A Natural Leader

This article is part one of a series about the Airstream Caravan in Europe. To read additional entries, click the links at the end of this entry.

In 1948, Wally Byam visited Europe with his lifelong friend Neil Vanderbilt. At that time, the European nations were struggling to rebuild untold devastations to their cities, to mentally recover from war's savagery and to restore their depleted food chain with scripted rationing.

This was Wally's first trip to Europe. He immediately had "wide eyes" - that is, to say, he was struck with a fascination about the continent and its people.

Five years later, in 1953, Wally returned to Europe with an Airstream to attend the International Caravan Rally in Copenhagen, Denmark. During this trip, he became friends with the Knöbel family, who owned the Westfalia-Werke.

Their company was over 100 years old, and had manufactured wagons, carriages, and cargo carriers during the war, and was quite famous for their Anhangers, or travel trailers.

Westfalia-Werke is best known for their Volkswagen van conversions - the Kombi Campers sold all over the world with their largest sales in the United States.

As many companies do, Westfalia-Werke celebrated their 125th year in manufacturing with a book telling about their company, its growth, their products, and their family members. There was actually a brief mention of Wally in the book:

At an international camping congress, Hans Knöbel met Wally Byam, who was the largest manufacturer of travel trailers at the time. Shortly after that, Franz and Hans Knöbel went to the USA...

Hans, the patriarch, and Wally bonded immediately and became lasting friends. Together, they toured destinations all over the United States. With the friends Wally had made in Europe, there is no doubt that a return trip to the continent, as part of a Caravan, was on his to-do list.

When 1955 arrived, Wally was understaffed. He and his wife, Stella, were going to lead the first Eastern Canadian Caravan, but a conflict of schedules meant they also needed to scout the European Caravan that would take place the following year.

What did he do? He turned to his cousin, Helen Byam Schwamborn (my mother) to join the Airstream team and lead the Canadian Caravan. He saw her ability to organize and he saw her strong work ethic. She was put in charge of all Airstream Caravans from that point forward, and was called upon to manage the office requirements for the newly-founded Wally Byam Caravan Club.

Here are excerpts from a letter Wally wrote to other Airstream leaders before leaving for the European scout trip, regarding his new hire.

The caravan has been an unusual success. As I leave, it is rolling well, committees are functioning and the schedule is well laid out and I anticipate no difficulty whatsoever.

Much of this has been due to Helen. She has turned out to be a top hand organizer, natural leader of the type of people who come on caravans, a very good secretary, and as hard a worker as I have been. In addition, she is much smoother at handling the people than I am, and in spite of the fact that she is my cousin, I can tell you honestly and truthfully that she is universally and accepted by the Caravanners.

So to simplify the caravan and its activities in my own mind I am mentally turning the caravan over to her...anything that concerns the Caravan, I would like to be her responsibility.

When Helen retired in 1979, at 75 years old, she never wavered from Wally's first report to the factories. Helen was loved dearly by Airstreamers, and never let Wally down.

With Helen in charge of Caravans, Wally had time to develop his aspirations for future Caravans overseas. And with her leading the Caravan through Eastern Canada, Wally and Stella could go to Europe and scout the 1956 Caravan.

Wally met officials at the government and city level to explain his Caravan and make arrangements for the following year. He scouted roads, campsites, gas stations, historic sites, museums, natural wonders, and cultural events.

With all wheels set in motion, the Airstream world looked forward to 1956. What happened next is history.

Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn has silver in his blood. Each week, Pee Wee shares one of his many stories, including his experiences on the iconic Airstream Caravans, his time spent working in the Airstream factory, and the many Airstreamers he’s befriended, far and wide.

Part Two: Across The Sea

Part Three: From New York to Zurich

Part Four: An Instant Connection

Part Five: Brimming With Enthusiasm

Part Six: An Early Morning Excursion