Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
But was it good business, or the reverse? Dan Reiser, along with his wife, Betsy, have done a little of everything, experienced business ups and downs, and have ultimately come out on top. Oh, and along the way, they made a lot of dogs happy, too.
Dan Reiser, of Fairview, just outside Asheville, restores classic mid-century trailers, those sleek, retro showpieces that seem to glide along the highway, calling up nostalgic images of the 1950s. Dan began working on old trailers “not because it would be a good business venture,” he notes, “but because I thought they were cool.”
Cool indeed. It takes Dan and his four-man crew about two months of grinding and polishing and shellacking and rewiring, etc., to complete a restoration. He took a break from his labors on a recent morning to explain his attraction to the old trailers and his work in restoring them.
“About 10 years ago I fixed one up, sold it, and made some money,” Dan recalls. “And I decided, here’s what I’m supposed to do. I finally stumbled on this thing that’s getting very popular. People realize they’re not making these things anymore.”
Dan’s company, Classic Camper Sales, operates out of a field next to his home in Fairview. He and his wife, Betsy, bought the property back in the 1990s, when Asheville’s Appalachian Real Estate, which Betsy owns, got the listing.
“I listed it and it went under contract right away,” she says. “But every time I went out to the property I’d say, ‘This is really nice. I wish I could live here.’ But Danny didn’t want to hear it. So, the deal fell apart, and finally I took Danny out there and he looked at it and he said, ‘Why didn’t you make an offer on this?’” She laughs at the memory. “‘Well, because you didn’t want to.’”
Now, the six-acre property is both home and Dan’s business headquarters. Six or seven trailers currently sit scattered among the weeds, waiting their turn in the restoration process while a finished job occupies a prominent place, awaiting sale. “It usually takes about four weeks to sell one,” he says. “I got two people coming to look at this one on Saturday.”
“This one” is a 1950 Westcraft Trolley Top, which Dan shows off with obvious enthusiasm. He opens a panel in the polished wood living/dining room to reveal an electric circuit board. “We redid all the wiring,” and he points to the ceiling, where an air-conditioning unit has been installed. “They didn’t have air conditioning in 1950,” he says.
The 26-by-8-foot interior looks more like a high-end sailboat than a trailer, and Dan points out the bamboo flooring. “Not laminate; it’s real wood,” he says. His asking price is $59,000.
While he is showing off his finished product, the sounds of drills, polishing wheels, and a hammer provide background music. The current job is about halfway finished, and it still shows signs of the decades of wear and tear, even as the completed restoration begins to emerge.
Outside his office, a covered work area includes dozens of hardware cubbies, about a dozen electric drills lined up as if for inspection, a shop vac, air hoses coiled over nails on a post, a work table with cans of paint thinner, and a freshly varnished wood panel which will become the door to a cupboard. Dan is dressed for work in a black T-shirt and camo pants. He sits at his desk in what passes for his office, but looks more like the clutter capital of Fairview. The wall opposite his desk is covered with a jumble of pictures, notes, an incongruous Van Gogh poster, and a line-up of keys hanging on hooks.
His regard for old trailers is evident when he begins talking about the industry. “After World War II, in the ‘50s they were building the big highways across the United States, and companies that had been making airplanes for the war retooled and started making trailers.
“I don’t do Airstreams because they never change their body style. And Airstreams are not selling for that much anymore. People think everything is like an Airstream. Once they get over that, they learn that Spartans that they used to make are better than the Airstreams. See, the Airstreams are all painted inside, and the Spartans are all finished wood—they look like a boat inside. It’s like anything you get into: You learn value, and you realize these other brands are really cool.”
Is it getting harder to find the old classics? “There’s not many in people’s backyards who don’t know what they’ve got these days. I keep track of them on Craigslist or eBay.”
Buying and selling has apparently become an active niche enterprise. Scanning internet for-sale ads, one can find at least 10 brands of trailers from the late ‘40s and ‘50s, some of them showing every mile of their age and waiting for restoration, others fully restored and ready to take us back to the Eisenhower years.
“Luckily, I’m in the right place at the right time for once,” Dan says.
Paul Lacitinola, the publisher of Vintage Camper Trailers magazine, attests to the growing popularity of these rolling antiques. He also produces classic trailer rallies. “We’re doing seven rallies this year,” says Lacitinola. “They all sell out, between 200 and 250 classic trailers. And we always have a waiting list. And that’s just here on the West Coast. There are rallies all across the nation. We publish a list of events in the magazine, and at any given time we list 50 to 80 events.”
