A few summers ago, when Vincent Hemmeter and Nicole Watson camped out for three days at the Cars of Summer in Worcester, their campsite at Green Hill Park was from a different era — several, in fact. A Schilling pop-up auto camp from the late 1910s fastened onto the running board of their 1929 Model A. An auto refrigerator with water-filled canvas bags kept food cool; a running-board kitchenette stored dry goods. They brought along their 1950 Kenskill camper, pulled by a 1962 Falcon station wagon, and set up a 1972 Volkswagen bus.
Adding to the ambiance, the couple, who own three of Worcester’s most popular bars and music venues, Vincent’s, Ralph’s and Nick’s, wore period costumes.
“We were bombarded with questions,” says Watson. “People were really excited. From little kids to old men — they really wanted to know everything.”
In fact, the popularity of recreational camping in the United States dates to the late 1860s, when a young minister, William H.H. Murray, published the first camping guidebook, “Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks.” His message of nature as an escape from the grit and grime of urban life resonated as much then as it does today.
It wasn’t a direct route to 1950s family vacations in the quintessential Airstream, but as transportation evolved, camping grew right along with it.
“Recreational camping blew up when the Model T’s came out,” says Hemmeter. “A lot of people made homemade campers and then companies built trailer campers. People who already had trailers expanded.”
His own interest in vintage campers followed the same path. He and Watson have long loved antiques, and they have filled their older home in Worcester with both the functional and the ephemeral from days gone by. One of Hemmeter’s best-loved collections is antique cars, and it wasn’t much of a jump from there to camping.
“Camping ties in with the car and antiques hobby,” he says. “It just evolved from liking antique cars, liking old cabins — we have one in Maine — and the romance of camping.”
The couple’s interest is not in camping — as in camping out — as much as it is about creating a visual from the past.
“For us it’s all about the aesthetics,” he says. They like to find historic backdrops — an old building, an old filling station still in use — and position one of their vintage cars and campers in front of it for a good photograph.
“We’ve camped,” says Watson. “I just don’t like to camp for too long; I’m at a stage of my life where showers are nice.”
They frequently travel to classic car shows both with and without a camper along. An annual favorite is the Roaring Twenties Lawn Party at the Crane Estate in Ipswich.
The heart of Hemmeter’s auto collection includes a 1915 touring Model T, a 1927 Austin (Britain’s first Model T) and the 1929 Model A. His first vintage camper blended car and camper: a 1964 Volkswagen bus he purchased in the 1990s and still regrets selling. As his collection has grown, its focus has moved backward in time.
He owns a 1972 VW bus now, as well as the 1950 Kenskill camper in shiny aluminum, called a “canned ham” because of its distinctive sloped shape. The paneled wood interior is warm, with red touches in gingham and red leather seats echoed by the vintage red plaid lunchbox and thermos that sit on a pull-down table.
Subsequent finds kept taking Hemmeter back in time until he reached his favorite era, the 1910s and 1920s — “and that’s as far back as I can go.”
In addition to canvas tents from that period, the couple have a Gilkie camper from the early 1920s, one of the first pop-ups made. They plan to use a beach cabana from the teens as “our private powder room for shows,” says Watson. “It’s a good thing to have your own at these events.”
Hemmeter recently purchased a flat trailer built in 1919 that he intends to renovate and complete. Made of wood, with bright red spokes in the wheels, it originally would have been topped by canvas-wrapped hoops, like a covered wagon.
“We try to buy them in usable condition,” he says. “I had to clean the 1920s camper and revarnish. But I didn’t have to do anything to it other than some minor repairs.”
Watson handles fabric work; she has a background in theater and was a costume designer for many years, locally with Foothills Theatre. In addition, says Hemmeter, “my best friend is a mechanic. We couldn’t do any of it without him.”
Authenticity is essential, and that means rewiring with cloth wire and finding period lights. It also extends to matching the vintage car with the vintage camper and finding historically accurate accoutrements to go with both.
Certain concessions must be made to safety, such as seat belts, lighting (the earliest automobiles didn’t have lights) and enhanced brakes.
“With all antique cars, there were after-market improvements made during the period,” Hemmeter says. “Other people have adapted since, by putting brakes from a 1930s car on a 1920s car, for instance. Especially if you’re pulling a trailer, you have to have better brakes.”
The paraphernalia runs the gamut, from antique folding tables and chairs to Sterno-based stoves, wicker picnic baskets and cookware. The “tourist kitchenette” they used at Green Hill Park, patented in 1924 and made by the Tourist Supply Co. in Los Angeles, is a galvanized metal box that clips to a running board. It opens into a series of labeled compartments reminiscent of a child’s toy kitchen, each with a stenciled label for bread, canned goods, coffee and sugar.
“You can wash dishes, put ice water into it. There’s a place for everything,” he says. Paint doesn’t adhere well to galvanized metal, so he plans to redo the faded labeling with a stencil a friend created for them.
Hemmeter does his homework and lots of it: His personal archive includes an extensive library of period books and articles about camping in its earliest years, especially from the first quarter of the century.
Though he and Watson tend not to travel far — they haven’t left the state with the campers — he would like to do a longer trip in the Model A or Model T, probably with the 1920s pop-up camper.
In the meantime, they’re looking forward to doing an informal inventory. Last summer “got away from us,” and they did little more than use the canned-ham camper to serve wine and cheese during backyard parties.
Several miles away, in Holden, Delia, aged 36, sits in shiny splendor, her blue awnings bright and her interior outfitted with all the accoutrements of home.
