Post-War Trailer Life at V.P.I.
Post-war married VT students were living in tiny houses before tiny houses became trendy.
To address the explosive enrollment growth, the college contracted with the federal government to move trailers onto campus, specifically to house married veterans and their families. The first camp of 50 trailers was established in early 1946 around Solitude and the Duck Pond as Trailer Camp 1. Solitude was a "social center" for that camp. As demand outgrew the available trailers, the contract was expanded to move in more trailers. Trailer Camp 2 was on the southeast side of campus, adjacent to today's Stadium Woods, at the end of Houston Street. At that time, Clay Street extended onto campus becoming Park Row, running past Miles Stadium, the barns and show ring, and behind Hillcrest Hall. Trailer Camp 3 was located on down Park Row adjacent to the water tower and barns; the site now covered by Cassell Coliseum. A campus house in the vicinity of the tennis courts served as the "social center" for Camp 2 and nearby Camp 3.
The war-surplus trailers offered minimal lodging -- beds, a kitchen, a "living room" and a closet. The trailers didn't have a bathroom; toilet and showers were in a shared central building in each park. The standard trailer was approximately 22 feet long and 7 feet wide and consisted of one large room. The extensible trailer, mainly for families with children, was approximately 22 feet long and 18 feet wide and was partially partitioned off into a kitchenette and two additional rooms. Both types of trailers had a built-in oil-burning heater, a built-in gasoline-burning cook stove, an ice box, a small sink with cold running water, two small clothes closets, a folding table, and several chairs. There was also a built-in couch (the standard trailer had two, one at each end) that opened into a double bed. The extensible trailers also had two beds, with mattresses furnished. There were electric lights in the trailers.
The residents of the trailers paid a rental charge of $17.00 per month for the standard trailers and $20.00 per month for the expansible trailers. This covered the rent of the trailer, electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection service, and fuel for the heaters and cooking stoves. Due to rising costs to the college, effective January 1, 1949, the rent for standard trailers increased to $20.00 per month and to $23.00 per month for expansible trailers.
Each camp grew to function like small towns, complete with regular elections for mayor, vice-mayor, and town clerk. There were also social events that allowed the residents to gather and enjoy a break from their studies. The first election took place on May 30, 1946, in Camp 1, popularly known as "Vetsville." An article in the June 7, 1946, edition of The Virginia Tech reported the results:
"The new mayor is Henry Bibb of Lynchburg, Va. Henry was in the air corps during the war and has succeeded in making himself a favorite among his fellow townsmen. For the past several months he has been in charge of the sports in Vetsville. Ray Beasley of Richmond, well known to all who follow Tech's football team, was elected vice mayor. Dot Sexton was selected town clerk."
The article explained the election process that allowed anyone with 10 or more backers to form a party with three candidates, a mayor, vice-mayor, and town clerk. Three parties participated in that first election with one candidate from each party winning a seat. There was 100 percent turnout from the camp residents and thanks were given to "Mel and Mickey Smith, and Nanny Ruth Terry who were in charge of the procedure."
In that same issue, the paper profiled one of the couples living in the trailer camp, in an article titled "Ah, For Life In A Trailer! The Reynolds Like It Fine":
"The first day of every month means the arrival of two allotment checks at Trailer 39, Vetsville. Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Reynolds are both studying under the G.I. Bill. Kitty Reynolds is enrolled in home economics while Ralph finishes his Master's in agricultural education.
Mrs. Reynolds says it is a long jump from military barracks to a one-room trailer, but they are well pleased with the change. She was a member of the WAVES for 13 months while her husband was in Europe with a Port Battalion. This is their first real home in nearly three years of married life."
"Since Mrs. Reynolds was a career girl, she is now having to learn to cook. Ralph jokingly adds that they are learning to cook together – he taught her to open the cans.
"The Reynolds have worked out an interesting method of handling their money. Each month they combine the two checks and pay the expenses. The amount left is divided equally. Kitty says she just cannot resist splurging a large part of her share on the feminine clothes she missed while in uniform."
The story also reported that part of their rare leisure time was spent cultivating "a few square feet of ground around Trailer 39. Kitty points with pride to her new crop of nasturtiums." Many of the other residents turned their small plot of land around their trailers into gardens, both for flowers and vegetables.