“For once in my life I’m kinda making money,” Dan adds. “Wish I had discovered it a little bit earlier in life.”
While Dan is rescuing old trailers, his wife, Betsy, is running her real estate company. At age 74, she’s decided to spend more time running Appalachian Real Estate and less time running around to houses for sale. But, she says, real estate is “just so much fun. I love going around, looking at other people’s houses.”
The charm of snow-capped mountains has worn off for Betsy, who accepts that her Florida roots have made her a warm-climate lover. They have a home on Lake George in central Florida, which is not only their winter getaway, but was also the beginning of Dan’s trailer business.
“We needed a guest house, so we bought a trailer—a Spartan—and fixed it up as a guest house,” she explains, adding that the effort kept Dan busy. “He really does need a project,” she says, waving her hands in a nervous, fluttering gesture. “Or he gets in trouble.” The guesthouse led to another trailer purchase and project for Dan. When he finished restoring it, he sold it for a profit, and soon began to think restorations might become a business.
Dan and Betsy have been together 54 years. They’re both successful and still enjoying what they’re doing. All in all, just a happy, comfortable story.
But hang on. For Dan and Betsy, the real story is their backstory.
The Adventures of Betsy and Danny
If life is a journey, theirs
was on a long winding road.
Their story begins in 1965 when the Vietnam War was raging, and it seemed society was coming apart. Flower children were tossing daisies at police, hippies were making tie-dye and bell-bottoms fashionable, and California was the social frontier for adventurous youngsters. Newlyweds Dan and Betsy moved from Miami to Sebastopol, just 55 miles from the hippie mecca, San Francisco.
She took off first: “Packed up my son (from a previous marriage), my dog, and a friend into my Morris Minor. It was tight.” She grins at her understatement. Dan remained behind for a few months to finish his art degree from the University of Miami.
“We were flower children,” he says. “Just hanging around.”
She fleshes out some details. “We did some gardening, I was going to school, and he was painting.” Were his paintings selling? “Oh no. He never worries about that. We were hippies. Back then you could live on $300 a month.” Did they ever think of taking a real job? She flashes a wide grin. “Both of us, any time we thought about working for anybody else, we’d…” She lets out a guttural gagging. “Aaaaach.”
They were living in a farmhouse, and he recalls, “We lost the farm because the farmer’s kids wanted to move into it.”
Danny: Let’s check out those
Betsy: I’ll start packing.
They not only left the farmhouse, they left the state and the country. “We went to Dominica in 1967. They didn’t want us,” he says. “They want tourists to come in, spend a bunch of money, and then leave. And we felt that pressure. So we moved out to what they call the bush, lived in a little grass hut kind of thing.” They moved on to a neighboring island, Guadalupe, where they found a similar reception. “We stayed there for a while, and after about a year we decided to leave.”
Betsy: I’m tired of this hassle.
Let’s go home.
Danny: Great idea!
“We opened the first vegetarian restaurant in Miami,” continues Dan. They agree the restaurant was on a successful track. “We had a faithful clientele,” he says, and she describes the experience as “a lot of nice people.” But according to Betsy, the restaurant was not their only endeavor. “We were living in a house in Homestead. Danny rehabbed it. A couple of years later, we got an opportunity to sell both the house and the restaurant and we said, ‘Let’s go’.”
What motivated them to leave? “It just seemed like Miami was… We had a little boy and…” Her thought ends with a shrug, then, “…and Danny wanted to go onto the next project.”
Danny: Let’s go up to those mountains in Western North Carolina.
Betsy: I’m ready whenever you are.
“We looked on a map,” she says. “And these were the closest mountains.”
“I had never seen snow,” he says, making it sound like the perfect excuse to move.
She adds more rationale. “We had some friends who wanted to move to North Carolina, and my family had some property up there, and we knew we could live in their house for a while.”
They arrived in Sandy Mush, Madison County, in 1974. “We tried to raise vegetables, but it was not much fun,” Betsy says. But their neighbors were more welcoming than the farmland. “The local people in Madison were so kind and sweet. They would say we don’t know what you’re doing with all that compost in your garden, but if you don’t have any food, we’ll give you some. That’s the kind of people they were. They were awesome.”
He sums up their farming experience. “We went broke and we had to come to town.”
Danny: Think we should stay here?
Maybe move into Asheville?
Betsy: Why not? We could open a restaurant.
They had been successful with their vegetarian restaurant in Miami, so they decided to replicate the formula in Asheville. But according to Dan, there was a small problem. “We opened a vegetarian restaurant when there were only four vegetarians in Asheville.” He grins and shakes his head in disbelief at his own miscalculation. “My wife says I have a black belt in bad business, and she’s right.”
