Long before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many families away from resorts and into local campgrounds, Rene and Jeremy Ralston already knew the beauty of camping.
The owners of Down River Vintage Trailer Restoration near Winlock said they found a community of friends bringing their vintage trailers to various rallies around the region.
“I love that this is the new normal,” Rene said. “I think camping brings people together.”
Rene is the Washington state representative for Tin Can Tourist, a 100-year-old club for vintage trailer enthusiasts. The Ralstons also manage the Aloha Vintage Trailers & Friends group on Facebook and help organize the Mount Baker Vintage Trailer Rally, Washington state’s largest annual vintage trailer rally. The couple has been recognized throughout the vintage trailer community for their restoration work. The Ralstons are hoping that some of the people who have embraced camping this year may think about vintage if they’re considering purchasing a camping trailer. While certainly not a quick route to a camping trailer, they bring with them a heritage and a community unlike anything else.
“Our thing is to rescue, restore and renew them. We don’t want to see them go to a landfill,” Rene said.
The Ralstons’ motivation for starting Down River began about nine years ago when they purchased their first vintage trailer, a 1955 Aloha affectionately named Tin Lizzy. The name Down River is an homage to the Ralstons’ former floating home in Woodland where they began the business.
Jeremy has an extensive construction background and restored their floating home before beginning on Tin Lizzy. Soon, he began getting requests from other vintage trailer owners for help repairing or replacing parts. Eventually, the requests took up more of Jeremy’s time than his regular job and the couple decided to make a business out of it. Today, Down River is Jeremy’s full-time job and Rene works another job and helps out as she is able.
Down River Vintage Trailer Restoration started out with three rented storage units in Woodland. Rene explained it was not an ideal situation because they had to rely on the availability of the units, so their jobs were spread out from one another. When they decided to relocate, it took them 10 months to find the perfect place that had large acreage and shops but a relatively small home that was a respectable distance from other area restorers. They ended up finding that in the Winlock area. The Ralstons do not list the address of their home shop on their website because it is open by appointment only.
The trailer restoration business’s shop is a converted barn. Jeremy’s wood shop is where the donkeys were once kept, and Rene’s office is the old tack room. But the area allows them to have four trailers inside in process at once, which is a huge deal to them.
To be considered vintage, a trailer must be at least 25 years old, so the Ralstons typically work on trailers dated 1970 or before. While vintage trailers are becoming a little harder to find, Rene explained there were 3,000 manufacturers of camping trailers in the 1950s and 1960s alone, so they are still out there. In addition to Jeremy’s construction background, the couple said they have learned the trade of restoring these vintage beauties mostly through restoring their own trailers, as well as educating themselves through the vast vintage trailer community.
“We definitely had some learning opportunities, and we’ve done some things differently just learning the process,” Jeremy said.
Customers vary at Down River. Some arrive with a trailer they already own and some purchase a trailer from the Ralston’s “boneyard” out back. Some haven’t touched a thing inside, and some have already completed some work but need help completing their vision. Some need only a few adjustments and some are total tear-downs. For some, their trailer is a cherished family heirloom, and for others, a new chance to create their perfect off-grid camping experience. They have even converted vintage trailers into food and drink trucks.
“All of them come with a story,” Rene said.
One of the biggest questions the Ralstons said they get from customers is how much a job will cost. Jeremy explained that a typical job can take between 1,500 to 2,000 man-hours, or about three to seven months, to be complete. The Ralstons bill customers by the job, rather than by hours, but Rene said the typical range for renovation costs is somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000 per linear foot. With wood-built vintage trailers, they never really know exactly what has to be done until the exterior aluminum skin is removed to reveal the wood frame beneath. While work on a wooden framed trailer begins from the outside, work on the aluminum framed Airstream-type trailers starts from the inside. The process also requires at least two to three visits from the client to look at the progress and make decisions based on “must-do” and “want-to-do” lists, which determine some of the cost as well.
“We let the customer make all the decisions,” Rene said. “We are 100% hands on.”
While Jeremy’s work is getting the trailer structurally sound, Rene’s passion is for the aesthetics. She encourages customers to use the several months it can take to reach the front of their waiting list to create Pinterest vision boards and look at materials to decide the exact look they want. Rene said about half of their customers are looking to bring their camper back to as original as possible, which includes work such as having vintage stoves and sinks re-porcelained. The other half are looking for that vintage vibe but want more modern amenities such as larger bathrooms and more modern fixtures and appliances.
Rene said every decision is always up to the customer, but she does often encourage them to think about adding what she calls creature comforts. While their original Tin Lizzy was and remains a beautiful restoration, Rene said she was basically just a fancy version of a tent. Eventually, they sold Tin Lizzy and are working on a new camper for themselves with a few more amenities.
“I always tell customers, you don’t want to cheat yourself. You want it to be as enjoyable as possible,” Rene said.
And the Ralstons encourage customers to think of their place in the history of that trailer. After completing work on trailers’ wooden frames, but before putting the aluminum skin back on, they have customers visit the shop to inspect. They also hand them a sharpie and encourage them to leave a message for future owners. Jeremy said modern materials that help with waterproofing, structural integrity and insulation are standard on every job. That means these trailers, some of their oldest of which are 80-some years old, should have a lot of years still ahead of them.
“With proper maintenance, it’s going to last forever, in my opinion,” Jeremy said. “I see these things being torn open again in 100 years.”
Learn more about Down River Vintage Trailer Restoration by visiting downrivertrailers.com.