It wasn’t always so. In 2016, two weeks after they brought the 1983 31-foot Airstream camper home to Holden from Virginia, Jon Hall and Teresa Amici drove her to the Thousand Islands region on Lake Ontario. They had purchased the camper intending to fully renovate her — though perhaps not so quickly. As soon as they parked, they discovered the results of some badly done do-it-yourself work by a previous owner. The kitchen cabinets collapsed. They had to order an adapter for the sewer line, overnighting it directly to the campground. And at some point during their trip, a piece of the outside awning broke, dropping in front of the door and trapping them inside.
“I said, ‘I could call the ranger,’ ” recalls Amici, “and Jon said, ‘No, I’ll get us out.’ ”
“It was right before Memorial Day, and Jon spent the entire Memorial Day weekend ripping things out and throwing them in the driveway,” she says.
The couple’s decision to buy and restore an Airstream was born partly from economy and partly out of an enthusiastic creativity that drives them both. When they met eight years ago, each already owned a camper. Deciding that they wanted to sell both and buy an Airstream together, they quickly discovered that brand new models ran “$240,000 for a 31-foot Classic,” says Hall.
Instead, they turned to eBay. Their formula was simple: When they found an Airstream they liked, they sent a deposit to the owner and asked that the money be returned if they didn’t like the camper when they came to view it.
The first candidate was in upstate New York, and unacceptable. Although the owner had assured them it was “ready to go,” we “needed a shower” after walking around in it, says Amici.
They had better luck in Virginia, where they met and fell in love with the 31-footer that became Delia. She was full of stinkbugs and the water tank choked with weeds, but they drove her home without incident.
Over the course of that first summer, the couple poured their “heart and soul” into the camper, they say. They named her “Delia” for the Johnny Cash song “Delia’s Gone,” because their hands were always too grimy to change the single CD that played on repeat for weeks.
A trained mechanic who is now a manager at NTB, Hall replaced the camper’s tires and wheel bearings and fixed the brakes immediately. Moving ahead, he replaced all of the mechanical systems, including the plumbing, the water heater, the water lines, the furnace and the air conditioning.
In the kitchen, where the original stove had four burners, making it impossible to heat a large pot, they added a three-burner marine cooktop and removed the oven altogether, adding a small fridge in its place.
“Nobody uses the oven,” she says. “We camp in the hot weather and there are never enough cold drinks.”
A new and smaller sink allowed room for a countertop, and Amici transformed a butcher block machine shop table from Craigslist into a gleaming surface. It was a challenge, but a welcome one.
“I sanded and sanded and sanded and sanded and sanded,” she says. “I also had to read about a food-safe finish. There’ve got to be a dozen layers of finish on it.”
Her father helped make it a family affair, making a sink cover to extend the counter by refinishing the piece of wood that had been cut out for the opening.
“The bed was sideways,” says Hall. “I took cabinets out and reoriented it. All new bed. Now you can lift the bed up and it’s all storage underneath. Airstreams aren’t as good in comparison to modern campers in terms of storage — they were built like aircraft fuselage.”
He also removed the flooring down to the subfloor here, adding vinyl planking in a soft gray to run the full length of the camper in a vertical rather than horizontal orientation.
That sense of openness and space was a key element in the couple’s plans for Delia. To make that possible, they chose a light color scheme based on white, light gray and silver with red accents here and there.
White-painted tambour shutters — wood on a canvas backing — repeat throughout the camper, covering storage areas beneath the bed and the couch, as well as in both kitchen and bathroom.
Amici, who wielded more cans of white spray paint than she cares to remember, was in charge of painting as well as fabric work. She made curtains for every window and slipcovers for the couch and valances for the salon, or living room, at Delia’s front.
“Teresa made one set and decided she didn’t like it,” says Hall. He found the fabric they ended up with — a patterned gray — and they searched online until they found the single location that carried it: “a JoAnn’s in East Jesus Nowhere,” he said with a laugh.
“A lot of our ideas start out one way and evolve. Or we run into a stumbling block. Or we’re almost done and we come up with a better idea. It gets us into trouble all the time.”
A bright red wall clock hanging above the television is another example: It’s the third clock in that spot because they kept looking until they found it.
Outside, they repaired and replaced Delia’s awnings with Pacific Blue Fancy, the traditional Airstream awning fabric and pattern. Amici sewed slipcovers to match for two outdoor rockers.
In the course of the reconstruction, “we learned Airstream,” she says, doing research online for design ideas as well as technical know-how. YouTube videos were a good resource.
“I’ve taught myself things all my life,” says Hall. “It’s easier now, though, isn’t it?”
Their learning curve is such that they have mused about selling Delia and starting all over with another Airstream project, one that they would now feel comfortable taking all the way down to the frame.
Ultimately, though, she’s a member of the family. She’s taken them to Acadia National Park in Maine, where their campsite was right on the ocean, and to Equine Affair at the Big E, where the temperature dropped to well below zero and they had to buy more propane.
At Disney World, Delia was accompanied by last summer’s project: a golf cart from the 1980s, restored in blue and white to match Delia’s awnings. The cart rode along in the bed of Hall’s diesel pickup, and the couple drove it all over the parks.
They’d like to take the camper to Chincoteague Island to see the wild ponies, a key item on Amici’s bucket list, and they’ll travel with family to a campground in New York state this summer.
And they’ve redoing the salon, replacing the couch with two recliners so they can watch television just as they do in their house. That has meant replacing some water-damaged wood and extending the flooring. They also have their eyes on a 1950s vintage table with just the right red and white pattern.
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