By: Ellen Glover, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2018, Journalism, Bloomington
This blog is comprised of excerpts from the Trailer Towns podcast. All information was obtained from the Indiana University Library Archives.
When World War II ended in 1945, the country welcomed back hundreds of thousands of young men, many of whom had cut their higher education short, or skipped it all together, in order to fight for their country. That’s where the GI Bill came in.
The Bill changed everything for college towns like Bloomington.
The GI Bill was a novelty in 1945. Basically, it paid for the higher education of any qualified veteran who wanted it. In many cases, it covered full tuition and the cost of books. It also gave a veteran a bit of money, about $50 each month, to live on. If the veteran was married, the amount raised to about $75 a month. The allowance would increase with each child that was born too.
The overall purpose of the bill was to allow America’s veterans to get right back to regular life. They were usually at an age where marriage and children were a given, and they wouldn’t have to sacrifice that in order to go to school. They could do both.
There was just one problem with the GI Bill: where was everyone going to go?
In 1946, veteran enrollment at Indiana University was 5,961. This number far outnumbered the university’s prewar peak of student enrollment several years back.
In that same year, housing in Bloomington was at an all time low. As a result of both the economic lull of the Great Depression and the halt of construction in WWII, there were about half the number of available houses and apartments as there were in 1930.
This created a unique and frightening challenge for IU. Turning away perfectly good students, not to mention veterans of WWII, because of a lack of housing was not an option. It would be horrible for business, not to mention unpatriotic.
After several meetings, the university came up with a solution: trailers! It turns out the military was desperately trying to find a place for the hundreds of barracks left over from the war.
Eventually, the university convinced the army to allow university to purchase these trailers. This opened the floodgates. Incidentally, lots of college towns were facing a similar problem! After receiving their share of the trailers, IU almost immediately had to set out and look for 150 more.
Soon, IU had enough of these trailers to create little villages with them. Property in Monroe County was at a premium so these little “trailer towns” were packed full of little, shiny trailers.
And the families came pouring in. Each village housed about 700 adults and some 175 children. Soon enough these veterans of war were back in the army barracks they had spent months, even years, in not too long ago.
Unlike in the army, colonels, captains, lieutenants and privates alike all lived side by side, as equals. They all had different experiences and chose to study different things, but all of them had one thing in common: the war. This common experience made the men of the trailer towns very close.
The veterans’ wives got close too. Many of them attended school along with their husbands, worked or did both. But many stayed home, especially if they had children. No matter what, these women became a unit of support for each other. The problems of one trailer became the problems of all. Women helped each other with the housework, childcare, anything.
These trailer towns quickly became worlds unto themselves. Like the pioneers of the West that came to Indiana before them, these residents built their own society. They took care of each other. There was a sense of community in these trailer courts that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Some of the little trailer towns were self-governed. One of the villages, Woodlawn Court, even elected a mayor. However, in other trailer towns, problems and disputes that arose were resolved through a natural order of things. Impromptu meetings were called and votes were taken to find solutions to difficulties.
But arguments of any kind were pretty rare in the trailer courts.
In hindsight, this seems pretty incredible since space was cramped in the trailer town, both inside and outside.
The entire interior of the barrack was like living in a box with shiny, wood paneling. The kitchen was at the center of the trailer, right as you walked in. Then, at one end of the trailer, a divan and bookcase were provided as the living room essentials. A bedroom was at the other end, sometimes a sliding door was provided to give some extra privacy.
None of the trailers had running water. But each village had a number of trailer washrooms strategically placed so no one had to walk more than three trailer lengths to get to the restroom. As a result, going to the restroom became a social event. This is where friends were made and news was spread.
Trailerites also found social camaraderie in the “community house,” a grouping of three or four trailers at the center of the village, to serve as a community kitchen or a laundry. Sometimes, on weekend nights, the couples would take some doors off their hinges, place them on the laundry tubs and cover them in crepe paper to transform the laundry room into a club. The couples would drink and dance to Sammy Kaye and Guy Lombardo all night long.
The need for surplus housing on IU’s campus diminished over the next five years as the veterans graduated and more dormitories and apartment buildings were constructed by the university.
But when housing became less pinched and the university invited these veterans to move themselves and their families into more comfortable housing, many of the trailerites refused. They had become so accustomed to the ways of trailer living that they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
In the end, the trailerites moved on to do bigger and better things. Many of them got out of Bloomington and became successful people. But I’ll bet they never forgot their time in the trailer court, where nothing mattered except your friends and family, the people you loved.
Listen to more podcasts here:
Music from the “Trailer Towns” podcast:
“Rythme Gitan” by Latché Swing: Latché Swing, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Latch_Swing/demo_2008/
“Which That Is This?” by Doctor Turtle: Doctor Turtle, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Doctor_Turtle/Hasta_La_Blister_Longer_Guitar_Instrumentals/which_that_is_this_long
“Ode to the World” by Kai Engel: Kai Engel, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/Better_Way/Kai_Engel_-_Better_Way_-_07_Ode_to_the_World
“One Way Life” by The Shining Men: The Shining Men, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/The_Shining_Men/17_Sons_Records_-_Vol_1/09_-_One_way_life