Providing affordable housing for fifty-four years
Sunnyside Park, at 2740 Packard Road just east of Eisenhower, is the oldest residential trailer park in the county and probably the oldest in the state. It opened in 1940 and survives today as Ann Arbor’s only mobile home community.
Harold Kraft founded what he called the Ypsi-Ann Trailer Park as an adjunct to his business selling travel trailers. Kraft was a Grand Rapids native who had been transferred to Ann Arbor by his employer, Michigan Bell Telephone. According to his son, William, Kraft was worried that he wasn’t earning enough at Bell to retire on: “Dad was looking for something to get into. Trailers were a new business.”
Kraft started selling trailers part-time in the late 1930’s. He persuaded a good friend, Hob Gainsley, who owned a gas station on South University at Forest, to let him display a Palace Travel Coach there. Whenever anyone showed an interest, Gainsley would pass the name along to Kraft. At that time trailers were used primarily for camping, although a debate was raging about whether they might be suitable for permanent housing.
The trailer industry developed in the 1920’s, and campgrounds for the “tin can tourists” soon began popping up around the country. According to Allan D. Wallis, author of Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes, communities at first welcomed the trailer tourists and the money they spent. But during the Depression, some owners started using their trailers as permanent homes.
The trailer industry preferred to see their products used for travel and recreation, not as affordable housing. But as preparations for World War II started, they reversed themselves, arguing that they should be given access to scarce resources and labor in order to build housing for defense industry workers. A local example of such housing was the 960-unit Willow Court Trailer Project at Willow Run, which opened in 1943 to provide homes for workers at the nearby Ford bomber plant.
Michigan was the first state to take a stand in the debate: in 1939, it passed a law to deal with trailers used as housing. Under the Michigan Trailer Coach Park Act, the stationary trailer was considered a building and regulated as such, while the travel trailer remained under vehicular regulations.
The year after the Michigan law passed, Kraft made the big jump into full-time trailer sales and began his own trailer park. He located it in Pittsfield Township, on farm frontage on Packard, which was a dirt road then. He bought the land from Ethel and Everett Rose. According to Mary Campbell, who lived across the street at what is now Cobblestone Farm, the Roses had a tough time in the Depression and had to sell some of their farm to avoid forfeiting it for back taxes.
Even out in the country, there was opposition to the trailer park. Kraft remembers a woman from East Ann Arbor worrying that “trailer trash” would move in. But he says his father, who was a nondrinker, a member of Grace Bible Church, and active in the Gideons, “was a religious man. He wouldn’t allow that.”
Mary Campbell remembers that the Pittsfield Township clerk gave the necessary permission for the land use and then regretted it just fifteen minutes later, when she learned that most of the nearby residents had signed a petition against the trailer park. Campbell, who thinks she probably signed the petition herself, says, “We’d rather it wasn’t there--a lot of traffic, that sort of thing.” But she says there was no point in complaining after the trailers arrived, and in fact there were no grounds for complaints because Kraft did a good job of maintaining the trailer park.
Kraft put in dirt roads and blocked out the individual sites. Friends from the telephone company helped him put up poles for electricity. He built a cinder-block building in front for his sales office. It also had shower stalls, bathrooms, and laundry facilities, since many early trailers didn’t include these amenities. A patch of ground in front of the office became his sales display area.
William Kraft recalls that his father had no trouble filling the park. Campbell remembers that the park looked pretty bare at first, but that trees and flowers were soon planted. “Everyone kept up their little plot; there was competition for keeping it up nicely,” she says. She describes the early residents as “nice people, quite a few students, bomber plant employees.” Kraft recalls them as “working people, good people, families.” He remembers a cab driver and a man who worked for the police department.
Kraft sold several brands of trailers, including Palace Travel Coach made in Flint, and National Trailers from Indiana. (Today most mobile homes are still made in Indiana.) In those days banks wouldn’t finance mobile homes--for buyers or for park operators. Kraft had to pay for the trailers on delivery, and then he sold them to his residents on the installment plan and charged them for site rental and electricity. He protected himself from deadbeats by making sure the buyer had a job that paid enough to cover the payments.
In 1946 Kraft sold the park to Ruby and Sven Keenan, his wife’s niece and nephew-in-law. He continued trailer sales there for another five years. The Keenans changed the park’s name to Sunnyside and added a second story to the cinder-block building as an apartment for themselves. A 1951 ad boasts that the park is “away from the noise, yet conveniently located.”
After his five years at Sunnyside expired, Kraft moved to 3770 Packard and continued to sell trailers from a Quonset hut. He was active in the Michigan Trailer Coach Association and for a while co-owned a trailer park in Belleville. In 1958 he moved back to Grand Rapids. The trailer business had done for him what he had hoped it would: given him enough money to retire comfortably. He owned stock and property and even a home in Florida. When he died in 1969, his obituary described him as a “pioneer in the house trailer industry.”
The Keenans owned Sunnyside for three decades before selling it to Margaret Jacosky, who in 1986 sold it to John Chin. The only structure left from Kraft’s original occupancy is the front office. All the trailers have been replaced (the oldest one still in use was built in 1960). The area once used for display has been made into a lawn, the roads have been paved, and the utilities have been upgraded and put underground.
According to Chin, today’s trailers are larger and much better built than they were in Kraft’s day. But economy, not mobility, is still the main reason people buy manufactured homes. How else, asks Chin, could someone get a brand-new two-bedroom house for $450 a month?