Remembering Wally Byam

By Lisa Britton July 04, 2011 03:49 pm

As dozens of Airstream trailers streamed into Baker City to celebrate the birthday of company founder Wally Byam, who was born in Baker City July 4, 1896, Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn stands in front of the case at the Baker Heritage Museum containing memorabilia that he donated for an exhibit about Byam. Schwamborn’s mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, was Byam’s first cousin.
As dozens of Airstream trailers streamed into Baker City to celebrate the birthday of company founder Wally Byam, who was born in Baker City July 4, 1896, Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn stands in front of the case at the Baker Heritage Museum containing memorabilia that he donated for an exhibit about Byam. Schwamborn’s mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, was Byam’s first cousin.
By LISA BRITTON
For the Baker City Herald

When asked what Wally Byam was like, Dale Schwamborn pushes “play” on his CD player.

A deep voice, perfect for radio, fills the room at the Baker Heritage Museum, a space dedicated this season to Byam’s adventures with Airstream trailers.

Schwamborn’s eyes tear up as he listens to the radio interview Byam gave during the 1950s.

“It’s so hard to talk about that,” he says of the question about Byam’s personality.

Schwamborn is “Wally’s cousin, once removed.” (His mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, was Wally’s first cousin.)

Schwamborn is in Baker City for a rally of Airstream trailers, a gathering of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International that arrived here Friday.

Byam was born in Baker City on July 4, 1896. He helped design the Airstream trailer, and from 1951 until his death in 1962 led caravans of the iconic silver travel trailers around the world.

The Oregon Chapter of the WBCCI arrived Friday, and will leave Tuesday. About 160 Airstreams were expected.

To celebrate the rally, this year the museum featured Byam in the display “Caravanning and Collecting.”

Schwamborn, who lives in Arizona, donated all the items in the exhibit.

“I had to have some place to give it,” he said.

And he can tell tales about most of the memorabilia because he went along on those trips.

His first was also Byam’s first, a four-month tour of Mexico in 1951.

“I was 12,” Schwamborn said. “And I still have quite a few memories.”

They went from El Paso, Texas, south to Nicaragua.

Schwamborn’s mother began working for Byam in 1955, and she stayed with Airstream until she retired at age 75 in 1979.

Schwamborn also went on the European caravan in 1956 and the Africa trip in 1959.

From the Africa excursion, Schwamborn donated a pygmy spear. His story is this: To kill an elephant, the pygmies got underneath the massive beast and stuck the spear into its belly.

“Then they’d crawl inside and eat the entrails,” he said.

On those caravans, some lasting as long as six months, the caravanners became friends.

He still remembers one family with three girls — the husband was a cranberry farmer, and he’d seen a story about Byam’s Mexico trip.

“He went home and said ‘We’re getting an Airstream and going to Africa.’ He sent his wife, kids, Airstream and tow vehicle to Africa, then joined them a month and a half later” after harvesting his crop, Schwamborn said.


Back to the question about Byam, Schwamborn points to his favorite quote from Wally in 1916:

“I just hate the idea of being a business man or running a big mill or anything like that. I don’t know whether to make myself like that kind of life or become a beachcomber, as in the play.

“One way gives me success, renown and prestige, and the other gives me happiness. Which shall I choose?”

Byam died on July 22, 1962. (Schwamborn’s mother died on July 22, 2004.)

Airstream owners still gather in Byam’s honor, lining up trailers that sport their membership number in the WBCCI.

For the Baker City gathering, the owners of 20 vintage trailers set up camp in Geiser-Pollman Park.Debbie and Dave Hagen brought their renovated 1965 Trade Wind from Bremerton, Wash.

“We bought it in September, and gutted it to the shell,” Debbie said. “We were into vintage trailers, and our daughter talked us into an Airstream.”

It’s not original inside — the Hagens changed the location of the bed and some other details, such as the cabinet styles.

They pull it with a 1965 Chevy Suburban, or “Carry-All.”

The Hagens attend two to three big rallies a year.

“We go camping, mostly,” Debbie said. “And we go camping year-round.”

They can’t, however, slip into towns unnoticed.

“You can’t be in a hurry anywhere,” she said. “If you don’t like that, you shouldn’t have a vintage trailer.”

Roger and Bonnie Miller of Ephrata, Wash., pulled their 1965 Caravel Airstream to Baker with a 1933 Plymouth Coupe.

“Ours was wrecked and totally gutted,” Bonnie said of the trailer.

Roger finished it about a year ago, and the exterior is so shiny it’s almost blinding in the sun.

That shine takes work.

“Hours and hours and hours of polishing,” Bonnie said, adding that Roger is “covered with black” when he’s finished with the polish job.

But the reflection is one reason she likes Airstreams.

That, and the rounded corners.

“I’ll show you the best part,” she said, moving to one of those corners, where a fun house effect makes reflections tall and skinny.

“You stand here, you lose 15 pounds,” she said with a smile.