Dan’s conversation is sprinkled with self-effacing comments on his many diverse pursuits: “I’m good at a lot of stuff, but not world class at anything.” He then describes rescuing the family dog, Weasel. “She’s a little bitty thing we found under a trailer we were looking at. Her previous owners moved away and left her. Betsy said, ‘She’s ours now,’ and that was it. We’ve always had a dog, sometimes as many as three of them.”
Then comes the modest comment: “I might not have done much with my life, but I’ve made a lot of dogs happy.”
And their purchase of the restaurant includes another humble factor: They couldn’t afford it. Betsy fills in the details, saying, “Danny talked his mother into giving us the money to buy a building on Market Street. It was an old printing press that had been vacant for years. He renovated it, inside and out, and we opened Supernatural.”
Official Asheville had a different mindset back in the ‘70s. “I wanted to put a tree outside, and they thought I was a Communist,” Dan says, shaking his head with a disbelieving grin. “At that time, you could have bought any building in Asheville for that kind of money. I had the right idea; I wanted to buy those buildings, but I didn’t have the money. We were just a couple of hippies.”
Another shrug as he considers opportunities lost. “I built the place, and then I just ran around and took orders from Betsy. I might be the guy who went off in the morning and got all the food. Whatever.”
Still, the restaurant’s fortunes were not quite as dismal as Danny describes, and they were also pursuing other projects.
Betsy: I’ll get a real-estate license and find something
for you to work on.
Danny: Think I’ll start fixing up old houses.
“I was being driven around by realtors who were not listening to me,” says Betsy. “So, one day I said, I can do better than that, and I went and got my danged license just to make it easier for Danny and me to do stuff. But I liked it so much that I started doing it for my friends and…”
Pretty soon she opened Appalachian Realty: “It was just so much fun.”
During this time, Dan (“who always needs a project”) got contracts to enhance the facades on two commercial buildings. “We designed it, made the models, did the molds, and made the casts. We did it all.” The “we” on these projects was industrial designer Olivier Rollin. Together, they turned a vacant eyesore at 26 Wall Street into an art deco showpiece. They also transformed the building now occupied by Charlotte Street Computers into an attractive feature of that North Asheville streetscape.
Meanwhile, Dan and Betsy had a major development with their restaurant. “We were open about a year and a half,” Dan says, “and somebody offered us 80 thousand dollars for the building. We were in so much debt. My parents had to mortgage their house for us to get the restaurant, and when we got an offer for 80 grand, we just looked at each other and said, ‘We’ll never have to work again as long as we live.’ It seemed like so much money. I never should have sold that building, but I always needed the money for the next thing.”
The Next Thing?
Danny: I’m pretty good on the guitar.
Think I’ll start a band.
Betsy: Me too. An all-female band.
I’ll call it Crimes of Fashion.
With Dan on lead guitar, his band played reggae at venues throughout Western North Carolina, and the Crimes of Fashion played as far away as Charlotte. Betsy played bass. Perhaps the main contribution the bands made to their life narrative was that they got interested in starting another business.
Danny: Asheville could use a really good music hall.
Betsy: We could call it—the Asheville Music Hall.
They leased a building on Wall Street, rehabbed it, and opened the Asheville Music Hall. (The building was later converted into the home of the Jubilee Community.)
The music hall lasted for a year and a half, and its roster of performers makes it look like a big-city arena. They booked the likes of John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Gregg Allman, Robert Cray, Mose Allison, Leon Redbone, Asleep at the Wheel, Weird Al Yankovic, John Sebastian, Delbert McClinton… This at a time when Asheville’s population was still under 60,000, and tourism was still mostly a fantasy.
Dan says Betsy did all the booking, and she points out that she also booked her band and Dan’s to play there. Two birds, one stone.
“We did that for one year and it was fun,” she says. Apparently more fun than profitable. “We made about $100 the whole time.” She recalls Bo Diddley being their very first act. “He came in and gave us some advice that I’ll never forget. ‘I gotta get paid before I hit.’ That’s exactly the way he said it. And then, ‘You gotta put more salt in the popcorn.’ He was right. We weren’t selling enough beer.
“We were probably a little too soon for that kind of thing. But that’s all we knew how to do. The main thing was we fixed up the building.”
The Asheville Music Hall got Dan and Betsy thinking about what became their favorite project.
Danny: We should throw a party.
Betsy: A Halloween costume party.
We can call it the Freakers Ball.
