The Tiny Homemade Trailer – 1937

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.

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Hope Henry - November 25, 2010 Reply

Thank you for sharing this…your father was a clever man, as well as a loving husband and father, to go to such lengths to be with his family.

Gayle - November 25, 2010 Reply

Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the story. He was all those things and more.

Claudia - November 25, 2010 Reply

Hope summed it up it perfectly! Thanks for sharing your lovely memories of your dad and the tiny family home he built.

Hazel - November 25, 2010 Reply

Fantastic story! What an adventure they had together. Thanks for sharing some of your family history. We too have a little homebuilt trailer 12ft x 5ft so it’s interesting to compare.

Sandy - November 25, 2010 Reply

This is great, thanks so much for sharing! I love the pictures. Most people didn’t take nearly as many photos “back then”, especially casual unposed shots, and if they did, many of the photos didn’t survive through the years. You are fortunate to have these treasure from your family’s past.

    Gayle - November 25, 2010 Reply

    Back in those days, my mom was into photography. She even won a few prizes in contests and one of her photographs was used for years on the brochures and other materials of a flour mill. I have a lot of her old negatives and I found these when I was looking through one box of them. Back then, they sold boxes with numbered glysine(?) envelopes for storing negatives. They had little booklets for keeping track of what negs were in which envelope. Fortunately, at that time, she was very good about making note of what what in each envelope and she also wrote on the envelopes thenselves what f-stop she used and other things about the conditions. On the envelope with the interior photos, she has the date and the fact that they were timed exposures (hence the blurry child).

Old Fool - November 25, 2010 Reply

In the picture showing the stoves I believe the cook stove is a two burner white gas pressure stove but it may be kerosene in a configuration I have not seen before. The oven is separate and sits on a burner I believe. I have seen this type stove in the wild but it’s been 40 or 50 years. It appears that it is made to fold into the counter when traveling. That’s clever.
The heater may be kerosene but my guess is wood or coal. They were readily available in the ’30’s.
I’d love to find a trailer like that but I think time has taken it’s toll. The last one I rebuilt was in 1973. I wish I had never sold it.

alice - November 25, 2010 Reply

Looks like a white gas stove to me too, I still have one though I prefer propane now. The little oven looks like one of the folding ones you can still get. You can bake two loaves of bread in there. They’re not very fuel efficient, being just an uninsulated metal box but they do work.

Al Mollitor - November 25, 2010 Reply

What a great story of American ingenuity, creativity, versatility and determination in hard times! Thanks for sharing.

gregor - November 25, 2010 Reply

What they don’t tell you is that these were in fact the origin of the RV. People built these things first, especially for vacation, then companies saw it and started producing them.

Then municipalities banned, them, according to what I have read (but you can never really trust hindsight explanations) they were banned largely because the people that used them did not toes to the victorianesque social norms of the day, they did weird things like hold baseball games together and other community things.

Today we see the value of such things, but RVs remain banned…

Mo Skba - November 26, 2010 Reply

I greatly enjoyed reading that story and seeing the pictures. Thank you for posting. I’m most impressed by your fathers resourcefulness and self reliance – inspirational.

Anne - November 26, 2010 Reply

That is a wonderful family story, really brought to life by the photos of your Mother. Amazing trailer, your Father was a talented builder, I love the crib… Perhaps it hung over one end of the dining/bedroom, that would have left one side open even when your brother took a nap, etc.

Thank you so much for sharing, Gayle.

Gayle - November 26, 2010 Reply

I’m glad all of you have enjoyed the story and pictures of my folks little trailer. It’s nice to read all your comments. Thanks for taking the time to post them.

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[…] cruise the Tiny House Blog for much material here, they recently ran an interesting article on one man’s homebuilt trailer and his reasons for building it. Share | Leave a […]

Fran - November 27, 2010 Reply

That is amazing, Gayle! You have so much in which to be proud.

Cheryl - November 28, 2010 Reply

Sad but true Gregor. In these times these regulations should be modified and we must let out combined voice be heard.
Thanks for this post, what wonderful ingenuity with this little trailer. Especially appreciate photos as a fan of old photos from the past. I could see my dads father doing this.

Gayle - November 28, 2010 Reply

I spent part of today digging around in my mom’s computer to see if I could find out more about the little trailer. Well, surprise, surprise, I found two of her memoir stories in which she mentions the trailer.

She says in one that the stove was a two-burner Coleman gasoline stove and she was scared everytime she had to light it. She mentions that with the oven removed, it would swing under the counter.

My brother’s crib was above the foot of the dinette/bed space and could be folded down flat against the wall when he wasn’t in it.

She mentions about having to fill a water bucket from outside sources and using the bathroom and show facilities in the places they parked.

In about the middle of the trailer there was a wardrobe on each side and when both doors were open, it made a divider between the kitchen and the dinette/bed area.

She also says that my dad drew up the plans, himself, but my guess is that he had seen plans or had some plans to start from — although he was a very smart guy so maybe he did it from scratch.

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carie - July 25, 2012 Reply

What a darling person you are..You story probably hits all of us on that very deep level of love, devotion and time gone by.

You must know how lucky you were to have grown up this way…
God bless you .

Carrie Adams

Tami - March 25, 2014 Reply

Wonderful recollection! Thank you for sharing it as well as the great pictures!

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