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The Boler has enjoyed 50 years of bringing up the rear
Last June, I reluctantly agreed to go with my sister and have a look at a 1979 Boler. We had long been scheming and dreaming about buying an adventure vehicle, and liked the humble Boler, an egg-shaped trailer with Canadian roots. But it felt like the time for such whimsical plans had passed. I had developed a love of backcountry camping. My sister was getting married in a few months, while other friends were buying houses and starting families. Co-owning an aging trailer did not seem sensible at this stage in life, especially given my limited recreational vehicle know-how.
My sister convinced me that the trailer was worth at least a look. It belonged to her co-worker’s neighbour, an older man who’d owned the trailer for just a few years but had fond memories to share of trips he had taken, including one to the Yukon. When I saw the cream-coloured Boler with its orange and mustard-yellow stripes parked beneath a tree in the man’s backyard, I was instantly smitten. The impracticalities of trailer ownership were suddenly outweighed by the possibility of adventure.
We bought the Boler. In August we’ll pack it up and drive to Winnipeg, the city where Bolers were invented 50 years ago for a five-day-long homecoming party. If everything goes according to the plans of Ian Giles, the Calgary mastermind behind this ultimate Boler fête, thousands of people from across Canada and the United States will descend en masse, tiny travel trailers in tow.
Recreational vehicles tend not to receive birthday celebrations of any size, let alone golden jubilees four years in the planning. But the Boler is not just any trailer, as Giles and other fervid fans will attest. The vast and tight-knit community of Boler enthusiasts already converges at annual rallies with names like the Omelette and Bolerama. Giles and his co-host Rick Mooyman plan to bring this clan together on an unprecedented scale: 1,000 moulded fibreglass trailers, ranging from the original 1968 Boler to new trailer brands inspired by the Boler’s design.
Giles’s own Boler story (every owner has one) starts in late 2010, with a simple desire for a better night’s sleep. Giles and his wife, Joan, had long enjoyed tenting with their two children in the Rocky Mountains. As Giles aged, the appeal of sleeping on the ground faded. “At one point I just said, ‘You know, I’ve had it with tenting, we need a trailer,’” Giles says. He wanted something small and lightweight so that he wouldn’t have to buy a special vehicle to tow it. Giles took his trailer search to Kijiji and immediately saw a 1974 Boler for sale.
“I knew of Bolers, but not much other than they’re these cute little things,” he says. Giles and Joan contacted the seller. The Boler had a faded yellow bottom and white top. Inside, it was in nearly original condition, right down to the burgundy, off-white and green plaid cushions. There were a few additions, including new cupboard doors and a brown carpet, worn and stained. Giles, who worked as a mechanic before moving to a career in human resources and corporate learning, thought the trailer looked fine for its age. The Gileses paid $4,000 and towed their trailer home in January 2011.
On their first camping trip over the May long weekend, the Boler drew lots of attention, but two problems emerged. “We love cooking, and the eight inches of counter space between the sink and the stove just wasn’t enough space,” Giles says. “And we love each other dearly, but the 44-inch wide bed was just a little too cosy.” Giles made a quick fix for a bigger kitchen counter, and the couple used their Boler many times that summer.
Giles was happy with his work, but began thinking about further modifications. “To me, everything can be improved,” he says. He began researching, reading forum posts and watching videos about other Boler renovations. Then he set out to winterize the trailer. Joan shakes her head as her husband recounts the story; winterizing turned into Giles pulling out the ugly carpet, then the kitchen cabinets, and, finally, the seating—essentially an unexpected gutting of the trailer. When Joan saw the aftermath, her husband had just two words for her: “Trust me.”
The compact Boler (a mere 13 feet long) has wooed buyers like Giles for decades. Boler inventor Ray Olecko sought an everyman—and woman—trailer. No matter the size of your tow vehicle, your mechanical knowledge, or your physical strength, the Boler was for you. Olecko even wanted to lowercase the “b” in Boler, in a bid to be less pretentious. (It didn’t take, but in homage my Boler’s name is betsey.)
