailer and finish up the work. Their work day is 7am – 3:30pm. We headed off for breakfast, did laundry in town, returned to spend a little time shopping in the Airstream store, and hang out in the nice lobby chatting with other folks there for service. By afternoon Joel had finished up all the work and returned our trailer to our spot ready for it’s next adventure!
I have to admit I’m a little sad to leave this place but more parks are calling and the weather’s getting ready to turn so we must move on.
After all the activity at Alumapalooza we needed a little time to recharge. Chuck found the perfect spot on the shores of Lake Erie at Maumee Bay Campground.
This large park was peaceful and green, just what we needed. The sites had a semi-manicured garden sort of feel and there are lots of birds to watch. There was even a small laundry room on site so we were able to catch up.
We enjoyed a ride on one of the many bike trails out to views of the lake, but mostly we just relaxed and killed the tiny black ants that had found a path inside (our first invasion since we hit the road). Luckily there were just a few.
Before the weekend got underway we headed out to Stow, Ohio where a small city campground had first-come first-serve sites. There are no campgrounds at Cuyahoga Valley National Park and this was the closest option, plus at just $11 for electric hook-ups the price couldn’t be beat. It was a bit like camping in a city park, you know the kind with baseball fields and basketball courts, but served the purpose.
It was hard to tell exactly where the sites were because there were no defined parking pads, just a big grassy field dotted with trees and power posts randomly placed down the middle. Luckily one of the regulars helped us figure out the boundaries of the huge sites. It felt weird to drive right on the grass and park, but later when the park supervisor came through to collect our fee he said we were good. Even with the weird “camping next to a baseball field behind a neighborhood” vibe, it was convenient to Cuyahoga.
We made two trips into the park and we kept wondering how this got to be a national park. Most of it looked like many of the city parks in Seattle, with trees and greenery and a bike path next to the river. We could have been on the bike path back in Bothell—it looked exactly the same. I’m guessing that folks who aren’t from Seattle probably have a better appreciation for this park, but we did find a few cool things.
Many folks take a train ride through the park, but we didn’t figure you would see anything different than the scenery we saw driving through so skipped it. We wished they had an option to ride a canal boat through the locks, that would have been cool! But I think much of the passageway is no longer deep enough for boat travel although if you had your own kayak you could float sections of it.
We started our visit at the Boston Store Visitor Center. This restored 1836 building focuses on the craft of building canal boats which became a big industry in the area.
The boats were 14 feet wide and up to 80 feet long. They had to be able to float in just four feet of water. Some boats were for carrying goods and others for carrying passengers but all were pulled by teams of mules who walked along the towpath on the sides of the canal. Boats often carried an extra set of mules. Sometimes whole families lived on the boats and parents would tie young children with rope to the center of the boat so they couldn’t fall overboard.
After that we walked the boardwalk to Brandywine Falls but skipped the loop trail as there really was nothing to see.
Then we headed over to the Ledges Trail and walked 1.5 miles of the trail and while the rock ledge formations were kinda cool, the trail made us think of Seattle.
On our last day we drove the scenic gorge Parkway and walked out to Bridal Veil Falls. After all the flat farmland in the midwest I’m not sure why we weren’t more excited to be in the trees, but after all our years in the Northwest I think we just yearn for a different kind of scenery.
After that we headed to the another visitor’s center.
This one told the history of the canal system. I think this was the most interesting part of the park. Both Jefferson and Washington were proponents of building a national canal system back in the late 1700s and by 1840 there were over 3000 miles of canals in the US linking New York to New Orleans. The Ohio & Erie Canal (not to be confused with the Erie Canal in NY) opened in 1827 between Cleveland on Lake Erie and Akron. When finally finished in 1932 it was 308 miles long, with 146 locks and a rise of 1206 feet and connected to the Ohio River.
The canal became a major transportation artery for goods heading out of and into Ohio. On the outbound trip boats mostly carried farm products and raw goods like timber and coal and on the inbound trip they carried manufactured goods like nails and cloth. Before this everything had to be carted by horse and wagon, so most folks grew or made what they needed. The canal system led to a national economy. The canal system was short lived though. By the 1860s railroads were prominent and became the favored mode of transport. One interesting fact, President James Garfield was a canal boat worker as a teenager, driving the mules that pulled barges along the canal.
Since we were there on Saturday we got to see one of the original, hand-operated locks in action.
I don’t think Cuyahoga will make the list of our favorite parks. It seems like a great regional park. Supporting that is the fact that by far most of its visitors are locals who come to bike or jog along the river towpath, hike in the woods, or mountain bike (they had an impressive mtb trail system in the Gorge Parkway area). Still I was excited to put sticker number 11 on the map. Only 48 more parks to go!
Imagine 135 Airstreams gathered amidst the hustle and bustle of the working Airstream factory. Throw in some BBQs, seminars, factory tours, music, happy hour prize drawings and you have Alumapalooza, a fun filled week of all things Airstream. Held every year at the mothership in Jackson Center, Ohio (this was the 8th one) this rally is one of the biggies for Airstream owners and it’s been on our bucket list for a while. We weren’t sure what to expect, but ended up having a great time.
We arrived Saturday of Memorial Day weekend for the “early bird” parking. This not only meant we didn’t have to fight the Memorial Day camping crowds, but it positioned us near the front of the field and gave us some time to settle in before the event began.