The next election was held in Camp 3 in early October where Bob Holland was elected mayor of the camp. He began his term by calling town meetings at "Water Tower Square" to plan displays for Homecoming weekend, per the Virginia Tech of October 25, 1946. The community also decided to name their camp "Cassell Heights" to show "appreciation to Mr. S. K. Cassell whose efforts made it possible for these veterans and their wives to be here at VPI."
On November 12, 1946, elections were held in Camp 2, which resulted in the name of the camp being changed to Hurricane Hill." The Virginia Tech of November 15 reported that the election was preceded by "Campaign speeches, much baby kissing, and a leaf raking party complete with hot dogs." When the results were tabulated, "Tom W. Old of Roanoke was elected mayor; Lloyd Anderson, vice-mayor; W. P. Newman, business manager; and Libby Hauxhurst, town clerk." Several committees were set up, including "social groups to improve conditions and create enthusiasm."
Also in the October 25, 1946, article was a comment from Frances Peterson, living in trailer 183, says, "At long last we've conquered the stoves so we no longer have to holler for help every time we want to boil water! Too, we have stopped grumbling about the dust and mud up here in the cow pasture and are hoping that soon we will be able to plant some shrubbery in different places before winter comes."
The stoves were an almost continuous problem for the college, the contractor setting up the camps, and the residents. These were well-used two-burner gasoline stoves, much like today's camping stoves that operate on white gas. The attached tank was pressurized and the gas was vaporized at the burner to produce a flame. J. R. Abbitt, Director of Buildings and Grounds, wrote to the on-site superintendent for the contractor who moved and set up Camp 2 on September 2 that "approximately fifty families moved into Trailer Camp #2 on August 31st, and this morning I find that only three cook stoves in the whole lot were burning satisfactorily." Abbitt demanded that the contractor fix the stoves immediately "as the families living in them were assured that their trailers would be put in a good livable condition." Abbitt explained that he had one of his employees working to fix the stoves and said he had warned the company of the problems. "You will recall that about the first week after this project was begun I cautioned you about the bad condition that you could expect these stoves and heaters to be in, and suggested that you start on those immediately, but this was delayed for some reason or other. From our past experience we have found that in order to get these stoves working properly, every working part should be dismantled, cleaned and in most cases entirely new parts were necessary. We also made available for your service the experience Mr. Linkous has had at Trailer Camp #1, which apparently was of no assistance to you."
Camp residents weren't on their own when it came to repairs and maintenance and upkeep of the toilet/shower and laundry trailers. The college provided proctors for each camp "to generally supervise the trailer camp and to look after it at all times. We feel that this is very necessary since we desire to maintain the very highest possible standards in keeping with the rest of the institution," Cassel wrote in a December 1945 letter to an administrator for the Federal Public Housing Authority. There was also a staff to fix stoves and the like, although it wasn't easy to find those employees, as Abbitt wrote to Cassell in December, 1946:
"I have been unable to secure a mechanic for Trailer Camp #2 and #3 at the salary of $100.00 per month because these men have to be on the go all day to clean and repair anywhere from four to five stoves and heaters daily and a number of other major and minor repairs to the heating systems. They are on duty practically all Saturday afternoon and report back Sunday two or three times to refill the utility trailers and do other necessary maintenance work. I feel that these men should be paid at least $125.00 per month, and when we secure one man for each of Trailer Camp No. 2 and No. 3 and one man for part-time in each of these camps, we should also increase the salary of Mr. Paul Linkous who is down at No. 1 camp. Mr. Linkous has proven very satisfactory, in fact he is the only man I have who really knows the maintenance and operation of the stoves. I find that after the stoves have been used constantly the maintenance on these outfits increase and require more time. I also have found after a careful study that the maintenance men at these three camps do not have time to clean the utility trailers, and I have had to employ one full time man who divides his time between the three camps."
The trailers weren't in the best of shape when they arrived in Blacksburg, having been used throughout the war to house workers at the various locations they came from. Due to wartime shortages, maintenance was not a priority. Abbitt outlined some of the problems in a letter to Cassell in October, 1946, that the contractor had to fix before the camp could be occupied, which points out the ongoing problems with the trailer.
