To celebrate their upcoming 50th anniversary, we talked to Liz, Rory, and Rex Willett of Northstar Campers about their lifetime of truck camping memories.
About two weeks ago, Rex Willett, Vice President of Northstar Campers emailed us a couple dozen photographs from the 1960’s and 1970’s of his family truck camping when he was a kid. When we called Rex to thank him for sending the photos, he started telling us story after story. It didn’t take us long to break out our laptops and start writing them down.
After we talked to Rex, we called Rory Willett, President of Northstar, and talked to him about his childhood truck camping memories. We laughed and sighed as Rex and Rory shared their personal memories about growing up in a truck camping family.
After Rex and Rory told us their stories, we asked their permission to talk to their mother, Liz Willett, about her memories. That’s when we got the really fun stories. It turns out that Rory and Rex were quite the adventurous children who got into their fare share of trouble and fun. Who would have guessed?
We want to thank the Willett familiy for sharing their personal stories and for allowing us to share these stories with you. In so many ways, these stories are what truck camping and Truck Camper Magazine are all about.
Liz Willett of Northstar Campers
When I look back at our truck camping days, we really had some good times with our kids. My husband, Chuck, would just take a camper off the lot for our vacations.
Whenever Chuck saw a sign for something, we would go. Chuck would see a sign that would say, “Ride on the Back of Live Turtles” and we got photos of the kids riding turtles. If we saw a bridge that spanned across a ravine, the kids would go. We always stopped.
We sometimes traveled by the seat of our pants. For example, Chuck had a dealer with campers in Minneapolis. So the whole family went to Minneapolis. I took the kids to the zoo while Chuck talked to the dealer.
There are lots of little stories. Truck camping was a way of life for us. We took our kids where ever we went. All four boys fit longways in the cabover bed. Then Jack and Jill were on the bunk. Chuck and I slept in the breakfast nook. We did that until the boys got into scouting and then they slept in their tents outside.
As we aged, we started finding little campgrounds closer to home. We really liked Lake Rathbun, a civil engineered lake. President Nixon had just dedicated it when we started going. It felt like our own private lake because it didn’t take off in popularity.
We all went water skiing and fishing at the lake. All of our kids are good water skiers. Rory would catch fish and clean them before we even got back to the campground. He still likes to fish.
One time at Lake Rathbun near Centerville in southeast Iowa, the boys started complaining about sleeping in the tent. They had had it with sleeping on the ground. I said, “Okay girls we’re sleeping in the tent” and took the girls and everything we needed into the tent. It was a dreadful night and we could hear all the sounds that we never heard in our truck campers.
The next morning we were up at 6:00 am because the sun was beating on us. It was terrible. The girls got up and cleaned the tent. It was spotless with the cot beds made. When the boys came out I said, “Okay girls, this is our chance. We’re going to tell the boys that this is now our tent and they can’t have it back”. The girls said, “Okay, mom” and we told the boys that they couldn’t have their tent back. It was the girls tent now.
Well, the boys said, “That’s not going to happen. That’s our tent and we didn’t like sleeping in the truck camper”. The girls laughed and laughed. We had pulled a Huck Finn on the boys and conned them right out of the camper.
When Rory was five years old we were camping in Wisconsin and he fell off the dock into the water. The water was so very deep that we couldn’t see him in the water. Then he came back up and Chuck grabbed him. With his big blue eyes sparkling, Rory said, “Boy was that cold”!
When he was about ten years old, Rory liked to take a sleeping bag when we went truck camping and sleep by the campfire. Then he would wake up very early and go fishing. I would be worried when I got up and didn’t see him there. Rory was always the adventurous one with a real love for nature.
Rex was always lighting off fire crackers and getting into trouble. He also liked putting a Stingray or motorcycle in the back of the camper. He could bring what he wanted but he had to sit on it where ever we went. We always told people they could tow a boat or motorcycle with their camper. We lived what we preached. That was fun.
There’s a funny story about Rex. He was about seven or eight years old at the time. We were in a river boat at West Battle Lake in Minnesota and went to where the local people were fishing. Our anchor wasn’t long enough to reach the bottom where the locals were fishing so we drifted close to the edge of the lake. Then we started catching fish, after fish, after fish. Chuck got tired of taking fish off hooks for the kids and said, “From now on you have to take your own fish off and put your own lure on”. Well, Rex caught a fish and all of the sudden shouted out, “That son of a bitch bit my finger!” We just about died laughing. He thought he was going to get in trouble for saying a bad word. It’s still a joke now in the family.
You can go anywhere with a truck camper. We really enjoyed taking the kids where ever we went. We felt blessed to do that. And we met a lot of Chuck’s dealers and got close to them.
Rex and Rory know their dealers and their wives and kids. That’s how their dad did it. When you do that, you get bonded. Chuck and I are still good friends with a couple in Rockford, Illinois who owned a dealership. They’re in their eighties and we still talk once a week, even now.
I was good to know that Rex’s son went on the production line recently. That’s four generations of R.C. Willetts working at Texson and Northstar.
