Guest post by Gayle Lobdell Opie
I’ve been investigating little houses and got to thinking about the trailer my father built in 1937. He was an electrician working for a contracting company in Rapid City, SD, in the 1930s. His company was taking on new construction jobs assigning him as foreman. Some of them were government jobs as the country prepared in case the problems in Europe overflowed to the US. One job was for a Naval installation in the middle of South Dakota, if you can believe that.
The problem was that these jobs were going to take my dad away from home and into the surrounding states of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska for extended periods of time.
My older brother was an infant and my dad didn’t want to leave his wife and young son behind seeing them only every couple of months. Remember, this was the late 1930s and people didn’t drive hundreds of miles just for the weekend. Being a practical fellow, he built a tiny house on wheels.
At that time there were several magazines that printed plans for various projects. Mechanics Illustrated and Popular Mechanics had plans for all sorts of projects in every issue. I loved reading those magazines when I was growing up in the late 1940s and ‘50s. All the projects were fun to read about and learn from. They also had ads for plans you could purchase from third parties. I assume that my dad got plans from such a source. He may then have modified the plans if he thought of ways to do things better.
The trailer base that he used was probably about six feet wide by about ten feet long. He built the ends so they bowed out. My mother’s grandfather, who was a builder, always said that my dad had lost space by not extending the trailer bed and having straight ends to the trailer. My dad maintained that he had a certain sized trailer and had increased space by making the bowed ends. In addition to a few small windows, it had two vents in the roof to help release heat in the summer.
My parents and brother moved into this tiny space in January 1938. They traveled to various towns in the five-state area, living in that trailer until late 1939.
The kitchen end contained a small oven that was just big enough to bake a chicken or a nine-inch square cake as that size pan would just fit in it to make dessert but my mom could only bake one thing at a time. There was also a small little heating stove on which she could put a teakettle but that would only have been used during the winter. We think the oven and the heat stove may have been fueled by kerosene. She may have had an electric hot plate to put a pan or teakettle on to use during hot weather.
The dining room and bedroom were at the other end of the trailer and were the same space. The table folded down to the same level as the benches on either side. The bench cushions then folded toward the center to make a mattress for the night.
There was some sort of crib arrangement for my brother but I can’t figure out where it was or just how it worked other than the side had a screen door hook on the end near the top to hook it to the wall.
I don’t know if there was a bathroom of any sort in this trailer but maybe not. I don’t believe there was any provision for running water so perhaps they always parked it in a place where there were bathroom facilities.
My dad told about one location where some teenaged boys walked by regularly and sometimes would pull the plug from their power source. After they had done that several times, he wired the plug so that the next kid who tried it got a pretty good shock. Needless to say, they didn’t do that again. But, over the next few days, he did see them hanging around and pointing– probably spreading the word to their friends.
In 1939, when my sister arrived, the family moved up to a larger, Covered Wagon brand commercial trailer and later, when two more of us came along, they bought a house. When I was about three, my parents bought a small house in a rural village east of Rapid City. My dad had grown up there and we had our grandparents, two aunts, and ten cousins on nearby ranches. We lived there for a number of years. My dad started his own business of “farm modernization”, wiring houses and farm and ranch buildings as the REA took electrical lines into the country.
The car in the photos is a 1933 Pontiac that my mother had before my parents were married.