"For instance in one of the toilet units I visited I found that the lock to the outside door had fallen out, also two of the toilet seats had not been fixed, and one had been fixed with a piece of one by two board acting as a hinge. The shower heads were only very cheap bent piece of tubing instead of the regular spray type. The urinal that had been broken and had not been fixed and should not be used was doped up with roofing cement on the outside and we know it is leaking from the inside and will give us trouble and will rot out the these housing units are in very poor condition, in fact, many of them, until they become vacant, will not be fit for housing purposes. They are lightly constructed and covered with fabric switch have rotted out; because of the type of construction, leaks caused the interiors to deteriorate very rapidly. floor in a very few weeks."
The situation with the trailers didn't get better as time went on. In December, 1949, H. W. Swink, purchasing agent for the college, wrote to A. B. Gathright, with the Virginia Division of Purchase and Printing, to seek permission to sell off the trailers as they became vacant (ownership had by then been transfered from the federal government to the college).
"These housing units are in very poor condition, in fact, many of them, until they become vacant, will not be fit for housing purposes. They are lightly constructed and covered with fabrics which have rotted out; because of the type of construction, leaks cause the interior to deteriorate very rapidly."
Despite all the problems with the trailers, veterans were happy to have a place to live on campus. There was much competition for trailer space since housing in town was almost non-existant. Cassell received a "friendly" request about the possibility of getting a trailer for the writer's cousin. Cassell replied on June 30, 1948, "I have checked with Dr. Bates, Director of Student Affairs, who handles the trailer assignments for married veterans. Dr. Bates tells me that he has over two hundred on the waiting list for trailers and he does not see any way that he can possibly promise one of these trailers to [your cousin]."
Those who did live in the trailer camps were able to stretch their G. I. Bill subsistence checks a little further. As Kitty Reynolds mentioned, they received allotment checks each month. The payment was part of the G. I. Bill that covered tuition and book costs for veterans who were attending school, and provided a subsistance allowance. The allotment check that each veteran received was $65 per month for those without dependents; it went up to $90 for those with dependents. If veterans had children, they received an additional $10 a month for the first child and $7 for each additional child. Those veterans who were able to move into an on-campus trailer had a better deal than those who had to find housing in Blacksburg or the surrounding area, since their rent also included electricity, fuel for the heater and stove, and water and garbage collection. Even at that, some couples still struggled to make ends meet.
The Campus Affairs Committee of the Blacksburg Chapter, American Veterans Committee, surveyed veterans attending V.P.I. on the G.I. Bill to find out who would or would not "be able to finish college if subsistence allowances are not increased and the cost of living remains static at present levels." The survey was done in February, 1947, and revealed that 33% of the veterans would not be able to finish their schooling. "An additional 9% were uncertain, and 58% said that they would be able to finish. Of the latter group, a few qualified their answers by saying that they were relying on part-time jobs or on their wives being able to work."
The survey "found that the average monthly cost of living was $133 for married students with one child, $125 for married students without children, and $96 for single students. These figures are lower at VPI than many colleges, probably because of the low rental and free utilities in the trailer camps, and because of the location of the school. The cost of living to married students living in houses and apartments around town was generally about $40 per month higher than to trailer residents." Based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator (https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm), the $133 is equivalent to $1,739.19 in 2022.
"There are several noteworthy differences in the amount spent by the three groups for certain items. The cost of clothing, for example, was $7 for married students with one child, $10 for married students without children, and $9 for single students. The average of $10 per month spent by married students without children is probably attributable to the fact that wives of many of the married students without children are working and require more clothes than the wives of students with one child. A great many of the students surveyed said that the cost of clothing had been very low in the past but would rise rapidly as soon as old army clothing is worn out."
The survey also found "Recreation costs were also higher for single students and married students with no children than for married students with a child, being $4 for students with a child, $5 for students without children, and $14 for single students; drug and health expenses were $8 for students with a child, $4 for married students without children, and $3 for single students. In addition to spending more on drugs and health, students with a child spent $13, or almost twice as much as single students, on insurance; and an average of $43 more for rent, laundry, and food combined. Students without children spent $11 less for food and $3 more for laundry than those with one child. The cost of incidentals was the only item which was about the same, between $7 and $8 for all three groups."
One way veterans on campus were able to save on food spending was by joining a food co-op. The Virginia Tech reported on October 3, 1947, that after investigating how to organize a cooperative food store, the veterans discovered the existence of the Blacksburg co-op, run by local residents. It was determined that it would be easier and cheaper to become a branch of the established store rather than start their own.
