This article is part one in a series about Wally Byam’s Creed.
Airstream’s foundation can be found within the wheel ruts along the Oregon Trail. Wally Byam’s paternal grandparents came from Iowa, while the Biswells, his maternal grandparents, arrived from Missouri. Both families left their homes to find new lives in eastern Oregon.
They endured hardships as they headed West and even still after settling in Baker City. Wally was born in 1896, on the fourth of July.
There is no doubt that Wally’s patriotism was fueled by his being born on the fourth of July, but I believe it was simply a matter of fate he was born that day. As a youth, he believed the parades and fireworks celebrated his birthday.
His work ethic was a result of doing chores around his family’s farm. He was also shaped by his schooling; he wrote often about who he was, where he was going, and who he believed he would become.
Just months after he graduated high school his stepfather died; the next year, his mother passed away. But Wally kept moving, graduating from Stanford in 1921. He spent the next decade working in advertising and even began his own publications.
Late in the 1920’s, a “contraption trailer” that Wally built for his wife was the seed for what later blossomed into an Airstream. She didn’t enjoy tent camping or sleeping on the ground, so in the 1930’s, Airstream was born. First the Torpedo, then the Airlite, then the Clipper.
The Clipper was the Airstream fuselage without wings – the aerodynamic trailer that was Airstream’s iconic beginning.
Wally fought to keep his fledgling company afloat during the Great Depression. During Airstream’s history, the padlock was placed on factory doors three different times.
Few entrepreneurs have the fortitude to continue under these circumstances. But Wally did. Maybe it was because the American spirit flooded his veins and seeped all the way through to his core. Maybe it was the hard-working spirit he learned as a child. Maybe he just happened to be a pure innovator, infused with the character necessary to persevere.
Airstream shut down again during the second World War. Wally served his country by working as an engineer for Lockheed. Airstream was reborn shortly after the war in 1947.
The company continued to struggle until Wally led his first Airstream Caravan through Mexico and Central America. As late as 1951, Airstream was responsible for back payments to the United States Government.
Yet when he returned to the United States, Wally found that his small Los Angeles plant could no longer supply the rapidly increasing demand for Airstreams. In 1952, he searched the eastern United States for a suitable location for a factory. He found the ideal location in Jackson Center, Ohio.
With two plants, Airstream’s solvency was assured, though at times it was still a struggle. So Wally formed a club for Airstream owners. He told new members the company would support them in any way they were able. He lived up to that promise. He hired his cousin to run and support the club, and to take over as leader of the Caravan.
Wally led Caravans to Mexico, Central America, Canada, Cuba, and Europe. His final Caravan journeyed through Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
When Wally returned home in 1960, he planned to retire and to sail the rivers and canals of Europe and to sail the Seven Seas. But his terminal illness prevented him from sailing his ketch. He passed away in 1962.
The life that Wally lived was dedicated to providing a payroll for workers, to build an Airstream as the finest travel trailer on the road, to have customers who used their Airstreams and could experience the fun of traveling, and last – but not least – creating a dealer network proud to sell and service his innovation.
This was Wally’s dream. It was a multi-faceted life that he lived, one with many turns that when joined together, spelled Airstream.
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.
Read more about Wally Byam’s Creed: