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City-Size Club Converges on Boise

July 3, 1986

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ For days, the silver-bullet trailers from all over the continent have been coming into southwestern Idaho in waves, forming a shining, 200-acre sea of aluminum shimmering under the hot desert sun.

It’s the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, an organization of thousands of adventure seekers who tour the world in their distinctive Airstream trailers.

Eight thousand of them from all walks of life have flooded into Boise’s Eastern Idaho Fairgrounds for the club’s 29th annual international rally, which began Saturday.

The 3,500 trailers will stay through July 4, the nation’s birthday and that of their late founder Wally Byam, who invented the Airstream a half century ago.

The rally began in 1958 when Byam decided to invite club members to join him for a birthday celebration on Lake Bull Shoals, Ark. About 600 members of the club, formed in 1955, dotted the lakeshore with 300 trailers.

″We said we’d never get this many people together again,″ recalled Clay Garrison, a retired Ohio farmer.

He and his wife Esther, the rally historian, are among just eight people who have attended every rally since and are among the few remaining members who knew Byam personally.

Frank Sargent is a 77-year-old Fort Meyer, Fla., businessman who invented the Thetford toilet, the commode that comes in Airstreams and most other recreational vehicles. He also knew Byam.

″He was a complex man, a man of extraordinary talent,″ Sargent said. ″He could capture a group of people. But he still wore pants and put his socks on one at a time like anyone else.″

O’Brien Merrill, 20, is a second-generation Airstreamer on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., to play in one of the rally’s musicial groups.

″For a long time, it was just like I had a lot of aunts and uncles in the club,″ said Merrill, who’s played at nine of the last 10 rallies. ″I enjoy talking to the older set just as much as I enjoy talking to my peers.″

Byam died of a brain tumor in 1961, but the international rally has grown to the size of a small city that will pump up to $8 million into Boise’s economy and as much as $8 million statewide after the caravaners disperse.

The rally has as many services as a municipality, including its own traffic enforcement and sanitation crews, a Wally Byam store, and even a post office with its own postmark and ZIP code.

By the rally’s end, close to 100,000 pieces of mail will have been delivered through the Wally Byam Post Office, which is located - of course - in a silver travel trailer.

There’s also a 55-member band, a 150-member choir, a golf tournament and seminars ranging from macrame to nutrition for the elderly.

Sargent, who organized a WBCCI trip to China last year, said it took took three years to plan. The club shipped 11 Airstreams to the People’s Republic and members flew over to occupy them.

″We met Chinese who hadn’t seen a Caucasian in 35 years,″ Mrs. Sargent said. ″They looked at us like we were from outer space.″

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