"The proposed plans for organizing a branch store were submitted to the college administration after arrangements with the Blacksburg cooperative had been made. The administration approved the plans and provided space in Trailer Camps Nos. 1 and 2 for two stores which were to serve all three trailer camps." according to the article. "In Trailer Camp No. 1, stock in the project was issued, a temporary manager was chosen, a committee was appointed to decide legal policies, the store was put into immediate operation, and has been going strong ever since."
"While both campus stores are members of the Blacksburg Consumers' Cooperative Inc.," states Ray Beasley, treasurer of the co-op in Trailer Camp No. 1, "They operate separately. For example, we in Trailer Camp No. 1 realize our savings as we purchase food about 10 percent lower than town prices. Rather than receive a dividend at the end of each month while paying prices for food similar to those in town, we issue dividends only if there should be a profit. The store in Trailer Camp No. 2 sells food at about town markings but issues dividends periodically."
Married veterans who didn't live in the trailer camps were at a disadvantage since they were not eligible to join to campus co-op stores. They were able to become members of the town store, but there were several problems. The store was "located near the city limits on Dr. H. N. Young's farm," making it a problem for those who didn't have a car to get to the store. At the time, it didn't carry perishables such as bread and eggs and was only open a few days a week. "S. K. Cassell, Tech's business manager, states that he believes that the town store would carry the goods that they do not carry now if the town vets would organize and make such a request prior to becoming members of town store. 'On the other hand,' Mr. Cassell states, 'since town vets cannot use the stores on the campus, and since their needs are different from those of the people who run the town store, it seems that the establishment of their own store is the best solution.'"
The camps continued with semi-annual elections of town officials. In December, 1946, John "The Greek" Maskas was elected Mayor of Vetsville (Trailer Camp Number 1), with James McIntosh elected vice-mayor and Mrs. William Dodd elected Town Clerk. They replaced Mayor Henry Bibb, Vice-mayor Ray Beasley, and Town Clerk Dot Sexton. A year later, James R. Smith was the successful candidate named to succeed Russel Childress as mayor of Vetsville. B. Arthur Hancock was elected vice-mayor, Mrs. Henry B. Micks, town clerk, and Carl J. Deimling, senator to represent the camp in the civilian student government.
On January 20, 1947, J. W. Kirk, a junior in industrial engineering, was elected to serve as mayor of Trailer Camp 3. J. M. Forbes, a freshman in metallurgical engineering, will serve as vice-mayor; and A. L. Comstock, a junior in electrical engineering, will hold the office of business manager. C. W. Kilby, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, serve as town clerk; and R. W. Holland, a senior in aeronautical engineering, and the retiring mayor will represent the trailer camp in the student senate.
The "government" of each camp coordinated social events for the residents, from dances to guest speakers. In a letter to Cassell on February 24, 1948, Edith Coker, chairman of the social committee in trailer camp 2, asked that the college improve the furnishings in the Community House that served camps 2 and 3. The two-story frame dwelling at one time was the residence of Professor Norton and like Solitude, was taken over for trailer camp use. Coker wrote that the house had 7 metal chairs with leather seats and 3 studio couches (in very bad repair) and poor lighting in the rooms being used for meetings. She was asking for improvements "because of the many varied activities which have been carried on there. We have had several outside speakers during each month, and we are planning on extending our program to a considerable extent. The rooms in their present condition provide a most unsatisfactory background for camp meetings, church groups, social functions, and other group discussions."
In addition to the programs planned by committees in each camp, the college also made speakers available. One example is a speaker sponsored by the YMCA, Mrs. Gray Sloan Overton, nationally known consultant on masculine-feminine relations, who presented a series of lectures and discussion on campus. One lecture was specifically aimed at couples in Trailer Camps 2 and 3 on "Things That Make or Break a Home."
The trailer camps served a vital purpose when veterans who had put their lives on hold for four or five years came home and wanted to complete an education and make up that time. As class sessions moved on toward 1950, the college began taking trailers out of service. Ownership had been transferred from the federal government to the college the year before, opening the way for trailers to be sold. As trailers were vacated, they were evaluated to determine if they could be rented again or if they were in such poor shape that a sale was the proscribed course. By 1951, housing construction on campus and the town had eased the problems of students and families finding a place to live. The final trailers were vacated, sold, and moved off campus, ending a special period for many veterans and their families.