Nostalgia on wheels at Airstream-only trailer park near St. Cloud

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 4:35 PM

An Airstream-only trailer park offers a “slice of retro heaven,” along with quirky camaraderie.

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Tracy Tabery-Weller and Brad Weller were planning to buy a little cabin — until they saw the blue sign for the Minnesota Airstream Park near St. Cloud.

“We drove in and fell in love with it,” said Tracy, referring to the cluster of shiny silver Airstream travel trailers parked under a canopy of regal oaks. “I felt like I was going back to my childhood.”

Within a few years, the couple had acquired a lot in the RV park — the only one in the state dedicated to Airstreams, and one of only seven nationwide — along with a vintage Airstream International travel trailer. “We bought it ‘as is’ from a sweet couple in their 90s,” said Tracy. The trailer itself dates back to 1972. “It’s the year I was born — pretty cool.”

The bungalow on wheels was the ideal fixer-upper for the Wellers, who are avid thrift shoppers and have restored their midcentury modern home in St. Anthony. Tracy reupholstered the trailer’s teal blue sofa, replaced “ratty old carpet” with a vinyl floor and painted the wood-like laminate walls. The trailer even has its original appliances — a Magic Chef oven and Dometic refrigerator — for housewives who weren’t keen about going camping.

“It’s so well-designed; everything has a purpose,” said Tracy, who looked the part of a retro housewife herself, with her ’60s updo and vintage dress, as she showed off her trailer’s features. The sliding window between the bedroom and kitchen is the “coolest thing on the planet,” she said.

Although the iconic Airstream trailers, known as “silver bullets,” were designed to be towed behind a car to roam the country, the Wellers and many other owners park them from April to October at the park near St. Cloud, using them as weekend cabins only an hour from Minneapolis.

“The park is a gateway into a community of lots of different demographics — with one thing in common: the appreciation and love for the Airstream,” said Tracy.

Retro retreat

Back in 1971, a group of recreational Airstream enthusiasts founded the 80-acre park in Clear Lake, Minn. Today there are 125 sites, with lots priced from $4,000 to $22,000, depending on the location, landscaping and amenities, such as screened gazebos. Airstream trailer owners also can rent a lot for the weekend for $54.

“It’s an addiction,” said park manager Mac McEachran, who owns a 1967 Airstream with his wife, Beth. “It’s fun to see other people’s trailers and how they restored and fixed them up.”

For decades, Airstream owners have been seduced by the sleek, aerodynamic, aluminum-skinned travel trailer created by Wally Byam in the 1930s. He named it Airstream because it was easy to tow and glided along the highway “like a stream of air.” The polished exterior is so reflective that a 1950s advertisement showed a woman using it as a mirror to apply lipstick.

But Airstream Park culture isn’t just about the “silver bullet” trailers and memories of family trips to Yellowstone. Airstreamers also form friendships at social activities such as potlucks, bingo, campfires and karaoke. The grounds even have a heated swimming pool and nine-hole golf course. The park’s demographic is evolving as trailers are sold to new owners, according to McEachran.

“It’s changing over from full-time, older retired people to younger families who come on the weekends,” he said. “We’ve even set up a playground for kids.”

Betsy and Dan Ruppert-Kan call their Airstream Park plot “a slice of retro heaven.” The Robbinsdale couple and their two children are spending their fifth summer in a two-bedroom 1983 Airstream Limited they bought for $9,000 on Craigslist.

Betsy gave the laminate wood-paneled interiors a tiki theme, with mugs lining the shelves and retro fabric accents. She plays cassette tapes in the trailer’s original player component, which is stored in a slot above the sofa.

“We can enjoy our fun retro stuff and have a furnace, air conditioning, a shower and heated swimming pool,” said Betsy, who admits she’s not at all outdoorsy, but is more into “glamping” — connecting with nature without sacrificing comfort.

It took the couple a few years to find the right Airstream, the second one they’ve owned, because there’s a big demand for affordable vintage models — new ones can sell for $60,000 and up. The revival of all things retro has contributed to a dwindling supply of the funky functional trailers.

“I read that 75 percent of the Airstreams made are still on the road,” said Betsy. “People don’t throw them out — they keep the aluminum shell, gut and refurbish them.”

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