Can It!Sep 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Linda Roller
For many of us of a certain age, summer vacation may have included a family camping trip—outdoor cooking, campfires, and lazy days by the water or in the mountains. Some folks camped in Airstream luxury, but most of us were in small campers towed behind the family station wagon. Near the end of summer each year, a group of campers who celebrate vintage campers and old-fashioned camping—the Tin Can Tourists—gather at Sampson State Park on Seneca Lake’s east shore, near Romulus (just off New York Route 96A), for the Northeast Tin Can Tourist Rally. This year’s event, the sixteenth, will be held September 14 through 17.
Tin Can Tourists, founded in 1919, is the oldest organization of auto campers. The name does not refer to the cute campers so popular in the 1950s through the 1970s, but it is, according to official TCT history, based on the only vehicle at the time dependable enough to make long distance trips. That was the Ford Model T—the Tin Lizzie.
This rally is the brainchild of Bill “Fletch” Fletcher, who owned Fletcher’s Trailers in Trumansburg, New York, for over forty years. He started going to the TCT National Rally in Michigan in 2005, but, as he says, “that was a long way.” He and his wife, Diane, decided that they could host a rally in the Finger Lakes.
“We settled on Sampson,” he says. “The park is beautiful!”
Harry James, who now hosts the Northeast Rally with David Coon, picks up the story.
“In the early days, we couldn’t fill one loop [of the Sampson campground],” he recalls. But Fletch and other dedicated vintage trailer enthusiasts kept meeting at Sampson—Harry notes that thirteen of the regulars have been with this rally since its inception. This is the third year the rally has expanded to two loops, and two loops provides room for ninety-seven vintage campers. Spaces sold out in less than one hour this year.
These enthusiasts not only enjoy camping “as it used to be,” but they invite us to enjoy it with them. The free open house is Saturday, September 16, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors can check out the interiors of a wide variety of makes and models and talk to the owners about their trailers. It’s a chance to reminisce, and to see the unusual and the unique.
For example, the 1949 Higgins owned by Chad Sherman from Providence, New York, looks like a tent on a box, and does seem to be constructed with Army tents. He has some of the old brochures advertising this model, and allows visitors a look inside this old-fashioned pop-up.
Last year, George Richards, of Mohrsville, Pennsylvania, brought a 1966 Streamliner Countess that he had owned for only two weeks. A “project camper,” the conversation centered on what was still good, and what needed to be restored in this midsized 1960s model.
The Clayson family owns an All States forty-five-foot Rocket. Like many TCT trailers, this one was found abandoned and neglected amidst weeds and brush. One of the longest made (All States did make a fifty-two-foot model), it was similar in design to the Redman New Moon trailer used in the movie The Long, Long Trailer starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Brandon Clayson from Cuba, New York, who handles rally registration, has owned this model trailer since 2016 and has refurbished it exactly like the movie version. Film memorabilia is on the campsite for visitors to peruse and marvel over. The Rocket is even longer than the one in the Lucy and Desi film, comparable to the size of a mobile home of the same vintage.
“But it’s not as heavy,” Brandon explains. “Originally, it weighed 9,000 pounds, and the weight with renovations is now around 8,000 pounds.” Interest in these large trailers increased after the movie, but they were manufactured to be used by families who traveled for work, especially in the oil fields. The family, rather than the company, would own the trailer, so their home was there, wherever the work sent them. “They [the trailers] travel, but they were made to go to a site and stay for a period of time, not move every day,” Brandon adds.
There are trailers made by the owners. One of the most innovative is Tom Moenter’s from Williamson, New York. He went to Japan on business and was inspired by the architectural design he saw there. Much of his camper is made of Aircraft Dacron, glued around the edges with heat tape, and dressed up with LED lights embedded in the ceiling. It folds for travel and weighs 750 pounds.
Other trailers from this era are small, like Anne Becker’s 1973 Scotty Gaucho, and easily pulled with the family car. At thirteen feet total length, it is shorter than her Subaru, and, empty, weighs less than 1,000 pounds. She and her husband, Al, purchased it from the original owners in the ’90s. It was perfect for a small family, and made travel cheaper than staying in hotels.
“Over a decade ago, I went to an open house at the Sampson Rally and took my camera. Right after that, I joined TCT and have been coming to the Northeast Rally,” Anne says. The dues are inexpensive, she notes, just twenty-five bucks.
A visit to the TCT Rally is a promise of a Saturday filled with memories and a step into the “wayback machine.”
For more information, visit tincantourists.com or call (315) 585-6392. Though all the camping spots for the event are sold out, you can send an email to [email protected] if you want to be placed on the waiting list.