2010 TOUR: Northstar Campers
TCM visits the Northstar Camper factory in Cedar Falls, Iowa and finds little has changed since we last visited them in 2008. Is that boring? Heck no. It's fantastic!
Before we set out on this tour, we wrestled with the question, “Is it truly necessary to go back to the camper factories?” After all, we visited most of the manufacturers in 2007 or 2008 and published factory tour stories on each company then. So why did we need to go back on tour?
Put bluntly, the world has fundamentally changed since the Fall of 2008. The economic downturn wiped out more businesses than we care to name and has left a lingering doubt in the minds of many consumers. This fundamental change and the resulting doubt answered our question.
Yes, we need to get back into the factories to see how the manufacturers are doing. We need to set the record straight about the companies who make up our industry. And darn it, you can’t publish Truck Camper Magazine and not go truck camping. Tour on.
We were hard pressed to know anything had changed when we arrived at Northstar Campers. Almost everyone we had met at Northstar in July of 2008 was still there, at the same posts, and busy producing truck campers. From Rory Willett, Rex Willett, and Jenn Crooks in the front office, to the pop-up and hard side camper production teams, not much had changed.
On one hand, this makes our article writing a bit challenging. How do we write a fresh tour story about a factory that hasn't changed much? But let’s look at this another way. Let’s celebrate the fact that another domestic manufacturer is strong, building campers, and has fought their way through the economy keeping their experienced team in tact. Way to go Northstar! This one's a heart warmer.
LEFT: We arrived at Northstar the evening before our tour visit. Almost as soon as we arrived, the weather kicked up and it rained for about twenty minutes. Then the sun came out and nature threw a beautiful rainbow right on the Northstar inventory. Obviously, Iowa loves Northstar.
CENTER: There were about two dozen campers in the Northstar yard. All of it was sold with the name of the Northstar dealers written on the rear window of each model. Here you see a line of Adventurer and Igloo models.
RIGHT: A load of four Northstar pop-up campers was ready to go and waiting for a driver to return from another delivery run. This camper load left the factory just before we did.
When we talked to Liz Willett in April for the story "50 Years of Northstar Memories", she told us how proud she was to have Ryan Willett (CENTER AND RIGHT), her grandson, working on the production line at Northstar. Ryan is Rex Willett’s oldest son and the fourth generation of R.C. Willett to work at Northstar. While there’s no telling what the future has in store for Ryan, or what career path he will choose, it was great to see Rex, Rory, and Ryan (LEFT) at the factory continuing the family tradition.
LEFT: Before the pop-up and hard side production lines begin at Northstar, there’s a busy wood shop building camper floors and side walls. At the very heart of the wood shop is Kenny Saliger. Kenny is an old school wood frame truck camper builder who has been with Northstar for forty-five years. After four and a half decades, Kenny is the soul of the Northstar production team.
CENTER: During our visit, Kenny was working on an custom Northstar Escape Pod 900. Before our eyes, Kenny penciled a cut list on a wood scrap and built the camper floor. After completing the floor, Kenny ran a few more numbers and assembled the side walls for the custom Escape Pod. He might not use the latest AutoCad, but there is no doubt that Kenny is a true master of his craft.
RIGHT: In this photograph, you see Jonathan Martin taking some pencil notes of his own from Kenny. Jonathan is assisting Kenny to help meet Northstar’s increasing production demands.
In front of Kenny’s table, the camper side walls and floors are cut, stapled, screwed, glued, and assembled by a four member team. If you don’t like the sound of saws and staple guns, stay out of Kenny’s wood shop.
In these photographs you see Tim McEnroe building a floor for an eight foot Northstar Freedom (LEFT), Zach Smith and recent hire, Paul Burkle, installing the wings on an eight foot Northstar Freedom (CENTER), Paul Burkle building a cabover assembly and Tim McEnroe building a floor (RIGHT).
Remember the guys in the balcony on the Muppet Show? They were always making a joke and laughing about something. Sure they were usually poking fun at somebody, but they were good guys, and darn funny.
Chris Smith and Doug Johnston were right where we left them from our Summer, 2008 tour of Northstar, right in the middle of the factory and laughing and poking fun at something. While the Northstar cabinetry shop might not exactly be the balcony at the Muppet Show, laugh for laugh, joke for joke, these guys are just as funny. And before you think these two knuckleheads are all humor and no work, take a look at their cabinetry. They get it done and done well.
While it’s not exactly common, it’s also not that unusual to see a husband and wife, or a father and son working on a truck camper production line. At Northstar, there’s an example of each; Chris and his son, Zach, on the cabinetry and wood shop teams respectively, and Bryan Bartram and his wife, Sara, on the pop-up production line. Of course Northstar is a family business with brothers, Rory and Rex Willett, in the office and Rex’s son, Ryan, on the production line.
LEFT: Sara Bartram is building the valances that go over the door in a pop-up camper. These valances not only look good, but also protect your head should you accidently bump your noggin going out the door. We’ve certainly made that mistake once or twice and appreciate Sara’s work.
CENTER: Bryan Bartram, on the other hand, does a little bit of everything. We saw Bryan working on the building’s electrical system, installing a soft wall with a new hire, and installing a power converter in a Northstar TC650. From what we saw, we’re pretty sure Bryan could build a truck camper start to finish, if he had to. While he's at it, he could probably re-wire the whole building too. He’s that kind of guy.
RIGHT: Lonnie West is Northstar’s Foreman. We saw Lonnie working all over the Northstar pop-up production line helping the team with a variety of tasks. In this photograph, he’s installing the propane lines on a Northstar TC650.
LEFT: At the end of the pop-up production line is a second smaller production line for Northstar’s pop-up roofs. There we met Kendall Daniels completing a pop-up roof. Shortly after this photograph was taken, Kendall was installing the pop-up soft wall.
CENTER: Here’s Bryan Bartram installing a soft wall on a Northstar TC650 and training a new hire. Bryan has a way of making everything look easy and seemingly having a good time at it.
RIGHT: Javier Marquez installs the exterior molding, jack brackets, lights, and windows on Northstar’s pop-up line. Here he’s working on the exterior molding on a Northstar TC650.
For many of us, there’s nothing like an insulated Heki skylight in the overcab of a truck camper. Since most of the truck camper manufacturers have eliminated even the option for a front window, a Heki skylight helps to bring light and a sense of open space to the overcab. Plus it’s really cool to gaze at the sky and stars from bed.
LEFT AND CENTER: In these photographs, we see Kevin Buhrow installing a Heki skylight into the overcab of a Northstar 8.5 Adventurer. Before the first photograph was taken, Kevin applied EternaBond, a permanent sealing tape, to the underside lip of the Heki. Then Kevin went inside the camper to screw in the Heki and attach it’s inside frame. Once that was completed, he installed the rubber surround and seal that you see in the second photo.
RIGHT: After installing the Heki skylight, Kevin got to work mounting other camper roof features. Also on the final finishing team was Steve Minikus on exterior moulding and Tina Watson on interior finishing. Once campers are completed by the final finishing team, Kevin weighs each camper and pushes it outside to the Northstar Camper yard. The Northstar Adventurer 8.5 completed before the camper in the above photos weighed in at 2,175 pounds dry.
It’s almost like we left Northstar in July of 2008 and returned a month later. Not much changed. Is that boring? We don’t think so. We’re really happy to see Northstar strong and moving campers down the lines. The only problems we heard about were troubles getting parts here and there and a need for more camper delivery drivers. Given what we all experienced these past eighteen months or so, these are very good problems to have.