Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Does father crave to fish for trout and bass and pike and musky? Take him auto-touring.

Does sister want to dip in the surf, or study art, or see the world? Toke her automobile vacationing. Has grand-dad the “hoof and mouth disease” so that he craves the green of far-away courses? Auto-comp him to a dozen golf courses. Does mother sigh for a rest from doily routines? Take her touring. Does baby need fresh mountain air for from flies and heat? Take him auto-camping.

Motor Campcraft (1918) by Frank E. Brimmer


Although today we generally do not associate camping with the automobile, it’s clear that the rise of camping as a recreational activi­ty for the typical Pennsylvanian – as well as for the ordinary American­ – began with the proliferation of the automobile, particularly as vehicles became affordable to the middle class in the open­ing decades of the twentieth century.

In the latter half of the nineteenth centu­ry, recreational travel was a pursuit of the affluent, as well as of artists, writers, and naturalists. It was also seen as an opportunity to commune with nature. In 1901, John Muir (1838-1914), conservationist and founder, in 1892, of the Sierra Club, commented, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken people [have found] that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” These travelers, however, possessed both the time and the means to pursue the wilderness experience, often carrying camping equipment in backpacks or by horse. Horse-drawn camping vehicles or caravans, popular in England in the 1880s, were uncommon in the United States, where roads were much less hospitable. Camping for individuals of average means – usually men – focused largely on hunting and fishing expeditions close to home, and they either set up one camp or traveled over a small area by foot or by canoe. Camping as a family activity was rare – the ordinary family had neither the time nor the inclination to take to the woods as a form of recreation.

Rapidly developing railroads during the nineteenth century increasingly enabled a more diverse group of travelers to visit scenic areas and led to the establishment of pri­vate parks and resort hotels along railroad lines, but even these excursions were beyond the reach of most people. At Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) in Carbon County, the sprawling Hotel Wahne­tah offered accommodations to passengers of Asa Packer’s Lehigh Valley Railroad (LVRR) who wished to visit “the Switzerland of America,” particularly the picturesque Glen Onoko Falls nearby. In adjacent Luzerne County, the LVRR’s passenger department operated the Glen Summit Hotel at Glen Summit Springs as a major attraction for New York and Philadelphia vacationers who traveled the widely advertised “Route of the Black Diamond Express.” All LVRR passenger trains stopped at the fabled resort, which promised, among other amenities, “Mountain Air, Purest Spring Water, Faultless Cuisine” (see “The Anthracite Aristocracy Takes to the Moun­tains” by Kurt A. Tepfer, Summer 1994).

With the advent of the automobile, travelers could traverse greater distances with ease, and carry more amenities with them than the wilderness camper. The more affluent even had their automobiles adapted for touring use, or built special vehicles just for leisure travel. One of Pennsylvania’s first “house cars” was built in 1918 for wealthy industrialist Edwin J. Fithian (1863-1953) by the McKay Carriage Company of Grove City, in Mercer County, north of Pittsburgh. Set on an extended chassis of a 1917 Winton Big Six Touring Car, the unusual vehicle – measuring thirty-three feet long and ten feet high – was noted for its lavish interior, which included cut and patterned velvet upholstery throughout, pure silk window shades, sink, toilet, and a large wooden ice box that held fifty pounds of ice. The exterior of the house car’s body was paneled with varnished wood and its top covered in leather. Weighing nearly eight tons, the car was able to reach a speed of sixty miles-per-hour.

Fithian designed his house car to stump the Keystone State during his unsuccessful 1918 gubernatorial bid as a candidate of the Prohibition Party. He abhorred smoking, swearing, drinking, dancing, and gambling, and when the citizens of Grove City elected him mayor, he closed all businesses on Sunday. During the race for the governor’s office, he used the rear platform of the car – covered by awnings and trimmed with handsome brass fittings – to deliver his speeches as he campaigned throughout the Commonwealth. In a description of the lumbering vehicle – which got three miles to the gallon – the Grove City Herald Reporter of August 22, 1918, tagged it the “Win the War on Prohibition Car.” Fithian’s creation, once a showpiece for a Florida automobile museum and later for a Las Vegas hotel and casino, is now in a private collection.

Unlike the railroad, the automobile allowed travel on one’s own schedule and over a variety of routes, but many areas lacked accommodations and so wayfarers frequently stopped and set up camp wherever they wanted. Altercations with property owners were not uncommon. To control dispersed camping and to provide a safe, convenient place for visitors to stop and rest, campgrounds were established by the turn of the nineteenth century in many of the Commonwealth’s state forests. Burgeoning demand for access to state forestlands prompted the state Forestry Reservation Commission to publish, on August 5, 1904, regulations gov­erning camping under permit on state lands. It’s not known how many camping permits were issued that first year – accounts vary widely, from nearly two hundred and fifty to twenty-two hundred – but it appears that many went to hunters and anglers. By 1912, protected forestlands in Pennsylvania had doubled to more than one million acres. In 1913, the Commonwealth allowed the establishment of semi­-permanent campsites for individuals, churches, and school groups; a one-quarter acre site could be leased for a ten-year period. The Commonwealth approved two hundred leases for permanent campsites – all of which were free – and issued four thousand regular camping permits by early 1915.