Rory Willet, President of Northstar Campers
There are a lot of memories. I’m glad mom was a shutterbug in those days. I’m glad we’ve scanned the photos because they are beginning to fade away. In some of the photos it really shows how much younger Rex is than me.
I can remember being up in the cabover with the four facing windows. All six of us up there playing, “Your car, my car” or “Your house, my house”. Sometimes we would all roll side to side and dad would come back because he could feel the rig moving as he drove down the road.
When we got wild he would say, “Don’t make me come back there! Settle down”. We had a twelve volt intercom in the truck and in the camper. You had to have communication between the truck and camper, which in turn made the invention of the sliding windows in the campers.
What we didn’t realize was that they would listen to us and they knew what we were doing because they could hear us. All six of us rode in the cabover of the camper all the time. There were no super cab trucks back then so that’s where we had to go.
One big trip was to Washington State and back through Yellowstone. The best thing about that trip happened on the way to Yellowstone. Mom was driving and talking to my sister. It was in the middle of the night so they were just laughing and talking. I was looking though the window of the camper at the road and saw a sign for the exits of Salt Lake City. I told dad, “I thought we were supposed to be going to Yellowstone”. He looked at the exits and realized we had driven four hours out of the way. Mom said, “The road kept going, so I kept driving”.
When we would go camping as a family of eight, mom and dad and us six kids, we had a tent and a truck camper. In fact, when we got to a campground, my brothers and I would sleep in the tent and mom, dad, and the girls would be in the camper with the air conditioning.
Earlier Mom talked about us camping in Wisconsin when I fell off the dock into the water. I can still remember sinking under that dock. It was so quiet and peaceful. I could see the bluegill and bass hanging out under the dock just out of the sun’s rays streaming in at the late morning’s angle. Then, I saw a bubbling arm thrust down just next to me. That was my dad. The second attempt he got me out and it was not so peaceful up on the dock. Girls were screaming and my brother was crying. That just throws me back!
I remember fishing on the Mississippi river in Lansing. Along the river they had old water pumps. My brother and I were working the water pumps and we could hear the sound of the pump going in higher and higher octaves. My brother got tired, so I kept pumping away. I didn’t realize that there was a hornet’s nest inside the pump. When the water came up, the hornets came out. We both got stung and ran like Olympic athletes. I still don’t know how I ran that fast.
The six of us kids were spaced out about ten years. It’s amazing that we got along so well. I notice that when I take my family out camping, they’re all upset as we pack and head out on the trip. Then on the way home, everyone is excited and happy. It’s just something about truck camping.
Rex Willett, Vice President of Northstar Campers
In ninety days, we will have our 50th year anniversary here at Northstar. As far as I know, it’s the first ever in the world. We’re gathering and scanning photos right now to put them in our “About Us” section on our website to share with others for our anniversary year. My mom is in hospice, so that’s why I got digging in to the photos.
I am only one year old in many of the pictures. If I didn’t have the pictures I wouldn’t know about those times. They may not mean as much when you take them, but they become more valuable with time.
There are lots of memories. It’s really interesting to listen to my other siblings. It helps me remember more. The whole family looks them and says, “Now I remember that… We did this…” That sort of thing.
My strongest memory is when I was four or five years old and sleeping in the camper. I woke up and nobody was in there and I freaked out. They had locked the camper and I couldn’t unlock it. I was screaming. Finally my mom and dad opened it. We were in Lansing on the Mississippi. That was my strongest memory because I was in complete fear. Where did everybody go?
There’s a picture of me and a birthday cake. My birthday is in mid-July, so we were in summer. In so many of the photos, we had badges on because we were at the RV shows dad was working. We have memories of shows because of the shenanigans going on.
We camped with a lot of dealers like Bob Johnson from Illinois. We’d go camping several times in the summer time, meet half way in Wisconsin with friends and their kids. It was a good time. We both had boats and motorcycles. We rode horses at some of the campgrounds.
Dad changed campers a lot. We’d use the delivery trucks. My dad would load one from the yard and go. We’d keep a camper for a season and then get a different one. Dad always had a camper. As I was going through the photos, I saw some from Christmas time. Through the windows you can see a Texson camper in the driveway.
My brothers in the photo are Ryan and Rik. Ryan is the shorter one to my left and Rik is the taller one and he’s my oldest brother. For a few years in the eighties they were involved with the business and then it got pretty lean. In fact in 1981 I worked for no pay, so that we could make it through. I remember telling dad, “I’ll be there till the very last day whether we close or not. I’ll never walk away from you”. I was living at home with them in my twenties, so I didn’t have expenses but didn’t have any fun either.
I was giving my dad some crap about his clothes in the pictures. In one photo he’s wearing a white belt and white shoes. Then, half an hour later, there’s my brother and I with our white belts. I told Rory, “You’re taller than I am”. I really like that photo of Rory holding me up. He’s five or six and I’m one.
The only other family that’s been involved with truck campers as long as ours is the Ward family. They’re definitely right up there with us.
There are so many memories. Every memory that I have is here. That’s truly the difference with my family in that we camped and ran the camper business. That’s how simply boring we are. Campers are our life. There is no question about that. Everything evolves around the business, Texson or Northstar campers. We’re pure bloods.