1961 Hi-Lo Trailer
By Guest Blogger, Charles (Chuck) Snyder
The Hi Lo story began way before Don Snyder built the first Hi Lo trailer in his garage in Butler, Ohio in 1956. It began when he, as a small child, with his parents and younger brothers and sister, would go down Lost Lane to the family campsite which was beside a creek, under trees in the back recesses of the family farm near Johnsville, OH and camp when there was good weather and free time.
The young family loved to camp, be together around an evening camp fire and just in general enjoy being outside. So began Dad’s (Donald Lance Snyder) love of camping and being outside with his family.
The Tappan Stove Company, as it was known at the time, transferred Dad to Murray, KY in 1945 to oversee the building of their new factory. Murray was near Kentucky Lake and, you guessed it, we spent as much time on and beside that lake as was possible. Mom (Virginia Kurrich Snyder) and Dad bought a lakeside lot and a small free standing trailer, which I named Skunky – I was 4 years old, and set up a permanent campsite.
Next came boats that Dad built, he inherited his grandfather Tom Lucas’ gift for creative building, and Dad instilled in his young family the same love for outdoor recreation he learned as a child. Then in 1954 Tappan transferred Dad back to Mansfield. We moved to Butler leaving behind Kentucky Lake and all the outdoor activities there that had become a huge part of our lives.
In 1955 Dad borrowed a tent from Dory Swank, Butler’s Boy Scout leader at the time, and we went tent camping to Raccoon Creek State Park in Pennsylvania. In the middle of our first night in the tent, a loud series of metal crashes woke us up. Mom shouted that we were being attacked by bears and there was nothing to save us from the bears but “this flimsy canvas tent”. While I lay on my army cot waiting to be eaten by the bears, Dad was outside yelling at the bears, risking his life to save his family. Things quieted down outside and Dad came back inside and announced that the racket was a family of raccoons trying to get to the food inside the cooler we’d left sitting on the picnic table and that we could all go back to sleep – he did.
The next day we moved to another state park that didn’t have “Raccoon” in the name. We enjoyed being back outside in nature, but Dad and Mom agreed that they would like trailer camping better. Dad said that he would build a trailer for our future camping trips and from that failed attempt at tent camping the first Hi Lo trailer was born.
During the fall of 1955 and into the late spring of 1956 Dad built the first Hi Lo trailer. I was 14 and I’m his “Gopher”. One evening in the fall of 1955, I walked into the kitchen to find Dad sitting at the kitchen table drawing designs and plans for his trailer. I asked him if it was going to be like Skunky, and he said, “No, this one’s going to telescope so we can take it on trips”. I said, “What’s telescope”? Dad answered, “The top is going to be separate from the bottom and a little bit bigger so it can slide down over the bottom like the top of a shoe box.” My reaction was, “Wow”.
By late spring in 1956 the first Hi Lo trailer was finished and ready for camping. It was very basic compared to the beautiful and well equipped Hi Lo’s that were to come later. Number (1) had a plywood floor bolted to a steel frame. The sides were bright aluminum sheets, riveted together over a wooden frame. The trailer slept four and the two upper bunks were wooden troughs that held air mattresses. In the front of the interior, there was a small folding table with two bench seats. It wasn’t much larger than a camping tent, but it had hard sides, was off the ground and Mom was happy. And it cranked down, not like a tent camper which folded, the solid top went up and down on four tracks raised and lowered by a cable/pulley mechanism that was turned with a crank that was held in place by a rachet clip. When in the up position, there were planks that folded down from the top and fit onto the lower section for support. Dad called these “safety props”. We were ready to go camping and the bears (also known as raccoons) wouldn’t get us.
Our first outing with the new trailer was at East Harbor State Park near Port Clinton, OH over Memorial Day weekend in 1956. Dad backed the trailer into our camp site and we began to set up camp. The camp ground was nearly full and as Dad towed the trailer into the camping area people stopped to stare at the trailer. It didn’t look like any other trailer. When it was in the top down, travel position the trailer was low, no higher than the car. It had four windows – front, back and both sides – when the trailer was in the down position, what you could see through the windows was the aluminum of the bottom section of the trailer. People wondered, “Why have windows for if you couldn’t see out of them?” When Dad cranked the trailer into the up position, it drew a crowd of onlookers like flies to sugar water. “What is this? How does it work? Where did you get it?” they would ask. The answer, “I built it myself.” The question that was asked several times over that summer, “Can you build one for me?”
Later that summer of 1956 we took a week long camping vacation to Michigan and stayed in three different state parks. Raising the top into the upright position at each camp ground brought the same response – people flocked to see it work and ask questions. I believe that it was during that trip to Michigan that Dad realized that he had a viable commercial product with a unique feature. He did not build that first trailer with the idea of building more of them for sale and launching a business, but that is what happened.
