TAMPA — When the Tomalins went camping, there was a distinct pecking order. The kids, all nine of us, slept in tents, while my parents got to stay in a classic 1950s-era travel trailer.
There were, however, exceptions. Newborns, those children still young enough to be carried off by wolves, got to sleep inside the camper until they were old enough to defend themselves against wild animals (or their older siblings).
So, during the summer of 1961, I actually got to spend a few nights sleeping indoors while enjoying the great outdoors. My family held on to the camper for decades, but I never did get another look inside. It was a mysterious, forbidden zone, accessible only the High Priest of Camping Comfort, my dear old dad.
But I didn't know what I was missing until this week, when Forrest Bone, the 69-year-old president of the Tin Can Tourists, invited me to take a peek inside his 1955 Trotwood.
"Wow," I said. "I am never going to sleep on the ground again."
Bone and his fellow members of the vintage trailer coach, motor coach and travel trailer club, set up camp at the 2012 RV SuperShow at the Florida State Fairgrounds. The event, one of the largest of its kind in the world, continues today through Sunday.
"We get a lot of interest wherever we go," said Bone, who like most other classic recreational vehicle enthusiasts, restored the trailer himself. "They bring back memories for so many people."
In 1998, Bone, who started his RV career in his native Michigan and lives in Bradenton, resurrected the club that traces its roots to the pre-boom days of Florida. In 1919 a group calling itself the "Tin Can Tourists" started meeting at Desoto Park in Tampa.
In 1920, the Tin Can Tourists were granted an official state charter. Their objective was "to unite fraternally all auto campers," providing clean, safe places to camp and plenty of good, wholesome entertainment for all in camp.
"They tended to carry everything with them," said Nick Wynne, executive director emeritus of the Florida Historical Society and author of a book on Tin Can Tourists. "The joke was that they arrived with a $10 bill and a clean pair of underwear and when they left, they had changed neither."
The Tin Can Tourists, known for the soldered tin can on their radiator caps, had a secret handshake, sign and password. They also even had a club song:
The more we get together, together, together.
The more we get together, the happier we'll be.
Because your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends.
The more we get together the happier we'll be."
Word spread quickly and their numbers grew. In 1924, the city of Tampa, tired of its park being overrun by Yankees every year, closed it early, forcing the "canners" to find another place to rendezvous. The city of Arcadia stepped up, built the auto campers a park specifically suited to their needs, and the rest is history. The Tin Can Tourists currently number more than 1,000 dues-paying members.
Today, nearly 8 million U.S. households own a RV, according to a recent University of Michigan study, more than twice as many as in 1980. This weekend's show in Tampa will have more than 1,000 RVs on display and another 800 private RVers in town for a rally.
Today's RVs and travel trailers range in price from as low as $10,000 to more than $1 million.
But devotees such as Tin Can Tourist Danny Kent of Tampa said classics trailers can still be had for a "song." His 1963 Shasta, found in a neighbor's side yard and purchased for an undisclosed price, has been restored to mint condition.
"If you don't mind doing a little work, this is the way to go," he said. "Just drive around, keep your eyes open, and you never know what you might find."
To learn more, go to tincantourists.com.