The organizers have this thing down. You are directed into your spot by volunteers who line up the shiny trailers in perfect rows, and while the field was a bit muddy we had no problems since our spot was level and slightly elevated. Our neighbors weren’t so lucky as their leveling blocks kept sinking into the mud. They said a few years ago it was so muddy they had to get tractors to pull the trailers out of the field at the end of the week. While we were treated to some heavy thunderstorms on Saturday and Sunday nights, for the most part we had beautiful, albeit windy, weather the whole week and didn’t have that problem. Thanks goodness!
On Sunday we drove to nearby Dayton to visit the Dayton Aviation Historical Park. This site recounts the early days of Orville and Wilbur Wright in some of the very places where they worked, including one their bike shops (their shop had five different locations over time and one is preserved here). It was fascinating, especially since we plan to visit Kitty Hawk in the fall.
I loved the fact that they got their mechanical aptitude from their mother who invented toys for her children and things to help with the housework. Having attended college, unusual for a women of her time, she encouraged the boys in their intellectual interests and fostered an environment where their curiosity led to investigation. Later, this served them well as they would request information from the government on aeronautics and used models to test ideas for their airplane. The museum showed how important their bike building and repair were to their eventual success in flying too. Many of the parts on their airplane were modified bicycle parts.
Back in Jackson Center trailers kept arriving. By Tuesday, the official arrival day, the field was full. It was fun to see all that shiny metal and we took walks through the field eyeing all the different models.
As with any of these social events we are always a little apprehensive at first, feeling like the outsiders. Since we’re mostly home bodies it takes a bit to put ourselves out there, but with fellow Airstreamers there’s a quick ease that develops. After all you both have an affinity for these shiny things on wheels. The conversation usually starts with the details of your trailers (model, length, year), moves onto places to go in your trailer and just keeps flowing from there. It seems there’s no shortage of conversation once you get going.
Each day there were several seminars. We attended sessions on proper hitching, changing a tire, tips on riveting from Airstream technicians (with an Airstream you will eventually have to rivet something—we’ve had a few rivets pop out), taking a trip to Alaska, maintaining your Zipdee awning, and so much more. Lots of good information that we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Plus we made several trips to the Airstream store and came away with a few new shirts. 🙂
Daily happy hours meant door prizes, and we won one of the big ones, a free Zip Dee chair. Turned out that wasn’t the only luck we had during our week. The absolute highlight of our week was a private factory tour we won in a silent auction benefitting the local food bank. We toured the factory 10 years ago with our daughters on a trip to Ohio, and went on the regular tour early in the week, but this was a whole different experience.
It was phenominal. As Chuck says, we were both grinning ear to ear for the entire 3+ hours. Marion Slater, Director of Manufacturing graciously donated his time to take us on this comprehensive tour. He told us stories and answered our questions and let us peek in places the regular tour doesn’t go. Not once did he check the time or look at his phone. We were blown away by his graciousness with his time as well as his knowledge, pride in their product, and relationship with the production team.
Marion explained each step in the process. They begin with a chassis, add axles, wheels, water tanks, wrap the belly, and top it with a layer of Reflectix insulation (like shiny bubble wrap). At the same time another team is working on the body. A CNC machine routes the aluminum side panels which are tack riveted to the ribs and fit onto the plywood subfloor. Along with the end pieces these form a shell which is hoisted up and set on top of the chassis assembly. From there all the exterior pieces are attached, lights, vents, etc. and a team buck rivets every panel, one guy on the outside pushing the rivets in and another on the inside holding a metal buck tool which flattens the inside of the rivet. Marion let me step inside to see them in action. They can’t see or hear each other so they have to know how to work in sync and have a system of taps to communicate.
Once the outside shell is complete it is tested in a spray booth to make sure there are no leaks. Only 5 people in the company can clear a trailer to move past the water test, the 3 water test technicians, Marion, and another Director.
Next is when the inside magic begins. Wiring is run, insulation made from recycled cotton goes in, the inside aluminum walls are riveted in place, flooring is laid down, furniture is scribed and fit into place, and appliances are installed. It’s a lot of work and they do it all. From making their own cabinets to sewing the curtains. It takes 4 days from start to finish and they make about 85 units a week. With the increased popularity of Airstreams in the last few years they expanded the factory and now employ over 800. We were really impressed with the quality (from the water test to the multiple QC checks on the line, and the final check at the end) and the fact that these trailers are still handmade. There are some machines to help, but no robotic arms or conveyor belts.
One of those machines is in the original building where they have been making Airstreams since 1952. This machine forms aluminum sheets into the curved end panels that give Airstreams their rounded look. Amazingly it’s the exact same machine they’ve been using since 1952 and it’s still operated by feel, no fancy electronics here.
We saw the Interstate (Class B van) production line and learned that they import Mercedes vans with all the top of the line safety and comfort features, including a stereo they rip out just to keep the wiring harness.
The tour was quite thorough and after over 3 hours we ended up in the offices, which hide right above the production floor, and were surprised with an Airstream goodie bag. It was a great day and made the perfect early birthday present for Chuck!
All in all it was a great week. We learned a lot, made new friends, enjoyed great weather, and had a good time. Kudos to R & B events who put forth a well organized event!
Next up for us is a short drive north to Cuyahoga National Park.