On our way home we stopped to see the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village near Detroit. Dad was inspired by Henry Ford’s example – building a car in his garage and launching Ford Motor Co. Dad was a man on fire with excitement and ambition. He talked and planned and dreamed about building and selling these trailers all the way back to Butler. Dad showed the trailer at the 1956 Bellville Street Fair and sold it to a man from Loudonville, OH. Jim Snyder later reacquired the first Hi Lo trailer and it was parked behind the Hi Lo plant in Butler for several years.
On March 11, 1957, The Mansfield News Journal published a feature article about the trailer. The trailer was not called Hi Lo yet, the article refers to it as “the telescoping trailer”. This article was one of the first, if not the very first, media information pieces for Hi Lo trailers. This article helped Dad generate interest in the product within the Mansfield business community.
During 1957, Dad with the help of Everett Osier, who worked for Reeder Lumber Company and was a talented carpenter, built 3 more trailers. Dad parked these trailers in our side yard for people to see as they drove by our house on Main Street in Butler. On Sunday afternoons during warm weather, people would stop, attracted by the “For Sale” sign on the trailers. Dad talked to the people, cranked the trailers up and down, and sold all three before Thanksgiving. The next year, 1958, The Snyder Trailer Co. was formed, the trailers were called Hi Lo and we were in business.
With the help of members of the Mansfield business community, including Jack Beasore – Richland Bank, Walter Willis – Accountant and George Kaiser – Attorney, Dad was able to obtain venture capital funding, financial and legal guidance and incorporated the infant business as The Snyder Trailer Company Inc. Also about this time, Dad asked his brother Jim Snyder to join him in making Hi Lo a commercial success, and Jim did just that. Jim remained with Hi Lo for many years until his retirement and provided the leadership, dedication and passion that made Hi Lo a major player in the Recreational Vehicle Industry.
The highlight of 1958 for me, was being able to work the Cleveland Sportsman Show with Dad and Uncle Jim. We showed Hi Lo trailers at the show – it was the first big showing for Hi Lo. I wore a suit and tie, worked the floor showing the two trailers on display, and did a lot of cranking the trailers up and down. I got to room with Uncle Jim in a hotel. I was only 16, but man did I feel all grown up. That was my first business trip. In my corporate career, there would be many more, but that one remains with me as a special memory.
The big media break for Hi Lo came in March 1959 when a Hi Lo trailer was offered as a give-away prize on the live national television show “The Price is Right”. Though connections at the Tappan Co. Dad was able to arrange for Hi Lo trailers to be given away on the show. The show format was – contestants guessed at the price of the merchandise offered and the contestant who guess closest to the correct price won the merchandise. The prize was donated by the manufacturer and in exchange for the donation, the merchandise/prize was demonstrated to a live national TV audience. Being selected as a prize donor for the show was huge and it showed what a unique product the Hi Lo telescoping trailer was.
For the first show, Jim Snyder towed the trailer that was to be presented on the show to New York City. We (Dad, Mom, Regina and I) watched the show from our living room in Butler. The show was telecast live, in real time. The trailer was pushed onto the stage – Jim remained back stage – and the shiny aluminum sides gleamed in the bright television lights which was dramatic as the picture was in black and white, not color. A show staff person came to the trailer and cranked the top into the upright position while the show announcer explained the features of the trailer to the contestants and the television audience. The live audience in the studio gave an audible gasp as the top rose into the upright position. The announcer, Bill Cullen, said, “Price authority Snyder Trailer Company Butler, Ohio.” I was so excited, I couldn’t breathe. I sat in my rocking chair (I still have one) gasping. Dad looked over at me with a huge grin and said to Mom. “Ginny, look at Charles, he’s so excited he can’t breathe.” Yes, I was.
That was the first of many Hi Lo trailers that were given away on “The Price is Right”. The national advertising from the television coverage opened the path to expand the dealer network and to expand the company, it gave the Hi Lo trailers national recognition. Hi Lo was now a recognized brand.
In February 1957, Dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis by the doctors at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cleveland. From the beginning, the doctors were very clear and firm about Dad’s prognosis and long range health, and it was not positive. Many helpful treatments for MS exist today that did not exist in 1957. As a result of his MS, Dad made the decision to remain at the Tappan Company and not dedicate his full time efforts to Hi Lo which he passionately wanted to do. Dad remained a member of the Hi Lo Trailer Company Board of Directors until the company was sold shortly before his death in 1978.
There were many members of our large family who were associated with Hi Lo over the years. Each of us owns a piece of the history of Hi Lo and made a contribution to its long term success, but especially Uncle Jim Snyder. To this day when I drive the Interstates, I look for Hi Lo trailers, and when I see one, my heart skips a beat and I feel pride for my very small part of what was accomplished. I think of all the great vacation experiences and camping fun that families all over the Unites States have enjoyed in Hi Lo trailers. And that was very much a part of Dad’s vision for Hi Lo.
Charles Kurrich Snyder
May 9, 2014