For Trail and Hitch, it was the first time we’d been to Jackson Center Ohio. For our Airstream, the Yamato, it was returning home. This is where our Airstream and all modern Airstreams are made. For Airstream owners, coming here is a pilgrimage.
While we would have visited just to check it out, we came on this occasion to have repairs done. As we traveled, we’ve been making a list of items we need repaired or would like adjusted in anticipation of visiting Jackson Center. We’ve had work done at other service centers along the way, but there were some fixes that can only be done at “the mothership.” Having the factory that fabricates them right next door and the people who build them is handy when you are doing repairs.
What you will find
Jackson Center is, by some measures, in the middle of nowhere. The Airstream factory is the largest employer in the area. As a result, it is something of a company town. If you imagine a modern version of a middle-American small town, this is it. Modest homes with white picket fences with American flags just about everywhere you look. Main street is lined with well-appointed brick buildings containing shops catering to the locals. My impression: it was a sleepy but very pleasant place.
The Factory consists of a visitors lobby and gift shop, a large garage for doing service work, a parking lot for employees, a parking lot for Airstreams, a small RV park for visitors, and the big blue factory buildings in the back. There is also a facility across the street where they assemble, rather than manufacture, the Class B Airstream camper vans. They are open Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm with tours at 2pm every day.
We came for our service just after a big event, Alumapalooza, took place. It’s just about the biggest Airstream gathering in the country with owners coming from all over to celebrate their love for the trailers and the Airstream community. While it would have been cool to see, we were there for service and didn’t want the event to complicate get our work done.
Taking the tour
We arrived the day before our service work was to be done so we decided to take the tour straight away. The older gentleman who led us on our visit had worked at Airstream for more than 35 years. It was easy to see he had a great love for the company and was very proud of their work. There were about 35 folks in our tour group, some Airstream Owners, others simply curious about the factory. If you come, be prepared for a somewhat long tour. It can take up to two hours, stem to stern, for the whole experience and includes more than a mile of walking. There is no cost for the tour and the RV park is a mere $10 a night, free if you are there for service.
It starts with everyone getting signed in. We were then given a souvenir pen, earplugs, and a set of safety goggles. Our guide bid us take a seat as he went over the history of Airstream as a company, the history of this particular factory, and talked a bit about the latest and greatest Airstream trailers. After some Q&A from the audience, he gave us the safety rules for visiting the factory and we were on our way. Our first stop was to check out some classics parked in the lot out back including a golden colored Airstream owned by the founder Wally Byam and an original Bowlus Road Chief, the forerunner and ancestor of the Airstream.
Then it was on to the factory itself. Led by our guide, we wove our way around the factory floor. Unlike some tours I’ve been on, there were not always designated areas for us and we were pretty well right in the thick of things; stepping over air hoses and weaving between trailers to get a look at all stages of the manufacturing. It was very cool to see all the steps involved and how it all comes together. The folks on the line were clearly hard working and skilled at their jobs. Airstream has a great reputation for paying its workers fairly, using American-made components, and having an all around great corporate culture. Even though they are owned by Thor, the character of Airstream is still its own special thing.
I’m a little sorry to say, I think there is room for improvement at the plant. We recently toured the Corvette plant in Bowling Green and were blown away by how orderly it was and the commitment to quality at every step in the manufacturing process. By comparison, Airstream felt a little haphazard and old fashioned in their approach, with far fewer quality assurance steps. It wasn’t hard to see how any given Airstream was likely to have a few mistakes in its construction by the time it is fully assembled. Even the best and most experienced craftsman can make an error from time to time, and good QA process is how you catch them. Speaking to another camper who had been on other RV factory tours, Airstream was neither the best or worst they’d seen in the business. They described the Newmar factory as a marvel of efficiency and the Jayco plant as a circus of chaos.
One thing they were pretty hardcore about was testing for water leaks. Before the interior skin is put on, every Airstream gets a prolonged high-pressure wash with a technician sitting inside to check for any and all incursions. They were also proud of their new robotic cutting equipment which slices out the flooring material and drills all the rivet holes and window openings. Both increase the quality of the cuts and reduce waste by getting each one precise. Aside from these, pretty much all the work done in the factory is done by hand, including final window cuts since there can be some variance in the windows themselves they need to adjust for. The folks there seemed to really enjoy their work and that is a good sign that they also care about it a great deal.
One of the cool things about going on the tour, for an Airstream owner, is that you get a crash course on exactly what is in your Airstream and how it is put together. This can be very valuable if you decide to do work on it yourself or need to diagnose a problem that comes up. The last leg of the tour is where they do the class B motor coaches. These are actually manufactured my Mercedes Benz and then outfitted by Airstream so the process is a little less interesting but still worth a look.
We enjoyed the tour, but our main aim was to come here for service. We’d provided them a list of things we wanted to be looked at ahead of time, but they couldn’t give an estimate until we’d checked in and they’d had a fist hand look. Among the fixes were: fixing many LED lights, checking for a propane leak, fixing a USB port, getting our door to close better, fixing a cracked cabinet lining, fixing our retractable steps, replacing one or our rock guards, trying to remove a roof dent, and fixing the bathroom fan. We also requested they install a cell booster antenna on our roof and do a tire and break check for us. They still weren’t sure how long all that would take so we packed up the cats and our day bags and drove north to spend some time with Trail’s brother near Detroit.
Had we wished to, we could have stayed in our trailer during the night, and hung out in the lobby during the day. That didn’t appeal to us and we really wanted to spend time with Alex while we were in the area. Still, it’s nice that they have this available as most service centers can’t accommodate folks in this way. Of course, if they have to take apart your Airstream to do the repairs, you will have to find local accommodations outside the factory.
We got the call they were all done the next day, but we were having a good time hanging out with Alex so we stayed an extra night before heading back. To our delight they got everything patched up except for the dent. We’d asked them to try pulling it out which hadn’t worked. We weren’t willing to have the panels replaced for a dent that was hardly visible from the ground so the battle damage remains. We are pretty sure we got it from the last place we had repairs done. It turned out we did indeed have a propane leak in the line running to the refrigerator and were much revealed that they found and fixed it. The first time our leak alarm went off, we started turning the propane off whenever we weren’t actually using it. Turns out that was a good call.
We felt the service department had done a fantastic job for us and were very pleased all around. Unfortunately, my USB port stopped working again two stops later. That is the second time it has been fixed and then went back to being broken shortly after. I won’t hold it against them, I’m pretty sure the darn thing has an ancient Egyptian curse upon it. Since we weren’t sure when we were going to be done, we hadn’t booked our next stop yet.
Since we weren’t sure when we were going to be done, we hadn’t booked our next stop yet. To get things squared away we decided to stay a few extra nights to plan things out and catch up on blogging. While we were there, we had a number of fun conversations with other Airstream owners in the park who’d come for service or to take the tour. I was very pleased when one gentleman recognized me from Trail and Hitch. They were in to have a radiant flooring system fixed. Apparently, one of the water lines broke and saturated the floor of their trailer. Another couple we encountered gave us all kinds of great tips for visiting Acadia National Park, a place they go for vacation every year and our east-most destination this year. We even had a nice discussion in the twilight hours with another Airstreamer about the singing of brown tree frogs which serenaded the camp each night.
With our beloved Yamato ship shape, our hearts buoyed by comradery, and our plans laid for further adventure, we bid the mothership farewell and continued our journey.