Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs

Happy Trailer Homes to You


In the trade they are known as “manufactured housing,” although their residents prefer the term “mobile homes.” You may remember that on the TV show “The Rockford Files,” James Garner’s character lived in one with his dad. As of 2000, Virginia boasted more than 185,000 single, double, triple-wide or larger units on private property and in parks throughout the state – 6.4 percent of the total housing in the Commonwealth.


They are so popular in some rural areas that Patrick County author Martin Clark, a circuit court judge, titled his 2000 comic legal thriller The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living. “I have a rooster, a pickup truck, a fly rod and a lawn tractor,” Clark said in an interview for the paperback publication of his novel. It touched a nationwide chord and became a New York Times Notable Book.


Whatever they’re called the term “trailer” lost its appeal in the 1950s many people have a few misconceptions about mobile homes. First of all, they don’t actually move. Or, they usually move only once, from factory to site. These days, with their pitched roof add-ons and new siding, many cannot be distinguished from on-site homes. And depending on what an owner is willing to pay -- in 2002, the average price in the Old Dominion ranged from $28,000 for a single to $54,000 for a double wide – mobile homes can be equipped with such amenities as hardwood floors, porcelain sinks and High-Definition TV.


Secondly, in a number of communities, mobile homes are losing their underclass aura. On the West Coast, mobile home parks are becoming the residence of choice for the upwardly mobile who want a beach view at a reasonable price. Your lot neighbors in southern California could include actresses Minnie Driver or Sally Field.


In Missouri, there’s a mobile home park that’s a gated community, and a few years ago, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee moved into a mobile home while the governor’s mansion underwent a $12 million renovation.


While the residents of Shawsville, Va., may not view themselves as the Commonwealth glitterati, 47 percent of them live in mobile homes, according to a 2002 article in the Roanoke Times. Mobile home parks boomed in the 1960s and 1970s in the area, partially because nearby Roanoke County’s zoning rules were much more restrictive than neighboring Montgomery County. The feds even got involved in building mobile home parks after the Roanoke River flooded in 1972. An 82-year resident, who was one of the first to move into one of these federal parks, praises her community. “Everybody tries to be neighbors and get along. No fussing, no fighting,” she said in the Times article.


Today, affordable housing advocates have urged jurisdictions to consider mobile home parks as alternative housing for professionals such as teachers, fire and police personnel who can’t afford housing in the areas in which they work. Still, it can be a hard sell to those who aren’t clued in to the new zeitgeist.


The checkered history of mobile homes began in the 1920s, when the availability of paved roads triggered wanderlust among Americans. A Minnesotan named Arthur Sherman is credited with inventing the first affordable, mass-produced trailer home 1929, which he called the “Covered Wagon,” according to a 1998 Smithsonian article “House Trailers.” It cost $395. By 1936 Sherman was the major manufacturer of travel-trailers. 


A Virginian, seamstress Mary Elliott Wing of Roanoke, also may have been an early adapter of the mobile home. According to one source, she was inspired by the dimensions of Noah’s ark to build the first true modern mobile home. 


Trailers enjoyed their heyday in the ’40s, when they housed shipbuilders, factory workers, and the thousands of returning GIs during the post-war housing crisis. But by the 1950s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called them “dens of vice and corruption.” Part of the bad rap came from shoddy construction and unethical salespeople. It would be another quarter-century before the industry was regulated; the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Act was passed in 1976, and in Virginia, the Manufactured Housing Board now regulates the industry. The nine-member board is responsible for licensing mobile home dealers, brokers, manufacturers and salespeople.


Even with their new respectability, there is one drawback to living in a mobile home. The National Weather Service reports that while only 10 percent of Americans live in trailer parks, half of those killed by tornadoes are mobile home residents. Newer models, however, feature wood framing, fire walls, stabilizing plates and steel tie-downs for greater safety.


Whatever their construction, mobile homes seem to have found a niche in modern culture. “They are attitude as much as architecture,” wrote authors Chiori Santiago and Maggie Steber in Smithsonian’s “House Trailers.” You can witness them on TV’s “Trailer Park Boys,” a Canadian cult mockumentary broadcast Sunday nights on BBC America; you can also share haunted mobile home stories at, a site developed by a seven-year trailer resident. No Virginian has posted a ghostly trailer tale yet, so here’s your opportunity!


NEXT: All Shook Up: Earthquakes in the Old Dominion


-- May 10, 2004



























About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at [email protected].


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.