Mary Heaton Vorse

U.S. Trailer Camps

Source: New Deal Document Library,
Publisher: OWI

Across the length and breadth of America at war can be seen compact colonies of strange little cottages on wheels. These vehicles, each boasting all the comforts of home on a miniature scale, are known as trailers. A group or colony of them is a trailer camp. They are used to house workers in American war industries and other plants which have sprung up like giant mushrooms all over the United States. An owner, with his auto, which. pulls his trailer, may journey 500 to l,000 miles to join some trailer camp near the factory where he intends to work.

One of the most interesting trailer camps I have known was owned and run by a man named Shekatoff. This camp was opposite the great Pratt and Whitney aircraft plant in a New England state. The camp was well off the main highway one of the great highways which had a street railway between two highway lanes, down both of which traffic thundered ceaselessly. The camp looked backward at the huge dynamos off a power plants whose red and white lights winked through the night and whose steady hum, like a hive of bees, filled the airs mingled with the drone of airplanes being tested at night.

Camp Full of Children

Teacher Annette Ashe tells a story to a group of children on the steps of a nursery trailer at a U.S. trailer camp. Trailer camps house war workers in war production areas until permanent facilities can be built. A full-time teaching staff operates the day nursery where the children play and read, take naps and get hot midday lunches. The older children attend schools in the nearby city in transportation furnished by the government.

Like all trailer camps, Shekatoffs was full of children of all ages. People do not live in trailers because they like the idea of being gypsies, but generally because there are few houses to rent in the big war industry centers. So as a last resort they buy or rent a trailer, or even make one. Each trailer is built on two or four wheels and towed behind the owner’s automobile. There are thousands of these trailers gathered in colonies near the nation’s war plants.

Since I lived in the Airport Trailer Camp I have seen many others, but none I liked as well, for Shekatoff himself and the people who lived there made a warm community. It had life and neighborliness.

There were not quite 200 trailers in the camp. There were tour neat rows of them and a few more scattered under the trees in front of a wooded ravine. Two white, roughly macadamized roads let through the trailer village. In about the middle of the camp stood the office and utility buildings. The office building was a bare room with a concrete floor and on the wall was a poster advertising war bonds. At the end of the room was a small office which served as renting bureau and post office. Stretching down one side of the room was a store where one could buy everything with the exception of fresh fruit and vegetables; fish and fowl. There was every kind of delicatessen--sausages, salami, cheeses and potato salad and great stocks of sardines and canned salmon, canned goods and groceries. There was a small selection of such meats as chopped beef, pork chops and stew meats. There were oranges, bananas, cakes and bread.

The wayside stand opposite the camp had a good supply of fruits and vegetables--all sold for reasonable prices. There were benches along the other wall opposite the store, a telephone booth pay station, and the inevitable “juke box” which is not a box at all, but a mechanical music player which, when a nickel is inserted, blares out a choice of the latest popular songs, This one was seldom silent.

Laundry for Workers

Here is a winter scene of a trailer camp near Detroit, Michigan, where 50 U.S. war workers’ families live comfortably in trailer homes. Like thousands of other trailer families, they find they can keep cozy on a fifth the fuel required for the average small house. Workers inhabiting these camps have all modern conveniences.

Behind the store was a laundry with washing machines for the use of the tenants, with a perpetual supply of hot water, and behind them the lavatories and showers, all kept spotless by a big, smiling woman. Here at the store the trailer dwellers filed through ceaselessly. Swing shifters on their way to work at four o'clock in the morning stop for a “coke,” a popular American nonalcoholic drink, or a pack of cigarettes. By five o'clock men in undershirts sat around gossiping. Women stopped for a chat after marketing--always the juke box blared out and the children danced. Sometimes the older boys and girls danced, too, but they preferred to get in a car and go off to some dance hall which had a good band.

Soon after supper, files of little girls in long, flowered housecoats closed by zippers, their hair braided tightly or put up in metal curlers, toothbrush in hand, filed to the washroom and came out with shining, scrubbed faces, Often an older girl herded before her little brothers and sisters, People ate ice cream, or drank various “soft” drinks from bottles with a straw. There was a good feeling of comradeship and sociability in the office in spite of its bareness.

