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Airstream Founder Wally Byam­: RV Icon

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

For generations, Wally Byam has inspired travelers to answer the call of adventure awaiting them on the open road. Today Byam remains not only iconic but the stuff dreams are made of. As a pioneer in the building of travel trailers with the 1931 founding of Airstream Inc., Byam was a visionary and business genius ahead of his time. But, as a master promoter and romanticist of the RV lifestyle movement, he became a catalyst to not only giving people the equipment they needed to make their dreams of adventure come true, but the enthusiastic directive to hit the open road and do it.

Byam may have said it best as a young man in 1916, in predicting his own future, “I am a man of extremes — I will be a big boss, a rousing success, or a blank failure. In my heart I know I’ll be a big glorious success, and that my name will go down in history.”

Early Years Away from Home

This icon, whose name did go down in history, was born Wallace Merle Byam in 1896 in Baker City, Ore. on the same day as America’s independence – July 4. As a young child “Wally” traveled extensively with his grandfather by leading a mule train in the state. As a teenager, when Byam worked as a shepherd, he would reside in a two-wheeled shepherd’s cart outfitted    with the basic necessities to live on the road, including a kerosene stove, a sleeping bag and wash pail.

Byam’s accomplishments were no random accident, they were accomplishments influenced by inspirations deeply rooted in his early years and environment. Following Byam’s death in 1962 writer Frank Palmer mentions, “Years later, on a trip through some western sheep country, Wally told one of his close friends that the shepherd boy’s wagon had something to do with his later interest in trailers.”

A true entrepreneur, Byam didn’t travel the route that was outlined for him based on his formal instruction. In 1921, Wally graduated from Stanford University with a history major. And, prior to pursuing a business making recreational vehicle travel possible, he worked for the Los Angeles Times as an advertising copywriter and even ended up forming his own agency.

Wally Byam holding a mockup of his soon-to-be iconic Airstream trailer.

Wally Byam holding a mockup of his soon-to-be iconic Airstream trailer.

Do-It-Yourself Trailer

Within a few years, Byam’s own life experience influenced the impact he would make on the world. In 1929, Byam purchased a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it, towed it with his car to a campsite, and painstakingly erected a tent on it. Given his own tiresome and unpleasant experience, especially in bad weather, Byam became his own best customer who had a problem that needed solving.

On this do-it-yourself trailer concept, Byam worked further to develop a teardrop-shaped permanent shelter on the platform that enclosed a small ice chest and kerosene stove. He then published an article entitled “How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars.” The response was overwhelming – readers clamored for more information, which Byam provided in the form of more detailed instruction plans for one dollar each. He made $15,000 on the plans alone.

The plans developed into a trailer-building business in his backyard. After it became too large to be contained in his residence, Byam rented a building and formulated the Airstream Trailer Company. The quality of Airstream’s products was evident from the onset, and Byam’s indelible marks are still present on the company’s quality products today.

It’s also interesting to note that although Byam created his business for the purpose of travel, for many, the products served as stationary homes.

“During the Depression small trailers, today we call them travel trailers, were homes for thousands of people. They never saw the road. It is remarkable that Wally started an RV plant at the beginning of the Depression. Talk about guts and fortitude. Wally kept his eye on the sparrow – always promoting his Airstreams for travel. The use of trailers for homes accelerated at the end of the second World War with the lack of housing for the returning GI’s and their new families. Wally continued to manufacture for the gypsy spirit in the owner of Airstreams,” notes Dale Schwamborn, a relative to Byam and representative for the Estate of Helen Byam Schwamborn.

Wally Byam seated by the iconic Airstream trailer


A Record of RV Firsts

Byam scoured the world searching for efficient hot water tanks, door hinges, butane lamps, chemical toilets, small porcelain sinks and chairs — myriad large and small items that would make an Airstream more functional and livable. In Europe he discovered a heating system that took up little space but gave off plenty of radiant heat. He borrowed the design, improved it and renamed it the Byam Burner.

While Byam was on his 1956 European Caravan, the manufacturer Dometic presented its compact gas refrigerator to him in Sweden. He arranged for the refrigerators to be installed in Airstreams, putting an end to older model ice-electric refrigerators that required travelers to be constantly on the prowl for ice. More than 50 years later, Dometic still supplies refrigerators to Airstream.

And, when Byam couldn’t find anything suitable for his product innovations already on the market, he would find a way to manufacture it. Case in point, in 1954 he persuaded Max Bowen, president of Bowen Water Heater Co., to develop the first workable hot water system for a trailer. Original ideas for product innovations were a dime a dozen for Byam, including a flat-sided underbelly to reduce wind resistance, and an 18-by-40-inch escape window in the back of the trailer in case the side door was jammed. Other claimed “firsts” are holding tanks, the ladder frame, the pressurized water system, and the fully self-contained travel trailer — the 1957 Airstream International.

Wally became a huge name in his time, and his legacy lives on long after his passing.

Wally became a huge name in his time, and his legacy lives on long after his passing.

The Legacy Lives On

More than half a century since Byam’s passing, his legacy lives on in the spirit of travel and camaraderie that he inspired. Richardson, a lifelong member of WBCCI, perhaps sums up the Byam spirit of travel best in sharing that “As a member of WBCCI, all members are still assigned those big red numbers and easily recognized on the highway. Those who join the WBCCI still organize caravans and have get-together rallies almost every month all across America and Canada. WBCCI members enjoy the fruits of Wally’s beginnings by visiting sights they never knew existed, and the savings that have resulted in traveling together as groups is unmatched by any other caravanning group.”

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