“Danny designed the posters, booked the bands, and played at a lot of them,” Betsy says, recalling that the ball ran for eight years in the 1980s. It was later revived, and the October, 1998, local weekly paper Mountain Xpress printed some memories by Bud Moore, a musician who played at many of them: “People always had a really good time. I can’t remember a negative vibe at any show… There was a headless horseman one year on a (real) horse… There was also a Frankenstein that year…who was unbelievable. The guy was up on stilts; he was eight feet tall and literally looked like someone had stitched him up.”
The Mountain Xpress article credited Dan as the inventor of what became one of Asheville’s most outrageous events. Back in the early ‘80s, Betsy remembers, “There wasn’t that much going on in the town, and that was something the whole community, such as it was, showed up for. But dealing with alcohol and musicians and all, eight years was plenty.” She pauses and then decides to say it. “And we were getting older.”
But for those eight years, she adds, “We loved it. Because we did the whole thing ourselves. We weren’t working for anyone. It’s the most fun we ever had.”
The Freakers Ball, Betsy’s real-estate firm, and Dan’s continuing projects took them through the ‘80s, but, as Betsy had observed, he began to get “antsy.”
Danny: I’ve been thinking about doing some sculpture.
Betsy: Of course. Go for it.
He fashioned a studio out of what is now his trailer office and began creating life-sized, papier mâché figures with a copper patina. His sculptures call to mind ancient Mayan/Aztec/Egyptian societies, and he hoped they would stand in a client’s garden or large living room. His work was sophisticated enough that he was accepted into the Southern Highland Craft Guild, and he exhibited at the guild shows.
His pieces are both interesting and imposing, but according to Dan, the public was not impressed. “It was a real disappointment. I like to take elements from the Egyptian, the Mayan, and combine them, but the people at art shows didn’t want that style.” He gestures to several of his large figures along one wall of the office. “I saved one example of each of the pieces I used to do.
“So, I started doing little figures of cats and frogs and stuff, and that’s how I was making a living.” He points to a small figure of a cat perched on a book. A pair of them would be perfect bookends. But… “One day I woke up and said I’ve made my last frog. So, I started making jewelry because it’s easier to carry around.” He reaches into a footlocker and produces a box of jewelry, done in that same Aztec motif. “Now I just give them away to anyone who visits here.” He shrugs and puts the jewelry back in his footlocker. “I just had the wrong product for the market.”
The sculpture was disappointing, but—as usual—it was not his only pursuit at the time.
Danny: Think I’ll get back into music.
This time country rock.
Betsy: Rock on, Danny.
He reassembled his band, wrote some songs, built a recording studio in his office, and cut a CD called, Dan Reiser—I Hope You Win. The cover illustration is a concerned-looking dog, wearing boxing gloves and sitting on a stool in the corner of a ring. One of the cuts is titled “Wandering Not Traveling”:
“I’m just wandering not travelling.
I’ve seen loneliness not solitude.
Two AM out on the interstate,
Chinese food on a paper plate.
There’s no cure for birth,
and there’s no cure for death,
That’s what my fortune cookie says.
I just can’t deny I’m just passing by.
I’m just a man with no ties.
No one to wave goodbye.”
Interestingly, in the early ‘90s, filming of The Last of the Mohicans all but took over Asheville, creating a mini-industry for local craftspeople to work on props, costumes, and scenery. Danny recalled the involvement. “Everybody in town was working for them, it seemed like. I made molds for bead belts and that kind of thing. They put such effort into making it authentic.” (Fun fact: During filming, star Daniel Day-Lewis rented a house just a few yards from the Reiser property in Fairview, and neighbors still recall the actor roaming around in the woods, getting into and practicing his character.)
That brings us to the 21st Century and vintage trailers—and continuing adventures.
Danny: Hey, hon, you think we should….?
Betsy: Of course we should. Let’s go.
“Here’s another stupid thing we did,” says Betsy. “We bought a 36-foot trawler. We kept it in St Augustine. We went down the intracoastal waterway to visit our son. We didn’t know what we were doing. The thing drew four-and-a-half feet. And the intracoastal is probably five feet deep. It was really a ditch—a shallow, wet ditch. And it was really tough navigating the trawler in that shallow water. So, we bought a pocket trawler which is only 22 feet long, with a draft as shallow as two feet. We got this little boat to have some adventures — while we can.”
They are still having adventures, and they agree on their philosophy and experience. “We never really had a plan,” Dan says, and Betsy sums it up. “We had a lot of ideas. Some of them were bad, but when we latch on one idea, we’re together. It was fun.”
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