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Sebastopol brothers helped popularize tiny travel trailers

Tow it with your car to a sweet out-of-doors spot somewhere, anywhere, and in return it will transport you to a simpler, more expansive, handcrafted time in America.

It's a vintage camping trailer, perhaps one of the adorably homely little ones built at mom-and-pop workshops when aluminum and other building materials became available again at the end of World War II and many American families for the first time packed up their vacation accoutrements and hit the road.

An endearing variety of such trailers will be shined up and on display this weekend at a rally of collectors in Bodega Bay. Among the 85 old-fashioned, lovingly kept-up trailers are likely to be a few built in Sebastopol by a band of brothers and called Little Caesars, well before the name was applied to order-in pizza.

Michael and Aedan Haworth of Sebastopol are tickled to own one of the little darlings, shaped like a canned ham and built right there in their town in 1951. They've got other trailers for actual camping; this one doesn't too often leave the garage.

“It's a museum piece,” said Michael Haworth, a general contractor and someone who appreciates fine workmanship.

His like-new Little Caesar boasts all the standard features of the nameplate: a step-up double bed with storage underneath, a dining nook that converts into a sleeping space, a closet, a three-burner Hansen propane stove and oven, an icebox and a sink with a faucet that can be connected by hose to a water source. No shower, no toilet, no hot tub, no surround-sound entertainment center.

Haworth and his wife bought the Little Caesar from a fellow in Santa Rosa in 2002. Among the pleasing discoveries to follow was that the mattress appears to be original, wearing a tag from the “Sonoma Mattress Co., Cotati, California.”

The Haworths have since learned a fair amount about the travel trailers built off of Gravenstein Highway South by the late Emil and Ed Sokolis and, at one time or another, their other brothers, Charles, Ernie and Al.

They opened Sokolis Brothers Manufacturing Co. in 1946, just a year after the war ended, and began cutting half-inch plywood and aluminum and assembling sportsman's trailers, most of them a compact 13 feet long and a smidge under seven feet tall.

It wasn't an entirely original enterprise.

“There were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of backyard camper operations,” said Paul Lacitinola, who lives near Sacramento and publishes Vintage Camper Trailers magazine.

America's modest early 20th century production of travel trailers came to a halt with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the diversion of aluminum, rubber and other essential materials to the war effort.

The return of peace and of legions of young war veterans brought the United States a boom in myriad areas of production and entrepreneurship.

“You had soldiers that needed jobs,” Lacitinola said. “You had soldiers that needed housing.” Veterans transitioning to civilian life could live in a camper.

Among the war-time skills of many of the people suddenly available for non-military manufacturing was proficiency in working with sheet metal and wood - back then, the primary components of travel trailers.

The Sokolis brothers took a somewhat unusual approach to building them. Instead of framing a trailer like a house and attaching paneling to the inside of the frame and aluminum to the outside, they built a ribless, contoured box of Douglas fir plywood and attached to it an external skin of aluminum.

The brothers' wives worked at home, sewing the window curtains.

The Sokolis family touted as the primary advantage of the Little Caesar the compact size that made it easy to move about and improved the likelihood that it would fit into a garage. Constructed as it is of wood, it doesn't hold up well to prolonged exposure to rain or snow.

To this day, the tininess of a Sokolis trailer looms as its primary selling point.

In the vintage trailer world, said magazine publisher Lacitinola, “Small is better. The little trailer is just so appealing to so many people.”

The cuteness factor helped to hook Robin Gutierres of Hayward when he spotted a 1955 Sokolis trailer a few years back.

“I happened to see this little canned ham; I didn't know what I was looking at,” Gutierres said. He persuaded the owner to sell him the Little Caesar.

Gutierres and his wife, Kris, belong to a corps of trailer owners who are Baby Boomers or younger and for whom one may not be enough.

“I'm at the staring point,” said Robin Gutierres, a plumber who owns just one Little Caesar and a large Airstream. “I have friends who own up to 10 trailers. Once you get the fever, it's all over.”

Finding that some gatherings of vintage-trailer aficionados have grown so large it's tough to find a space, the Gutierreses are hosting a new rally this Friday through Sunday at the Bodega Bay RV Park on Highway 1. They invite the public to come have a look from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

From their start in 1946 until they closed up shop in 1965, the Sokolis brothers built a bit more than 2,200 Little Caesar trailers. It's uncertain how many of them are still around.

Spot one and feel the urge to tow the little guy home.

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