Olecko was born in Lamont, Alta. in 1930. He started boxing in his teens and spent three years in the air force. But, in the words of the obituary that ran in the Winnipeg Free Press in 2001, the “love of his life” was design. The first of his many patents was for a fibreglass slingshot that was sold worldwide, and he later designed a fibreglass septic tank that inspired his “proudest moment,” the Boler.
Olecko worked with Sandor Dusa, a mould maker, to design and manufacture the trailer, which is made by joining top and bottom fibreglass shells. (Boler lore has it that the name comes from the trailer’s resemblance to a bowler hat.) The fibreglass construction made the units significantly lighter than existing aluminum trailers, at a time when smaller cars were becoming more common.
“I didn’t want a large trailer,” Olecko told the Free Press in August 1968, two months after Boler Manufacturing Ltd. began operations. “But I did want one that had a cooler, stove and sink, plus some cupboard space, and a few other comforts of home.” Olecko’s interior design accommodated a family of four, just like his own, with a folding dinner table that doubled as a bed, and a couch that converted to small bunk beds. In those early days, the company had eight employees and produced three trailers a week. (A July 1968 classified ad advertises the “first in North America, built to last a lifetime” travel trailer for $1,495.) From the get-go, Bolers proved popular with hunters, fishermen and middle-class families. Olecko predicted that his awkward-looking trailers would revolutionize the industry.
Tom McMahon has woven together the definitive history of the Boler, a project he started after buying a Boler six years ago. As McMahon’s wife and father-in-law fixed up the trailer to match a 1953 Mercury pickup truck, McMahon, who says he’s not handy, turned to research. The Winnipeg man compiled information published on travel trailer forums, dug into archives, and talked with the families of Olecko and Dusa. Before he started the deep dive, McMahon had no idea the Boler was a Winnipeg invention.
From those Winnipeg roots, the Boler blossomed. Several franchises were set up in Canada and the U.S. to manufacture and sell the trailers, including in Grande Prairie and Peace River. In 1973, Olecko and Dusa sold Boler Manufacturing to Neonex, owned by Jim Pattison (the well-known Vancouver billionaire is a little-known Boler fan and still owns the trademark). Neonex produced Bolers in Calgary, including a 17-foot version, and Winfield, B.C. McMahon says the last Boler was produced in 1988 in Ontario, and an estimated 10,000 trailers were sold during the 20 years they were built.
The enduring allure of the Boler has been attributed to many factors. There’s the longevity—not many 50-year-old trailers are still on the road—that’s now interpreted as retro appeal. For Joan Giles, a big part of the draw is the ability to alter the trailer’s interior. “You can personalize it to your taste and what you want to carry and how you want to camp,” she says. Ian Giles thinks the simplicity is another attractive feature. It’s not uncommon for him and Joan to have their Boler parked, set up, and their lawn chairs out in 15 minutes. While they sit and enjoy a glass of wine, a neighbour in a fancy fifth wheel spends more than an hour levelling the trailer and pulling the slides out. As the popularity of Bolers grows, so does the price. These days, Giles says Bolers generally sell for between $6,000 and $8,000, although it’s not uncommon to see asking prices around $10,000.
The Boler’s distinct shape, recognizable from a distance, helps too. “I refer to them as memory makers,” Giles says. “When we’re camping, so many people drop by our Boler and say, ‘My grandparents had one’ or ‘We used to go to the lake in one all the time.’ Instantly it brings back memories.” And, of course, there’s the cute factor. “They’re so adorable that you just look and go ‘that is so cool,’” Giles says.
Chris Doering knows that feeling. Doering and Connie Biggart, both Calgary residents, have been “Boler spotting” for years and documenting their finds on their website, Off The Beaten Path—with Chris & Connie (bigdoer.com). Whenever they spot a Boler or a Boler look-alike, they take a picture. It’s their own version of the Punch Buggy game, a way to keep road trips interesting. Why Bolers, when Doering is not yet a Boler owner? “They’re just so darn cute,” he says. “They’re not common enough that you’re seeing them so often you become bored with it, so you have to keep a razor-sharp eye out for them.”
