It has been a couple of months now since Arizona. Allow me to share a few things I learned while visiting with the Schwamborn’s. Evenings included Pee Wee’s sharing of the Byam-Schwamborn history and the things of which Airstream was made. Pee Wee has given custodianship for many historical items to the Baker Heritage Museum in Baker, Oregon.
Plus goodies like his masks from the Cape Town to Cairo African Caravan in 1959-60 and the perfect scale model of the Caravan scout truck made by Brad Norgaard. One particularly memorable evening I curled up in the big leather chair in Pee Wee’s office.
As I read through the rest of the notebooks it became crystal clear that building trailers after the war was the last thing on his mind. Truth be known, Wally Byam was making plans which would totally change the direction of his life.
He had absolutely no intent to continue with his travel trailer company, what we know as Airstream. I turned page after page, reading plans which described a camping supply business, what to sell, and how to sell it.
There were maps for camping or hiking expeditions, perhaps guided trips he was planning to offer. Perhaps using his beloved pack mules, Pike and Jenny.
There were tips for surviving the elements, camp cooking supply lists and recipes, outlines for books he planned to write on camping topics. There were even his own designs for modular supply kits, and drawings for manufacturing equipment like tents and stoves.
Wally Byam was very busy compiling field notes and testing clothing and equipment. Essentially, he was grooming himself to be the next L.L. Bean or REI. Had it not been for Curtis Wright himself (not to be confused with Curtiss-Wright Aircraft) asking Wally to come work with him in the trailer building business, Airstream as we know it would have never existed.
Then Pee Wee handed me maybe two out of probably several hundred folders. They were stuffed full of correspondence and photos from the late 40′s and early 50s, all original.
Photos of Wally, both Marian (his first wife) and Stella, and photos of Pee Wee’s Mom, Helen Byam Schwamborn. Did you know Wally owned a calliope? And there was more. Pictures of camping together, just camping. Some with Airstreams, some with tents. It was like peeking into a family album and seeing a great family enjoying life together and having a wonderful time.
There was more to their relationship than I had known. It was not just about business. It was clear they enjoyed traveling together. They were not just good friends, but great friends, doing things together, sharing thoughts and details of their very private lives in their own handwriting. Details that were meant to be for their eyes only, not even their secretaries, just between the two of them.
Curling up in Pee Wee’s office with just a smidgen of what exists was a rare treat. The volume of material still in his care is overwhelming and much of it hasn’t been reviewed in detail. While he is slowly working to examine and catalog what he has, it is a daunting undertaking.
(all historical documents and photos courtesy of the Helen Byam-Schwamborn Estate)