My trailer was not far from the office and as compact and elegant as the inside of a yacht. It had three rooms. The sliding doors were almost never shut, so in the daytime the whole space looked like a sitting room, It was finished in light plywood. There were bright curtains at all of the windows and the whole interior had an inviting look. There was a radio, and book shelf which held classics as well as mystery stories. There were folding chairs, a table which pulled out, several compact closets, and a comfortable double bed at each end. The kitchen between the two bedrooms had a two-burner electric stove. All the trailers were lighted by electric lights with plugs for toasters, coffeepot or flatiron and an electric baker. There were cupboards and shelves and drawers for cutlery, kitchen utensils and china. The cupboard sink and running water made dishwashing easy.

Garden Outside Trailer

Here is an air view of a U.S. war workers’ trailer camp near an aircraft factory in an eastern state. Trailers, used mostly by vacationists before the war, are now used for temporary housing for crowded production centers until permanent facilities can be built, They are conducted by the government and are equipped with electricity, plumbing, health clinic, day nursery school for children. Workers find them quite satisfactory.

The yard of my trailer was as pleasant as the inside. There was a wide striped awning running the length of the trailer and deck chairs on the little green lawn which was surrounded by a tiny picket fence. Pansies bloomed opposite the trailer and bright nasturtiums climbed the front. There was a little Victory Garden of vegetables behind it. The owners paid $3.50 a week for the space, which included water, lights and the use of electric washers. A trailer rented for $10 a week, but most people owned their trailers which were of all colors--grey and silver, brown and beige; there were even bright blue and red trailers. The rows of trailers faced each other about 50 feet apart. Everyone fixed his yard to suit himself with vines and flowers. Some seeded the whole space to lawn--some preferred vegetables and each one fenced his space and set out hammocks and bright-colored deck chairs, though there were some who did not care to bother with gardens and who had bare and forlorn yards. In front of every two or three trailers stood a large covered iron garbage can.

In California, in the Los Angeles area, there are permanent trailer camps which have rose arbors and beautiful gardens shaded by trees. One small trailer camp of 35 trailers in the East was scattered around a beautiful picnic grove where every trailer had its own septic tank and garden plot. Shekatoff, however, was a middle-of-the-road camp, neither as elegant as some nor as bleak as others. The women had gotten together and were getting up a playground for the younger children with swings and slides, to be supervised by the older girls. The people in this camp were a composite of New England, for the most part neat, saving, and sober. There were many educated people here who had given up fine homes to work in the war industries.

Government Camps

A medical clinic, in a trailer, set up for U.S. trailer-dweller war workers near an aircraft factory. In this camp there are over 1,000 trailers, each housing a family. Local physicians worked out the plan for six doctors to operate one-hour clinics on week days. Here Mrs. James Davis, whose husband is a riveter, carries her son out of the clinic after bringing the child for treatment.

There are many big government trailer camps which often have excellent facilities to offer the tenants. One I lived in had 3,000 people, nearly 1,000 of them children, There was a small nursery school in a collapsible trailer, These are larger trailers whose sides let down, forming three rooms. There was another trailer, used by the Woman’s Club and for other meetings, in which there was a nice library, There was a clinic open an hour a day and a Public Health nurse gave prenatal advice and taught care of children and preventive medicine, This trailer camp, like many others, published a little mimeographed newspaper of its own, but did not have the life and sense of community as had Shekatoff’s.

Life in a northern trailer camp in winter, when the snow is deep, can be both bleak and difficult--stores are far away--marketing difficult and the women far away from home and uprooted get lonely, for war has caused such enormous migrations in this country that it is hard for the mind to compass. From the north to the south, people have left their familiar surroundings, the comforts of their homes and gone to work in munition centers, in aircraft plants or shipbuilding yards.

Perhaps the best description of a trailer camp was written by a young visitor in one camp’s paper. “It is very much on the order of a small country town,” he wrote, “in that everyone is so friendly and everyone is your neighbor. Whenever there is an emergency in a small town everyone rushes to see what they can do, Now that our country is in an emergency, all the people rush from the 48 states, each similar to a country town, to help their Uncle Sam and his United Neighbors, thus forming many little towns like Trailer Town.”