It’s likely that you’ll arrive in the east-central Ohio village of Jackson Center before you even realize you’re in town.
The village boundary driving east on two-lane Ohio Rt. 274 is marked by a small sign that’s easy to miss. And amid miles and miles of flat farmland, there’s no indication as you approach the community of just under 1,400 that one of the world’s icon recreation vehicles – Airstream travel trailers with their distinctive silver bullet shape – are built there.
Airstream this year is marking its 75th anniversary, with limited-edition, specially badged trailers and a hardcover, 175-page commemorative book: Wanderlust — Airstream at 75. It’s also the cover story for the May issue of RV Business magazine.
To owners of Airstream RVs, tiny Jackson Center is Mecca – the place where their distinctive travel trailers are mostly hand-made, and where they bring their coaches to be maintained at Airstream’s factory service center.
Jackson Center also is the home of the Wally Byam Caravan Club (WBCCI), established 50 years ago and named for Airstream’s legendary founder.
Airstream, with 300 employees, is Jackson Center’s largest employer, although a Plasti-Pak factory that makes plastic bottles for soft drink companies is located just outside of town in Jackson Township.
Airstream occupies some 200,000 square feet in buildings on both the north and south sides of Pike Street, Jackson Center’s main east-west drag that also features the town’s single stop light at its intersection with Main Street.
But what sets Airstream apart in the world of RVs, along with its mid-20th century design, is the brotherhood that Wally Byam fostered among RVers.
And like many others, Walter Bennett, CFO of Airstream parent Thor Industries Inc. who joined Airstream in the late 1970s, credits Byam for propagating the legend that Airstream has become.
“He did some exotic stuff – the caravans to Europe and Africa and China,” Bennett said. “That built up a mystique about the product, which, of course, has a very unique design in the first place. The early years set the stage for the legions of Airstream buyers who have been passed down through generations.”
Thor Industries, also with headquarters in Jackson Center, was founded on Aug. 29, 1980 with the acquisition of Airstream from Beatrice Foods by Wade F.B. Thompson and Peter Orthwein at the height of what was considered to be a depression in the RV industry as the prime interest rate topped 20%.
Thor today owns 15 companies and is the world’s largest RV manufacturer and North America’s largest builder of mid-sized buses. However, Airstream sales in 2005 were just over $100 million, a small percentage of Thor’s company-wide revenues that Thompson anticipates will be just under $3 billion when the company’s fiscal year ends in July.
“Airstream is a small but important part of Thor,” Thompson told RV Business.