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Rving may seem like an entirely modern day invention, but the idea of a “house on wheels” has old roots. Gypsy-type caravans were commonly used by Departmental Maintenance Gangs during the 1920s and 1960s whenever their work demanded that they live on-site for an extended period of time. Unlike modern RVs, these gypsy caravans were primarily intended for work, not play. The people who used them probably didn’t consider their time much of a vacation.
The original gypsy work wagons didn’t have most of the amenities RV travelers would expect to find in the modern recreational vehicle. These gypsy caravans were little more than wooden boxes on wheels. Many were converted railway cars outfitted with wooden wheels. Most had rubber tires to soften the endless bumps and potholes of the country roads they would likely have traveled on. They were a remarkable upgrade from the tents used before their time, and provided much better protection from heat, wind, cold, rain and insects. They were built of cedar, stood high off the ground and their roofs were covered in a waterproof coating of linseed oil, red lead and other ingredients. This was commonly referred to simply as “goo.” The name likely fit. The wagons also had excellent water storage with a 120-liter tank strapped underneath the wagon. Additional water could be collected from the rain gathered in canvas awnings used to cover equipment, or from wild springs and streams.
When friends and family take off in a modern RV for a leisurely road trip, they probably aren’t anticipating much hard labor. Such was not the case for those traveling in the gypsy caravans. Road gangs faced incredibly hard and long days filled with physical labor. Often they would work from dawn until dusk with few breaks. Without showers of any kind, the workers would wash themselves using simple tin dishes. If they were lucky, they might even have a chance to heat the water on the stove first.
After a long day’s work, the road gang workers would eat simple meals cooked on small kerosene stoves. There were certainly no microwaves or refrigerators in these early versions of the recreational vehicle. Typical food on the road in a gypsy caravan consisted of whatever could be preserved in tin cans or containers. They might also live off the land. Depending on the situation, they could hunt, trap or fish for extra meat as well as forage for wild fruits and vegetables. Since dry provisions such as flour and sugar were also easily preserved on the road, a staple of the workers’ diet was “damper.” This simple bread was little more than a mixture of flour, water and sugar leavened with baking soda. While bland, it was filling and simple to prepare. Damper is still eaten by campers today.
Today, most of the original gypsy caravans have found new uses. One became a shack at Swan Reach. Another was used as a wheat bin for a farmer in Minlaton before it was lost to a fire. A third was taken to the Port Wakefield Depot and actually reused as overnight living space for Departmental employees in the area. That wagon was restored in the mid 1980s and remained on historical display for ten years. Warren Duncan, the original owner, then reclaimed it for his family.
The original gypsy caravans were born out of the same idea as modern RVing. Travelers wanted a space that was dryer and sturdier than a tent. That is where most of the similarity ends between the original gypsy caravan wagons and the modern RV. Modern RVs have electricity and many of the modern devices one would expect in the average home. Some even have running water with showers and flush toilets. Most are also insulated, heated and air-conditioned, providing excellent protection from all outside weather and temperatures. They are far from just a wooden, goo-smeared roof over one’s head. The idea of present day RVing may still be an adventure onto seldom travelled roads, but it remains a vacation. Most modern travelers aren’t expecting to have to build and fix the road as they go. Still, the next time a family sets off for a road trip perhaps they will remember the hard-working men who pioneered the invention they now enjoy.