On July 1-4, approximately 70 Airstream owners celebrated the birth of Wally Byam, including his invention of the famous Airstream Trailer. During the celebration, a special Airstream exhibit was on display inside the Baker Heritage Museum in Baker City.
The name of the exhibit is "Caravanning & Collecting - Two Unique Tales of Charismatic Baker Natives" . To learn more about the purpose and significance of this special exhibit, Baker Heritage Museum Director Chris Cantrell agreed to do an email interview.
SCOTT: Chris, what is the overall purpose and significance of the Wally Byam Airstream exhibit? Why is it on display in Baker City?
CHRIS: Each year, as part of Baker Heritage Museum's Strategic Plan, a new exhibit is created in the Central Gallery. This year's exhibit, "Caravanning & Collecting - Two Unique Tales of Charismatic Baker Natives" features the stories of Baker born Wally Byam, who went on to invent the iconic Airstream Trailer, and our own world renowned rock hounds, the Cavin Sisters.
The exhibit’s goal is, using Wally Byam’s words, “to strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit that moves you to follow a rainbow to its end…and thus make your travel dreams come true.” This venturesome spirit is the common theme of these two unique tales, the similar spirit that brought the early settlers to this community they founded. The exhibit is on display here to celebrate the venturesome spirit of these Baker natives, and hopefully bring recognition of that spirit to the hearts of those who visit.
SCOTT: What did you think of the Wally Byam Airstream Caravan that visited Baker City during the 4th of July weekend? Did you enjoy meeting Dale "Pee Wee" Schwamborn and the other honored guests? If so, why?
CHRIS: The Wally Byam Airstream Caravan that visited our town certainly captured that venturesome spirit! They came to see our exhibit and actually became a "living history" component of the exhibit for Wally Byam's birthday weekend.
They opened their doors and shared their Airstream lifestyle with people strolling through the park. Travelers by nature, they explored all that was going on in Baker County and brought higher attendance to the area's events. What a wonderful experience for our community!
While I had the pleasure of meeting Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn previously at his Arizona home when he donated the bulk of his mother's estate to the museum, it was an honor to have him come see the exhibit and be delighted by it.
For people like Dale, Burt Byam, Suzanne Watson Fleming (Biswell family), guest speakers Tom Golden, the Goransons and all the Caravan Club participants, this event celebrated a person who deeply affected their lives, and our exhibit is a respectful tribute to his memory. I could not have been more pleased to meet them and share in their whole hearted enjoyment of our exhibit.
SCOTT: Did the museum receive a higher number of visitors during the 4th of July weekend because of the Wally Byam Airstream Caravan? If so, can you share how many people visited the museum during the holiday weekend?
CHRIS: We had about 800 visitors to the museum over the 4th of July weekend, vs 300 last year, definitely due to the Wally Byam Airstream Rally. When we first conceived the idea of having a Caravan come to the exhibit, we thought there was potential for it to be larger. Gas prices may have impacted participation, but with 70 registered Airstream trailers, we were very pleased with the turnout.
SCOTT: Currently there is an entire museum that is dedicated to the memory of Leo Adler, who was a philanthropist and a former resident of Baker City. Do you think the museum will keep a permanent exhibit on display in memory of Wally Byam, since he was also born in Baker City? Why or why not?
CHRIS: Yes, we will always have an exhibit dedicated to Wally Byam, and I believe we will celebrate his birthday with some type of program every 4th of July, as we do Leo's June 20th birthday at Adler House Museum.
SCOTT: How do you think Leo Adler and Wally Byam were both different and similar in terms of historical importance to the community of Baker City? Which person do you think is lesser known to the public outside of Baker City? Why?
CHRIS: I find it an interesting coincidence that Leo Adler was born in Baker City in 1895, Wally Byam was born here in 1896, and Mamie Cavin was born here in 1894. Is it just a coincidence that these tenacious, charismatic people were born here, or does it speak to the community they were born in that each became creative entrepreneurs early on?
