Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Restored Kozy Kamp on display.

When my grandfather’s Kovar Kultivator venture crashed, the designated oldest son (my father) was sent as a kind of scout to Oregon State University, where he earned a master’s degree with a thesis about the price of potatoes.  But his career in those days was as a wool buyer which meant traveling in sheep country on the dry side of the Cascades.  

The youngest son was already flying, so the son-in-law, the middle son, and a semi-son, whose mother had been my grandmother’s best friend, formed the core of a new business: the Kozy Kamp.  It was a pop-up camping trailer, a tent on top of a common auto trailer.  

My grandfather’s industrialism was at the bicycle level. He didn’t do motors.   His sons and their friends took long biking trips across the prairie, which is very well suited for bicycles.  Population was thin, one could sleep in a haystack because there WERE haystacks.  After WWII when rationing of gas and rubber was lifted, the production was still intense and roads were being built across the continent. One drove an automobile that could tow a trailer.

The Kozy Kamp meant a kind of road-freedom.  There were no motels yet, nor fast food joints.  Rather, there were little independent tourist “cabins” with a cover alongside for the auto, and the towns all had local cafés.  Now the equivalent of haystacks was gravel pits from the road-building.  That’s where we parked to sleep.  My post on this blog from April 19, 2009, explains the particulars.  

If the gravel pit were next to a railroad, we’d sometimes be woken from deep sleep by the scream of a steam locomotive, not even a diesel.  There’s nothing quite like it, even without the Doppler Effect.

Some men — I’m thinking of Sam Shepard who said this explicitly — have such confidence (or fatalism) in their ability to make money that they take risks, go broke, and just go make a new fortune.  My father was not like that.  He believed that one achieved a certain level of safety by being minimal.  Every risk meant loss and every loss was forever.  The Portland neighborhood, NE 15th and Alberta, was Euro-immigrant and craftsmen-level, like machinists, carpenters, or bakers.  They were makers, but war-survivors — wary.

My mother’s friends went by their last names:  White, Gross, Onslow, Winslow, MacClain, Gearhart.  Few worked but their husbands were all upwardly mobile.  The first family to make it big was Onslow and she remembered us enough to invite us to use their swimming pool at the new home.  By the time I was in high school (’57-’61) we were the only original family of that group still left.  The Alberta street shops began to close.

The new Culley Blvd. manufacturing plant, the foldable house,  
the Kozy Kamp and the traditional green Ford.

The Kozy Kamp factory was on one of the long diagonal market roads that were originally for bringing produce to the city and that the later street grids were build around.  Culley Blvd. ran from the produce fields out along the Columbia River to town on the Willamette.  At first my grandparents lived in another invention, a foldable house that could be towed to a new site.  I don’t remember it, but the “front” folded down into a nice platform porch and there are photos of us grandkids sitting there.  Then they moved to a doctor’s house on NE 15th, up towards Prescott.  Then things got tighter and they moved to a small house on NE 63rd which was still country.  I remember vividly prowling through the undeveloped brush and woods.

In those years my grandparents were aged and the Kozy Kamp business was reduced to one-offs in the garage which fascinated the grandkids until he got tired of us and threw us out, decorated by long curls of wood from planing hung over our ears.  The little house was on an acre of land which supported a major garden, the cornerstone of their retirement.  Now they were back to the hoe.  My grandfather bombarded the US patent office with special designs of hoes that were more effective shapes or easier to use.  Some of them wiggled.  None of them ever caught on.  Sam didn’t understand promotion beyond a booth at the state fair or a newspaper ad.  There was no video or much print media except Life, Time, Look and the Saturday Evening Post.  The money was gone.  In the last years the “kids” supported their parents.

But the Kozy Kamp persists, a nearly indestructible invention, solidly built, and there are aficionado groups who look for them and renew them.  Not as fancy as shiny AirStreams (our neighbors across the street bought one of the first of those) but as classic at a low level.  I was stunned and gratified to google the name and see a whole list of sites.

Every summer and one winter we set off across the continent, none of us exactly pleased except my father.  There were terrible risks, endless boredom.  I remember once counting telephone poles on the prairie and getting to three or four thousand before I went to sleep.  There was a water tank across the front of the trailer for tooth brushing and my father’s shaving.  We learned to squat behind whatever brush there was, and were grateful if there WAS brush.  I don’t know what the grownups did.  Service station facilities were pretty grim.  

We traveled until way after dark, so waking up was always interesting.  Once we were in a flock of wild turkeys.  Breakfast was a box of cereal — they came in variety packs.  One cut open their bellies to make a bowl for milk.  Lunch was sandwiches, and supper was in a café, hamburger and a milk shake every single night.  That was excellent, always good.  When we went to Santa Ana one Christmas (I never understood why) we woke once to an inch of frost on the inside of the tent.  It had been ten below in the night.  We had no heat except the car and pulled our clothes under the covers to warm them up before putting them on.

The car ran on gas, of course — my brother asked how it was that all across the country the gas station man (there WERE always gas station attendants) always knew what my father’s “regular” was.  We kids ran on comic books, only forced to look up when we arrived at a National Monument, which to my father was a shrine.  He claimed he was an atheist, but actually he was a patriot.

As we got older, it was not allowed for me to sleep with my brothers.  I don’t know why we didn’t have sleeping bags.  My father went to the Army/Navy and bought a ship’s bed, a canvas with grommets around the periphery which he fitted with bull snaps so it could be attached to the wire beds on each side and stretch across the aisle.  It was cold.

The bottom line is that traveling that way feels entirely natural to me.  When I took on the three-year Montana circuit-riding adventure, living in the van was like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.  I still wouldn’t mind except that old people pee in the night and it’s harder to find a secluded spot to park.  Strangely, in the city is easier than in the country.  One goes to the railroad and joins the lines of delivery vans.  Just wake up early.

1 comment:

anne harris said...

I forgot that you were acircuit rider!