Why Are So Many RVs Made in Indiana?

Recreational vehicles appear to be filling a void for people bored with at-home activities. Instead, those people are hitting the road in record numbers. According to industry leader Kampgrounds of America, even the prospect of cold weather isn’t slowing the urge to cruise in an RV. The experts at KOA predict the number of travelers hitting the road in campers this winter will easily supersede the records set last summer. 

For people tired of air travel restrictions and social distancing concerns, RV travel is the perfect solution. It offers a chance to travel without worrying about crowds, hotels, or even restaurant meals. Instead, a whole family can enjoy exploring the country together. They can even go camping in comfort. Many of those new to RVs are millennials looking for new experiences such as glamorous camping

That’s good news for the RV manufacturers, but not such good news for those looking to buy a new one. Many manufacturers have substantial backlogs of orders. Leading manufacturer Thor Industries alone has billions of dollars in unfilled RV orders. Fortunately, most RVs are American-made, so at least you won’t have to get in line for an import.

The land of RV manufacturing

That RV you’re thinking of buying was probably made in Indiana. After all, Indiana’s Elkhart County is known as the “RV Manufacturing Capital of the World” for a good reason. At least 60% to 80% of all recreational vehicles made in the entire world are made in Elkhart County. 

RV aficionados are well aware of Elkhart. After all, this bustling small city in northern Indiana is home to the RV/MH Hall of Fame. This museum showcases the history of recreational vehicles and the technological advances that have made them what they are today. Visitors can see the evolution of RVs from pre-WWI to the present. 

To discover how and why northern Indiana became the home of American recreational vehicle manufacturing, let’s take a ride through RV history.

How it all began

According to My Indiana Home, the RV industry began in 1931 when a local businessman grew tired of missing his family while he was away on business trips. To solve the problem, Milo Miller built a travel trailer so his relatives could accompany him. After quickly selling that first trailer, and a second, he decided to switch gears and build travel trailers full-time.

Miller exhibited his popular travel trailers at the 1933 Chicago Exposition, where they drew the attention of Wilbur Schult. In 1936, Schult purchased Miller’s company, and that’s the beginning of RV history.  Local entrepreneurs quickly caught on to the popularity of travel trailers and set up shop wherever they could find room.

Building the RV industry

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Of course, building trailers requires parts — lots of parts. Manufacturers of everything from axles to seat cushions soon established businesses near the growing RV manufacturing plants. Having suppliers nearby encouraged more RV manufacturers to set up shop, which in turn drew more suppliers, and a thriving industry was born. 

Indiana’s position as the “Crossroads of America” certainly helped the burgeoning industry. The region’s excellent transportation system of interstates, rivers, and railroads made it easy to bring supplies in and distribute finished RVs across America. It also helped that the area had a strong, experienced workforce. As RV Pro points out, skilled workers who were accustomed to making Indiana’s famous Studebaker, Elcar, and Pratt vehicles transitioned easily into building RVs instead.

Much has changed since the days of those early recreational vehicles. Higher-end models have evolved into stunning mobile mansions, complete with all the features and amenities you would expect to find in their stationary counterparts. Fortunately, Indiana still produces plenty of options for those with a more modest budget. From simple tent trailers to luxury fifth-wheels, there’s an American-made camper to suit every budget and taste.

Today many of the smaller recreational vehicle manufacturers have been absorbed into large conglomerates such as Thor Industries, owner of the popular Airstream, Jayco, and Keystone RV brands, as well as many others. However, though the number of independent companies has shrunk, there’s no sign the Hoosier State is ready to give up its title as the RV Manufacturing Capital of the World.