Wally’s Kindred Spirit

In 1953, Wally Byam shipped his Airstream to Europe. He made arrangements to have a Volkswagen van ready as his tow vehicle. First and foremost, he was there to attend the International Trailer Rally, an annual event that was to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The European trailers were cute and small, with practical floorplans. Wally wanted to review the trailers, looking for engineering applications, cabinet hardware, floorplans to improve the Airstream, and appealing décors.

Wally also met with a number of European trailer manufacturers. He befriended many, finding kindred spirits among them.

One acquaintance in particular became a lifelong friend. Hans Knöbel and his family owned Westfalia Werke in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Germany. The factory produced travel trailers, utility trailers, and is best-known worldwide for their Volkswagen van conversions, sold as the Kombi Camper.

Hans visited the United States. Wally, on a flight to New York to meet Hans, told me about his trip. He said, Pee Wee, I don’t speak German and Hans didn’t speak English. Everything worked out. 

In 1956, Stella Byam and Helen Byam Schwamborn spent several days as guests at the Knöbel estate. In this photo, Wally is standing with Hans and family members in front of the Airstream.

From Westfalia Werke, Wally purchased a cargo carrier that would be used throughout the 1956 European Caravan and, later, the 1959 African Caravan.

Wally was a true western American from the grazing lands and mining camps in eastern Oregon. His pride and love for the United States was a cornerstone of his life. At the Copenhagen rally, he was asked to raise the Star Spangled Banner to wave during the rally’s duration, making him puff his chest with pride to represent his country.

There is no doubt that Wally, with his cowboy shirts, tie, western-cut trousers, and boots wowed the rally’s attendees.

In 1958, Wally Byam, Helen Byam Schwamborn, and the WBCCI, based on Wally's overseas experiences, decided it was time to host their first International Rally in the United States, in Bull Shoals, Arkansas.

Let’s talk about photographs.

In 1953, the Caravan magazine, from England, sent Wally this photograph showing him standing in the Airstream’s doorway. Since this picture was first posted, it has appeared in articles and other media. I try to share what I have with the Airstream World and others who are interested.

My picture “morgue” comes from the Estate of Helen Byam Schwamborn, my mother, and from my own personal collection over the years. They’re made up of family photographs, personal pictures, Airstream events and memories, photos that other Airstreamers have given me, and Wally Byam Caravan Club members. Beyond pictures, I also have memorabilia and archival materials.

In 2011, over 600 items were donated to the Baker Heritage Museum in Baker City, Oregon, Wally’s hometown, to celebrate their native son and daughter, Wally Byam and Helen Byam Schwamborn. They have a permanent display honoring the two cousins.

Airstream’s history is rich with images, real travel adventure all over the world, and a manufacturing history that dates back to the early 1930’s.

Today, Airstream is a composite made from its iconic past, legends and dreamers and doers, 21st century advancements in engineering and materials.

Airstream is that amazing American product that has captured the imagination of the recreational world, stretching to the four corners of the globe.

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.