Widespread access to automobiles­ – particularly the introduction of affordable vehicles – revolutionized the pursuit of camping and touring as a leisure activity. Mobility spawned increased popularity for sportsmen, but even more so for families because it allowed them to travel to areas that had once been too distant. Automobiles also afforded them the means to literally take part of their home with them. Some travelers used their vehicles to simply haul camping equipment, such as tents, stoves, and cots, while others outfitted their vehicles for camping, or purchased or constructed “camp cars” on automobile and truck chassis. These house or camp cars allowed people to venture well equipped into wilderness areas where traditional accommodations were not available.

By the 1920s, camping with vehicles had become popular with the more adventurous vacationer. The proliferation of campgrounds – including autocamps in national and state parks – provided convenient and inexpensive accommodations for travelers. In 1918, Frank E. Brimmer, managing editor of Outdoor Recreation magazine and an unapologetic promoter of autocamping, published Motor Campcraft, a book touting autocamping as a family activity. Five years later he pub­lished Autocamping, a popular guidebook for campers, that included detailed chap­ters on tents, beds, clothing, camp cooking, refrigeration, furniture and furnishings, camp illumination – even the ethics of autocamping – literally everything Brimmer thought the neophyte camper needed to know. (“All things considered,” Brimmer advised, “corduroy is not the best material to wear on your autocamp­ing trip. It is heavy and when damp is the hardest kind of material to get and keep dry.”) It was clear that Americans had taken to the highways and byways in significant numbers in cars, house cars, trailers, and tent trailers. Brimmer admitted that house cars had their drawbacks and suggested “with a car outfit or a [tent] trailer one may leave the whole impedimenta in permanent camp for the day, while he makes side trips with the car.”

“I believe we should have comfortable camps all over the country, so that the motorist could camp in a good scenic spot, preferably a state park,” said Stephen Mather, director of the National Park Service, in 1921, at which time only fifteen states had developed state park systems. Although Pennsylvania’s first state park, Valley Forge, in Montgomery County, had been established in 1893, it wasn’t until the 1920s that state parks began to proliferate (see “Valley Forge: Commemorating the Centennial of a National Symbol by Lorett Treese, Spring 1993″). By then, Pennsylvania had twen­ty-six public campgrounds in state parks and forests; in 1922, Pennsylvania claimed the second-largest amount of public recreation lands in the country, with more than one million acres.

Publishers were quick to capitalize on the mounting popularity of what Brim­mer called autocamping. A 1929 edition of Popular Mechanics contained detailed plans for outfitting the interior of an auto­mobile for “touring purposes” and instructions for building “attachments” to provide amenities such as a bed, kitchen, and storage. The article also included instructions for attaching a canvas tent to a vehicle. The publication provided plans for the forerunner of modern recreational vehicles – later dubbed RVs – in the form of the “camp car, or land cruiser.” These were far from the early house cars built for the wealthy, but these “mobile bungalows” included all the basics­ – beds, a table, water tank, ice­box, stove, and cupboards.

The Great Depression put an end to the first boom in camping but brought major improvements to both state and national recreational facilities. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) vastly improved the infrastructure in parks, including cabins, campgrounds, shelters, hiking and riding trails, and boating and swimming facili­ties. These facilities broadened the appeal of camping and outdoor pursuits by including activities which entire families found appealing. Many private camp­grounds were also established. Private and public campgrounds in the Keystone State today number nearly five hundred.

As Pennsylvanians rekindled their interest in camping and recreational travel following World War II, the number of options available to them continued to expand. Tenting continued to be a popular and economical approach. Trailers to pull behind a vehicle were available in many forms and price ranges, from “teardrop” units that allowed a convenient means to transport gear and often featured a foldout kitchen, to self-contained travel trailers with practically all the comforts of home. Trailers gave vacationers the opportunity to unhitch at their campsite, allowing them to make side trips with their vehicles.

A new type of vacation vehicle, inspired by the early house cars, emerged in the fifties. Christened the “motor home” in the 1960s, it has been described as a “ranch house on wheels” because it boasted aluminum siding, picture windows, modern kitchens, bathrooms, and forced-air furnaces. These recreational vehicles were preferred by some vacation­ers because they did not need to be jockeyed around like a trailer, and were Jess likely to sway on the road. They also gave the traveler access to the vehicle while it was underway. Variations included converted buses (some professionally done, others homemade) and smaller versions, such as Volkswagen’s microbus campers.

The Keystone State possesses a strong tradition in the manufacture of recreational vehicles that began with the early house cars, took off in the post-World War II era, and continues today. The Commonwealth’s recreational vehicle makers generate more than four hundred million dollars in sales annually!

In 1946, writer and outdoors enthusiast Wallace R. Boren asked the Boyertown Body and Equipment Company in Boyer­town, Berks County, to install a camper interior in one of its delivery truck bodies. Seeing a potential market, Boyertown introduced a forty-six hundred dollar Tour Wagon in 1949, built on a stand up delivery truck body. It contained the required creature comforts – beds, kitchen, icebox, and table, plus a portable shower with washbasin and a chemical toilet. Despite its price tag, Boyertown’s Tour Wagon proved popular, selling well into the 1980s.

An important manufacturer – which claimed a considerable market share and still attracts aficionados – Serro Scotty, was located in southwestern Pennsylvania. On a rainy Fourth of July in 1957, John Serro (1903-1998), a retired car dealer in Irwin, Westmoreland County, had an idea that a mobile cabin – or travel trailer – could be designed to include all the amenities of home – a bed, sink, two-burner stove, and dinette, all neatly tucked into a thirteen-foot long trailer. Serro sketched his plan on the back of a calendar, constructed a prototype in his barn, then talked his way into a mobile home show in Elkhart, Indiana, where his economical trailer – priced at five hundred and ninety-five dollars – stole the show. Although the prototype was the only trailer Serro had built, he returned home with orders for eighteen, launching the production of the Serro Scotty Sportsman, emblazoned with its trademark terrier logo, in 1957 in a newly constructed factory in Irwin, Westmoreland County. The factory produced Serro Scotty Sportsman trailers – geared towards both outdoorsmen and families – until April 17, 1997, when a fire destroyed the plant. Scotty trailers proved extremely popular – Scotty enthusiast clubs sprung up, and in 1963 John Serro established a campground in Somerset County, “Scottyland U.S.A.,” to cater to the burgeoning ranks of proud Scotty owners. In its quest to expand its collections of twentieth-century popular culture, The State Museum of Pennsylvania acquired, in 1997, a 1957 model from Serro Scotty. (A 1957 ten-foot Scotty teardrop and a 1957 thirteen-foot trailer are on exhibit at the RV Museum in Elkhart, Indiana, gifts of John Serro, who was inducted into its RV Hall of Fame in 1987.)

Pennsylvania has been – and is – home to a number of manufacturers who helped meet the seemingly insatiable demand for purely recreational vehicles. Sun­line Coach Com­pany started out building truck campers in a garage in Hinkle­town, Lancaster County, and expanded rapidly. The company built its present manufacturing facility in nearby Denver in 1969. Sun­line produces travel trailers and fifth wheel trailers (a trailer that hitches into the bed of a pickup truck, rather than onto its bumper). Also located in Lancaster County, Skyline RVs, Leola, manufactures travel trailers and fifth wheels. Coleman Folding Trailers by Fleetwood have been built in Somerset, Somerset County, since 1967. At a whopping four hundred and fifty thousand square feet, the Coleman plant is the largest RV manufacturing facility in the country, and its six hundred employees turn out twenty thousand folding trailers yearly. In 2000, the company expanded its line to include an expandable travel trailer, the Caravan. The Fleetwood Industries facility in Paxinos, Northumberland County, established in 1973, today manufactures twenty-five hundred gasoline-powered motor homes each year, which are sold throughout the eastern United States and Canada. The Aliner Compa­ny has been producing its distinctive hardtop A-frame folding travel trailers since 1982. Family-owned and operated, the plant and offices are located in Kecks­burg, Westmoreland County.

Pennsylvania’s long and rich tradition of camping and outdoor recreation began in the nineteenth century, grew with the expansion of the state parks and forests as well as private campgrounds, took to the road in automobiles and recreational vehicles, and promises to continue as one of the leading leisure time activities in the Keystone State. As more and more families seek to “enjoy and exhilarate just about anywhere that fancy dictates,” as pioneer autocamper Frank E. Brimmer advocated more than three-quarters of a century ago, they can satisfy their wanderlust among the wooded valleys, lush glades, and verdant mountains that define the Commonwealth’s topography.


Autocamping is not a transient pastime or a by-product of the world war, but a vocational institution that has come to stay, an outgrowth of natural forces. Nor is autocamping a mere game, pastime, or frolic, and most certainly it is not a luxury. It is a free and independent state of relaxing weary muscles, of restoring nerve energy, of charging the storage battery of bodily energy, of cutting the cobwebs mentally, and of clearing the fog spiritually. Autocamping is a product of modern civilization, an institution necessary for the pursuit of health and happiness.

Autocamping (1923) by Frank E. Brimmer


For Further Reading

Belasco, Warren James. Americans On the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979.

Bourne, Russell. Americans on the Move: A History of Waterways, Railways, and Highways. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 1995.

Brimmer, F.E. Autocamping. Cincinnati: Steward Kidd Company, 1923.

Cupper, Dan. Our Priceless Heritage: Pennsylvania State Parks 1893-1993. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1993.

White, Roger B. Home On the Road: The Motor Home in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.


Diane B. Reed, of Carlisle, is chief of publications for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and holds a masters degree in American Studies from Penn State University, Harrisburg. She and her husband, Bruce E. Henrickson, are avid RVers, enjoying their motor home both in and out of Pennsylvania.