2017: Amarillo

RV Museum

May 1

Original Cadillac Ranch, 1974.

Believe it or not, I actually found a couple of tourist attractions to visit in Amarillo, Texas. And the weather had turned nice again just in time.

The Cadillac Ranch is apparently world-famous, although its appeal mystifies me. To begin with, it's not a ranch at all, but an art project. In 1974 a group of California artists known as Ant Farm, funded by an eccentric West Texas millionaire, acquired ten Cadillac models from 1949 through 1963, one each with a successive version of the famous Cadillac tail fins. And then they buried them, nose-first, in a Texas wheat field alongside the old Route 66, now Interstate 40.

Cadillac Ranch today.

Practically as soon as the project was completed, visitors began to deface the cars with graffiti. Vandals also stole pieces of the cars, including the vaunted tail fins. (I read that the wheels have been welded to the axles to prevent more theft.)

Periodically, the cars have been repainted to solid colors, but the graffiti-mongers return almost immediately.

Parking lot.

We came on a Sunday morning, and already cars of visitors were lined up on both sides of the frontage road. I was frankly amazed at the number of people there to add their dollop of paint, even though their marks would be gone in a matter of days.

Squeeze play.

It was the day after the big snow-melt, so the field was a soggy mess. There's a small entry gate, but the ground under it was so muddy that people were crawling under the barbed-wire fence beside the gate, where the ground was drier. We joined in the crawl to save our shoes.

The small official-looking sign mounted just outside the fence was particularly ironic, I thought.

The field was in even worse shape than the entryway, with a virtual lake surrounding the sunken cars. But that didn't stop the determined artists with their cans of spray-paint. Mike struck up a conversation with two ladies who had plastic grocery bags tied around their shoes as makeshift galoshes. They were from New Zealand, and part of a larger group who were all driving Ford Mustangs down the old Route 66. That explained the line of Mustangs parked where we entered. Like I said, the site is world-famous.

New Zealand Kiwis. Now THAT'S determination! Lake Cadillac.

So where's yer GUN?

Our visit to Cadillac Ranch was short. Even more cars were pulling up beside the fence as we left. The most recent spray jobs would be gone within a week, I figured. Ephemera R Us.

On the way out, we passed the "Cadillac RV Park" which was trading on the reputation of Cadillac Ranch. Out front, it had several older caddies with fins mounted on angled platforms so they resembled the buried ones. The yard also sported a huge cowboy statue with "2nd Amendment Cowboy" stenciled on his shirt, but strangely, he wasn't packin'. Not even a water pistol.

The day's other agenda item had a lot of disaster potential, although the alligator farm in Hot Springs had set a high bar. Jack Sisemore's Traveland RV dealership has been an Amarillo fixture for over 40 years. It is also the home of an RV Museum, and that's where we headed after Cadillac Ranch. I was pretty confident that at the very least, it wouldn't be a mud patch.

We walked into the front of the dealership and asked about the museum. Someone voluteered to walk us back; the museum is in a back building behind the front office, surrounded by RVs parked here and there waiting for service.

1918 Harley with sidecar. 'Cycle city. 1919 H-D bicycle.

When I walked in, for a minute I thought it was a motorcycle museum. Old Harley-Davidsons were everywhere. There was even a 1919 Harley-Davidson BICYCLE hanging up in a case!

But once I looked past the first few feet, it was clear this was a pretty special place if you like antiques. And especially if you ARE one, heh.

Everywhere we looked there were old-fashioned trailers and motorcycles, all beautifully restored and maintained. Each item had one or more informative placards in front listing the year, make, and history. It was like stepping into a time warp.

 1942 H-D WLA.

Just inside the door was 1942 Harley-Davidson 'WLA', a motorcycle used extensively during WWII. The motorcycle sat beside a 1941 Westcraft trailer that had been occupied by a defense worker during the war. The interior of the trailer was beautifully furnished, including one very special piece: hanging above the antique Philco floor radio is a photograph of the battleship USS Sigourney, signed by seventeen U.S. presidents.

