JACKSON CENTER — Who says manufacturing is dead in America? Not the 1,000 employees at the growing Airstream factory in tiny Jackson Center, Ohio.
Every week, these Ohioans make, start to finish, 100 of these iconic, upscale RVs, for customers all over the world. Come next year, they’ll be making even more.
The current factory has been running at full capacity in recent years, as the industry enjoys what some are calling the Golden Age of RVing — a function of the growing number of baby boomer retirees, low gas prices and a strong economy.
Airstream announced last month plans to nearly triple its manufacturing space in this west-central Ohio town, population 1,456, the only place in the world these aerodynamic, aluminum-clad campers are made.
Come see for yourself: The Airstream tour has been lauded as one of the best factory tours in the United States, open to the public at 2 p.m. every Monday through Friday.
Last year, more than 10,000 visitors took the free tour, which winds through a 250,000-square-foot factory three blocks from the center of town. Next year, the tour will move about a mile away, to a new facility set to open in May 2019.
“I’ve been here when things weren’t that good,” said tour guide Gary Byrd, an Airstream employee since 1961 who warned us that we’d be shoulder-to-shoulder with employees on the factory floor.
After handing out earplugs and protective eyewear, Byrd gave our group a rundown on company history:
• Founder Wally Byam started the company in 1931 in California, where he built its first factory. Looking for a site with more centralized distribution, he opened a second factory in Jackson Center in 1952.
• After Byam’s death in 1961, Beatrice Foods bought the company. During the recession in the late 1970s, Beatrice closed the California factory and another facility in Versailles, Ohio.
• Thor Industries, the Indiana company that owns several RV brands, bought Airstream in 1980 and owns it today.
While a small percentage of the RV market, Airstream enjoys an outsized reputation, largely because of its iconic, Art Deco design and high-quality reputation.
Owners pay a high price for that reputation: These trailers run $36,000 to $160,000, depending on size and amenities.
On my tour earlier this month: Four current Airstream owners and two who were in town to watch their RV be built.
“I just wanted to see what my trailer would look like going through the process,” said Ken Smith of St. Louis, who visited the factory four days in a row in March to see his 27-foot, Tommy Bahama Special Edition trailer built. “I want to enjoy the experience as much as possible.”
Trailers today aren’t built all that differently than they were decades ago, said Byrd.
“You are not going to see robots on the tour today,” he explained. “There are no robots in this plant at all. There’s not much fancy equipment either. What you will see: men and women working with their hands.”
One exception to the paucity of mechanization: Industrial-sized routers used to cut windows holes and other openings out of large sheets of metal.
These large, pliable sheets of aluminum are placed atop steel frames and molded into the trailer’s signature curvy tops and sides. These sheets are then forged together, “one rivet at time,” said Byrd.
Indeed, the factory reverberated with the sound of hand-held drills, as employees methodically installed as many as 4,000 rivets per vehicle.
Trailers are built chronologically, according to the order in which they were purchased, which means any of the company’s six different models are being made on the floor at one time. We saw 16-foot trailers alongside vehicles twice the length.
After the body is formed, it’s lifted aloft and placed atop a waiting chassis. Then it’s time for windows, awnings, exterior detail and interior work.
Near the end of this process, the vehicle goes into what Byrd calls “the water check chamber,” where the trailer endures 20 minutes of hard gushing water designed to uncover any leaks.
Airstream makes its own furniture and windows, but buys refrigerators, air conditioners, TVs and other interior parts.
The vehicles aren’t 100 percent American-made, but nearly so, according to Mollie Hansen, Airstream’s chief marketing officer.
(Asked about the effects of President Trump’s recently imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, Hansen deflected, saying: “It’s too soon to tell.” Officials at Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, which supplies aluminum to Airstream, have been critical of the tariffs, arguing for a more global approach to unfair trade from the Chinese.)
Airstream’s new factory will be built on 60 acres of land about a mile west of the current facility. The current factory will be used to make Airstream touring coaches.
Also made on the Jackson Center campus: Airstream’s new Basecamp trailers, smaller and less expensive than the traditional campers, designed to appeal to a younger demographic.
Hansen said that the company expanded just five years ago, but again needs more space.
“It’s long overdue,” she said. “We haven’t built a new ground-up facility in 50 years. Demand is outpacing our facility and we don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.”
Next year, tours will move to the new factory, which will also include a Heritage Center, where visitors can learn about the company’s history and check out some vintage models on display. A couple of those historic trailers are currently in a parking lot adjacent to the factory, including a 1958 gold-colored version, “Stella’s Dream Trailer,” named after Byam’s wife.
Hansen said she hopes the new center serves as a point of pride for employees and “solidifies us as an American icon.”
Airstream owners already refer to company headquarters as the “mothership,” making pilgrimages here for tours, service and events, including the annual Alumapalooza festival every spring, with workshops, tours, parties and more.
Said Hansen: “This trailer becomes part of your family, part of your memories.”
Indeed, when Barbi and Ken Smith of St. Louis started shopping for RVs, the Airstream stood out. Said Ken, looking at his wife, “One of the two of us fell in love with it the first time we walked in.”
She responded: “It’s like a beach house on wheels. Even when I was little, I had heard about the quality of Airstream.”