While Leo Adler lived here his whole life, and in fact we call him "Mr. Baker" to this day, the others had lives away from Baker City, although the Cavin sisters did return here. None had children, and both Leo and Mamie Cavin left their legacy to our town.
So I would say, in terms of impact, Leo Adler certainly had the most influence and is best known in Baker City. There isn't much here that hasn't been touched by him in some way. Wally Byam set his sights on the world, and is in fact world renowned as the creator of Airstream Trailer and leader of caravans that covered much of the globe.
Wally's travel adventures are legendary, and while he passed away in 1962, his dream lives on. We should bring awareness to the rest of the world that this is Wally's home town, so they'll stop in and marvel at the amazing personal effects we have on display in our museum.
SCOTT: Tom Golden, Scott Goranson, and Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn were guest speakers during the Airstream Caravan festivities. Each one gave an important lecture about Airstream travel. What do you think each of these men provided separately in terms of historical information? Will the museum keep a permanent display of this information for future visitors to read? Why or why not?
CHRIS: Each of our speaking guests told of the adventures that Wally led in a different way. They related stories that stretched our imagination to think what it must have been like to travel to such remote and exotic places.
Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn's mother was Wally Byam's first cousin and strongest business protege. "Pee Wee" traveled on many of the caravans with his mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, and Wally. He donated much of the memorabilia we have on display from his mother's estate, and his insight into the story of Wally Byam is up-close and personal.
Nowhere else will there ever be so much of Wally Byam's personal effects, and that is largely thanks to Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn. We recorded the talks each of our guests gave, and this recording, while not the best quality, will be preserved in our archives, available for research, however not on display. Perhaps someday we may attempt to transcribe it.
SCOTT: In the past, has the Baker Heritage Museum considered having an Airstream Trailer on permanent display inside their building to honor Wally Byam? Why or why not?
CHRIS: The Museum Commission has decided having a permanent display of an actual Airstream Trailer does not meet our collection policy because the trailers were the work of Baker born Wally Byam, but not made or manufactured here. Even the smallest trailer would need a significant amount of space, and we don't have a place large enough to make it meaningful. There may be other options if an Airstream gift was made, but we are not considering it at this time.
SCOTT: Do you think the Wally Byam Airstream Caravan has helped increase public knowledge about the importance of Wally Byam? If so, why?
CHRIS: I definitely think people noticed the Airstream visit, and many made the connection there was an exhibit celebrating our native son, Wally Byam, who invented Airstream Trailers. I think we can continue to share the message. I read an editorial that suggested our town should latch on to promoting his story and his legend here. I agree, and that is why we have the exhibit.
SCOTT: How does the Baker Heritage Museum choose which exhibits are temporary and which ones are permanent? How do you base your decisions? Can you please give us an example?
CHRIS: The mission of the Baker Heritage Museum is to conserve the artifacts of historical Baker County, to educate the public about the development of the area, to preserve local archives and to make them available for research. We have a collection policy that helps us stick to the mission.
We also have a strategic plan that gives us direction that we create a new exhibit in the Central Gallery each year to keep the exhibits dynamic and fresh, and also provides direction as to what exhibits we choose each year. The strategic plan was developed with input from the community as to what they would like to see the museum do.
Conservation involves protecting the artifacts, some of which are much more fragile than others. That is part of our motivation for change. For example, while our quilts are a favorite exhibit, many are over 100 years old, and we can only leave them on display for a couple years at a time.
SCOTT: Do you have anything special you would like to add about Wally Byam or the Airstream exhibit that is on display at your museum?
CHRIS: This exhibit is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many of Wally's personal artifacts on display in one place at one time. While we will always have an exhibit about Wally Byam, to conserve the material, it will be scaled down and rotated. Take the time to visit "Caravanning and Collecting" before the end of the season, and bring your friends and family. We hope you'll be touched by Wally's story. He was truly an amazing and charismatic Baker native.