1921 Lamsteed Kampkar. 1937 Kozy Kamp.

But there were even older beauties to admire. There was a 1921 Lamsteed Kampkar, an early camper-in-a-box that was designed to be mounted on a Model T chassis, and was manufactured by -- of all places -- Anheuser-Busch.

Nearby was a 1937 Kozy Kamp, one of the first tent trailers ever built.

Two things about this place struck me as amazing. First, it was completely free -- no admission. And second, with a very few exceptions, you could climb into all these antique campers and look around. No locked doors, no rope barriers. How many museums like that have you visited?

As we browsed, we began to learn more about how this place came to exist. Jack Sisemore opened his first service station along Route 66 in Amarillo in 1963. Looking to expand, he bought a 1974 Winnebago motor home and started renting it out. A year later he had six rental units and Traveland, now a large RV dealer, was born.

In the 1980s, Jack and his son Trent started collecting and restoring vintage RVs. By 2012 the collection was so large they decided to open a museum where they could be shared. (Read more about the collection and the museum in Texas Highways, The Traveler's Way, and the Dallas Morning News.)

Traveland history. 1973 Winnebago like Jack's first rental.
1946 Tear Drop.

This 1946 Tear Drop trailer was one of the first vintage RVs that Trent and Jack acquired. This model comes with the rear "kitchen". Imagine sleeping in one of these!

Many items in the collection had a fascinating history. The 1936 Alma trailer below was found in a barn where it had sat since 1955; it is all original and required no restoration. Next to it is a 1935 Airstream Torpedo, billed as "The World's Oldest Airstream". It was owned by the same family for 81 years.

1936 Alma. Alma interior. 1935 Airstream Torpedo. Torpedo interior.

The Sisemores found the 1955 Airstream shown below in pristine condition. I loved the Schwinn bicycle sitting next to the trailer.

1955 Airstream.  Airstream interior.  I had one of these!
1967 VW Bus.  1953 Fleetwood.

The more I saw and read, the more I wanted to ask the Sisemores about how they found all these wonderful antiques. It must have been like prospecting for gold! The 1976 FMC Motorcoach shown below belonged to cosmetics tycoon Max Factor. FMC only produced about a thousand of these luxury coaches between 1973-1976. CBS reporter Charles Kuralt used one in his "On The Road" features; that model is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum.

1976 FMC.

Apparently the Sisemores' collecting had branched out into non-RV areas. Along one wall was an old-fashioned soda fountain fixture, complete with menu and 1950's jukebox. Some vintage water skis hung on a wall near a 1963 Chris Craft motorboat.

1950s soda fountain.  1950s jukebox. 1960s water skis. Vintage cigarette machine.
1948 Flxible bus.

This 1948 Flxible bus appeared in the 2006 movie "RV" with Robin Williams. According to Trent Sisemore, it's the biggest draw to the museum.

Flxible interior.

Itasca motor homes are a separate product line manufactured by Winnebago. The 1975 Itasca below is the prototype for the Itasca line, Serial #1. I love the typical 70's floral-pattern upholstery.

The 1966 Kenshill below has 60's classic turquoise sinks, shower, and stove.

What really made the museum special were all the finishing touches. Each trailer was furnished with "props" from the appropriate period -- toys, games, kitchenware, even old food tins.

1920s phonograph. Kodak instant camera. Old toys. Vintage aluminum tumblers and pitcher.
Antique coffee grinder, thermos, and can opener. Old Coleman cooler and thermos. Old tins.

One of the last trailers we found was the nearest to my heart. It was a 1973 Starcraft similar to one owned by my parents in the early 70's. I once flew from California to Albuquerque to meet them at their favorite campsite in Taos, New Mexico.

At the far end of the museum, this beautifully restored 1952 Harley sat in front of a re-creation of Jack's 1963 Standard Oil gas station, complete with an old car getting service and a couple of vintage Coca-Cola machines.

Gas station re-creation.  Old motor-oil reservoir.  Vintage Coke machine.

We returned to a much sunnier RV park than we'd seen the day before. Mike had to show me the "buried" RV near the office, another rip-off of Cadillac Ranch. And I had to show off, haha.

We took a bike ride and discovered this was actually a pretty nice RV park. It's too bad it's in Amarillo.

 She's STRONG! Manicured park. Lotsa space.