JACKSON CENTER — After a postponed opening due to the COVID-19 pandemic and years of planning prior, the Airstream Heritage Center opened to the public on June 1.
Before the Heritage Center was open to the public, dignitaries and media attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 25 and Samantha Martin, the archivist/historian of Airstream and the curator of the Heritage Center, lead the tour and provided insight on the displays. When people visit the Heritage Center on a normal day, the tour will be self-guided with interactive kiosks at various points to watch and listen to media clips.
Airstream employees and enthusiasts have long awaited the opening of a space where almost 100 years of Airstream history could be celebrated, and some employees, like Mollie Hansen, the chief marketing officer of Airstream, and Samantha Martin were the most influential in bringing the Heritage Center to life. Hansen has been talking about gathering archives that were scattered around the Airstream campus for a comprehensive display since she started at the company about a decade ago.
“I would say probably 75% of this collection when I got here to work for Airstream was literally in a field. In the summer when we had lots of tours, lots of people, we would talk about those trailers, but they were out in the elements,” Hansen said. “So, I think the motivation was to get them protected, number one, and to realize that a lot of our history was in these units that have come from a variety of places. So, I just really felt that we had to preserve our history.”
Everything in the Heritage Center is set up with Airstream enthusiasts in mind. For example, there are selfie opportunities to recreate a well-known picture with a bike pulling an Airstream trailer, as shown on the wall behind the display, and a piece of an Airstream Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) designed in the 60s for astronauts to quarantine in after returning from a trip to the moon. There are signs encouraging visitors to share their pictures under the hashtag #AirstreamHeritageCenter, which is on par given Airstream’s massive Instagram following of over 250,000. A lighted sign at the entrance of the Heritage Center reads “Welcome to the Mothership,” which is what enthusiasts tend to call the Jackson Center headquarters.
Carey Walley, Airstream’s director of marketing, estimated that pre-pandemic, there were about 10,000 people per year that would visit the plant for a tour. Now, with the addition of the Heritage Center, they are expecting double that number of visitors or more per year.
Since the original Heritage Center floor plan, there have been five or six trailers added to the display. The company already owned some, some have been donated, and others are on loan and subject to being swapped out with other Airstream trailers from owners willing to display them. The Airstream Foundation, which has a board that is separate from the company, was started so people would feel more comfortable displaying their collections in the Heritage Center and to support the evolution of the space.
“You don’t realize how personal everybody takes everything that’s in here,” Hansen said. “You don’t always trust a company with your family history, but if you know the people behind it and our sincerity about preserving it and our passion about making sure people can see it, they were willing to do it.”
Notable Airstream products in the Heritage Center include two trailers dating back to 1938 — a Clipper and an Airlite — a 1984 Airstream Funeral Coach — one of 32 units produced from 1981 to 1991 that could transport 14 family members and a casket underneath from the funeral home to the burial site — and a 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud — the first trailer to come off the production line at the Jackson Center plant that opened in 1952.
With all of the history behind the trailers and artifacts on display, the space could be considered a museum, but there is a deeper meaning behind calling it the Heritage Center that made the name stick.
“It’s our heritage, and Jackson Center; there was a little nod to the fact that those two things combined made the Heritage Center,” Hansen said.
“I’d like to say that we honor and respect our history, but we’re not bound by it, and the idea of heritage is something that carries more into the future versus a museum is kind of backward-looking,” Bob Wheeler, the president and CEO of Airstream, said.
The Airstream executives also made it a priority for all of the Airstream employees to tour the Heritage Center so they can take pride in the pieces they build. Walley said this made her reflect on her own journey at Airstream.
“When I interviewed here, I remember Justin, the vice president of sales, had said, ‘there’s such a history and we’ll only be able to contribute to the brand for just a small period of time. There was people before us that did it, and there’ll be people after us that did it, and we only get this little piece of time to contribute’ and that really hit me. When I see this, it’s that whole history. All the people that contributed to the brand before me, and I think being able to share that with the employees, it really felt great,” Walley said.
For more information about the Airstream Heritage Center and the history of the brand, visit https://www.airstream.com/heritage-center/.
Reach the writer at (937) 538-4824.