JACKSON CENTER — After launching a new 94,000-square-foot expansion to its Jackson Center plant in June, Airstream hosted an open house to show off the new addition Thursday.
During his remarks to those who were on hand to see the new wing, Bob Wheeler, president and CEO of Airstream Inc., gave the brand-new addition a good looking over and noted that perhaps a few more yards of concrete may have been prudent.
“We’re already needing a bigger boat,” Wheeler joked to the crowd, noting that virtually the entire 94,000-square-foot addition is already bulging at the seams with tools, equipment and travel trailers in a various state of construction.
Wheeler said afterward that when the decision was made by Airstream to expand its operations, there was really no discussion about where the $10 million investment would be made. Airstream’s first and only choice was northeast Shelby County, at the site of its already-thriving business in the village of Jackson Center.
“No, consideration wasn’t given to any other location at all,” Wheeler said in regard to where Airstream decided to make the investment. “This is our home.”
Airstream was founded 84 years ago by California-native Wally Byam. A story goes that in his salad days, Byam published a DIY magazine and in one issue included plans for a travel trailer. Readers complained that the blueprints made for a lousy trailer, so Byam followed the instructions for himself and found that his readers were 100 percent correct. He decided he could do better and by 1920 built his first travel trailer on the chassis of a Model-T Ford. Twelve years later, Byam opened the “Airstream” brand and started selling his homes-on-wheels to the general public.
Airstream proved to be very successful on the West Coast, so Byam looked to tap into the markets east of the Mississippi. In 1952, Byam plunked down $5,000 for an empty paper-goods factory in Jackson Center and the first Airstream rolled off the line that same year. Airstreams — Land Yachts, Flying Clouds and other models — can be seen coming off that same line today. In 1978, the whole operation was consolidated to Shelby County.
There have been model changes over the years, to be sure, but the constants in all the travel trailers are the polished aluminum shells and rounded corners that unmistakably mark them as Airstreams. There are exceedingly few products built or produced anywhere in the United States that have the recognition factor of a Airstream trailer. Byam and 101 of his closest friends gained widespread attention when they towed 41 Airstreams 18,000 miles from Cape Town to Cairo in 1959. Lynda Byrd Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, toured the Untied States with a caravan of Airstreams in 1964 on a promotional tour to bring attention to the nation’s natural beauties. Astronauts were routinely provided with and quarantined in Airstreams. Movie stars don’t use hand-cranked pop-ups while shooting on location, they get Airstream Classics or Internationals, all of which are made by hand in Jackson Center.
Airstream may be one of the few factories in America that has a “just-drop-by” policy for those wanting to tour the plant. Officially, tours of the plant are given to the general public at 2 p.m. on weekdays, but that starting time is honored more in the breach, meaning that if you stop by during business hours, you’re likely to be issued eye and ear protection and taken for a stroll through the plant. Mollie Hansen, vice president of marketing for Airstream Inc., said that during the summer months it’s not uncommon for five or six tours go through during the day. Everybody is welcome to take the tour, but Airstream asks that large groups or visitors requiring special accommodations give them a heads-up, which can be easily done on its website at www.airstream.com.
In addition to the 94,000-square-foot expansion of the assembly area, Airstream consolidated its administrative section from several different offices scattered around the campus into one, modern 16,000-square-foot building. This summer also marked the opening of a 5,000-square-foot fitness center on the Airstream campus.
In his remarks to the visitors, Wheeler acknowledged and outlined Airstream’s illustrious history, but said he and his Airstream “family” have a lot more history to make.
“I believe that we are entering a new ‘Golden Age’ for Airstream,” Wheeler said.