Back at Giles’s house, his gutted Boler underwent a transformation. He designed and built a new frame with the help of a friend who is a welder, and completely overhauled the interior. A few years later, the exterior was spiffed up with new paint. Finally Giles and his friend altered the bumpers from a 1959 Jaguar to fit the trailer, now christened Buttercup. “It is unique, and in my mind, it just suits the Boler absolutely perfectly,” he says, proud as a new father.
As Giles reverse-engineered his trailer, he learned there was a lack of detailed information on fixing up Bolers as well as some damaging misinformation. “I was seeing more and more of these Bolers that the frame was damaged on them and they were being turned into sheds in backyards or ice fishing shacks,” he says. “And in my mind, the Boler is a piece of Canadian history.”
Giles has become the Mike Holmes of Bolers. His four YouTube videos documenting his trailer reno have garnered more than 77,000 views. Giles also created boler.ca, a one-stop shop for all things Boler. It even includes a literal shop, Camping Treasures, where Giles sells hardware kits he’s designed for vintage trailers, plus a small selection of Boler-themed accessories like key chains and earrings.
Lisa Birmingham is one of many Calgary Boler owners who has sought trailer advice from Giles. She purchased a Boler three years ago with her teenage daughter Kaitlyn; together they have repaired and refurbished the Boler now named Sandy. “Having someone with that passion for Bolers that’s accessible and available, and wants to help and loves to help, has just added incredibly to the experience,” she says.
With his trailer complete and the website up and running, Giles turned his attention elsewhere. At a Boler gathering in Winnipeg in 2014, he approached the local organizer, Rick Mooyman, with the idea of marking the Boler’s upcoming golden anniversary. He didn’t know what the celebration should look like, just that it should take place in Winnipeg, the birthplace of the Boler. Mooyman signed on to co-host the event.
Since hitting the road on the Boler 50th, Giles has applied the same zeal he gave his trailer renovation. When every one of the more than 50 companies he approached about sponsoring the gathering showed no interest, he was undeterred. And when 650 trailer owners signed up at a pre-registration, Giles decided he wanted to host 1,000 trailers and secured the Red River Exhibition grounds for the expected 2,500 attendees. When he learned there were no showers onsite—a fact his wife referred to as a “show stopper”—he found a company in Saskatchewan that would bring in shower trailers.
Giles has been retired for about a year, but planning the Boler bash has become more than a full-time job for him. “The amount of work that’s going into it is just astronomical,” says Mooyman. Attendees at the five-day festival will enjoy morning yoga, mass ukulele lessons, workshops on topics like trailer maintenance and sewing trailer cushions, as well as evening entertainment. The gates will open to the public for one day, offering the ultimate Boler show and tell, including new Boler-inspired trailers by manufacturers like B.C.-based Armadillo Trailers and California’s Happier Camper. Giles has thought of every detail, from a certified drone pilot to capture aerial views of the assembled trailers to keepsake Boler pins for attendees.
Challenges remain, like the nightmarish logistics of 1,000 trailer owners arriving on one day, checking in and backing into their spots. As of mid-March, registration was slower than expected; while the event is not-for-profit, Giles needs 800 trailers to break even. Giles remains his enthusiastic self, operating at a tireless pace as he sorts out all the details. “I don’t want to disappoint anybody at this event,” he says. “I can’t let people down, so that’s what’s driving me.”
Come August, Giles looks forward to meeting hundreds of people he knows only through the online Boler community. (He says he will recognize them by their trailers.) And there’s no doubt Buttercup will be a popular attraction, inspiring others dreaming about their own renovations. At its core, though, the event is not just about the beloved Bolers. “Seeing the sea of trailers is going to be fantastic. I am so looking forward to that,” Giles says. “But I think more what I’m looking forward to is the sea of people. Just the excitement of so many people all brought together, just because of the trailer they decided to buy.”
Article by: CAILYNN KLINGBEIL
Photo 1 & 2 by: BRENT MYKYTYSHYN