Boler pilgrimage: Caravans head to Winnipeg as colourful egg-on-wheels turns 50
Winnipeg-invented trailer can trace roots back to slingshots and septic tanks
They're coming and they're bringing their colourful wheeled eggs with them.
Six caravans of Bolers, the lightweight Fiberglas camping trailer that has developed an almost fanatical following since it was first produced in Winnipeg in 1968, are making their way across the continent in a pilgrimage to their birthplace.
In honour of the compact trailer's 50th anniversary, a massive gathering of Boler owners is planned for Aug. 15-19 at Red River Exhibition Park on the western outskirts of Winnipeg.
It will feature live music, a beer and wine garden, a merchandise shop, workshops, food trucks, yoga sessions, ukulele lessons, a scavenger hunt and showcase of contemporary trailers inspired by the Boler, including one produced on a 3D-printer.
And in pure Manitoba fashion, there will be a social.
"It's going to be so much fun," said organizer Ian Giles, who says attendees are driving in from as far west as Vancouver Island, as far east as Newfoundland and as far south as Tennessee, Georgia, New Mexico, southern California and Texas.
There hasn't been a Boler trailer manufactured in 30 years, but their popularity continues to endure with an estimated 1,000 enthusiasts and 500 trailers from across North America expected to attend, says Giles, who became involved in the Boler community after buying his trailer eight years ago.
He cites the simplicity of the trailers — the ease of setting them up and moving them around — as one key to their appeal.
"But first and foremost I think it's the cute factor," he said. "They are so recognizable, these little, round eggs on wheels."
Many Boler events are named on that theme: The Prairie Egg Gathering in Watrous or the Alberta Omelette. Those gatherings also tend to look like an Easter celebration because of the colourful way Boler owners paint their trailers.
"I quite often comment that they're blank canvases when someone first gets them, and people go crazy decorating them," Giles said.
They also love giving them nicknames.
Glancing over his database of Boler owners, Giles notes names like Sweet Pea, Miss Daisy and, playing off the egg shape, Sunnyside Up.
"My own trailer is called Buttercup," he added.
'It's almost cult-like'
The anniversary gathering will be as much about making new friends who share the passion as celebrating the trailer itself, Giles says.
"The trailer brings you together and once you meet the people, it's those people you want to be around and meet and continue to socialize with."
Giles wanted to be part of the community but jokingly notes you might not always have a choice.
"When you buy a trailer, unbeknownst to you, you all the sudden join this group — it's almost cult-like — that absolutely loves them," he said.
"I refer to them as memory-makers because when you pull into a campground, I guarantee somebody is going to come to your campsite and start talking to you about the memories that they have about a Boler."
Planning for the anniversary gathering began four years ago, Giles says, when it occurred to him that many Boler enthusiasts only know one another through social media and Internet forums.
"I thought 'what a wonderful way to celebrate this iconic piece of Canadian history as well as give people the opportunity to meet their virtual friends and see the trailers,'" said Giles, who also operates a website providing repair techniques, replacement parts for sale, and the story of the little trailer.
He says the purpose of the site, like the anniversary event, is "to keep the Boler alive … so that they continue to produce memories for Canadians, people across North America and families."
Slingshots and septic tanks
The famous little egg-on-wheels can trace its roots back to slingshots and septic tanks.
It is the brainchild of Ray Olecko, an avid outdoorsman who realized his family needed something more durable and comfortable when they were camping, according to Tom McMahon, who has researched and written about the trailer's history.
Olecko's family used to go camping in an old canvas tent, and many nights were rained or snowed out.
At the time, in the mid-1960s, Olecko had been working in the fibreglass industry, learning the possibilities of the material.
He had already created a unique Fibreglas resin slingshot, which he manufactured in his basement and sold through mail order magazines and newspaper ads. He called it the Boler Manufacturing Co.
According to McMahon, who interviewed Olecko's daughters, the name was a take on bolas, a Spanish hunting sling. He made and sold them for several years but when he switched over to trailers, he retained the name.
The roundedness of the trailer also reminded Olecko of a bowler hat, which helped convince him it was the correct name.
Olecko's interest in Fibreglas also led him to help design of what eventually became another iconic Manitoba object — the Orbit.
The round trash receptacles were found for many years along Manitoba highways with signs advising drivers to count down 10 seconds to Orbit, where they could pull over and dispose of their garbage.
The idea for the trailer came to Olecko in 1967, just after he had created a Fibreglas septic tank for the company where he worked, Structural Glass. It was designed so the parts were nested together for shipping, then bolted together on site to create the container.
During one of those rainy camp outings, Olecko started re-imagining the septic tank with wheels and a door.
According to McMahon, Olecko spent countless hours working out the design and measurements for the trailer and how to incorporate his ideas for a folding dinner table that could double as a bed, and a couch that could be converted into bunk beds in order to sleep a family of four.
He knew that if it was made of Fibreglas, the trailer would be light and affordable on gas to haul behind a car — no need for a big truck.
Olecko took his drawings to a colleague at Structural Glass, Sandor Dusa, and asked him to help create a mould for the 13-foot trailers, which came equipped with a countertop, fridge, stove and closet.
When they decided to make a business out of it, they mortgaged their houses to get the start-up cash to open a 4,000-square-foot facility on Higgins Avenue.
The first Boler rolled out of the factory in 1968 and sold for about $1,500.
Initially, the company encountered resistance from dealers who thought the price was a bit steep since aluminum trailers were only $895, according to McMahon. In response, Olecko simply picked up the hitch and pulled the trailer across the parking lot by himself, quickly convincing dealers the trailer would be attractive to owners of smaller cars, which were becoming popular as gas prices soared.
He was right and the Boler was an instant hit.
After only a year in the Higgins plant, the company moved to a larger building on Dufferin Avenue and brought on another partner, Erwin Krieg, who had worked with the pair at Structural Glass.
The new plant employed 25 people and Boler tripled production, producing more than 300 units a year, plus fibreglass truck camper roofs, according to Boler Manufacturing History.
By the 1970s, demand was so high that Olecko set up franchise manufacturers in other parts of Canada and the United States.
A report in the Manitoba Business Journal of January 1972 noted sales of Bolers hit $500,000 in 1971.
By 1972, 1,000 trailers per year were being built in the Winnipeg shop, with similar numbers at the other franchise sites, according to McMahon, who became a Boler enthusiast when he bought his camper in 2012.
Olecko, Dusa and Krieg sold the company in 1973 to a Calgary company, Neonex.
Olecko continued to sell franchises for the company for a brief time, and was a consultant to the new owners but he became disenchanted with the direction the company was taking when it decided to make a 17-foot version of the trailer.
Olecko died of cancer in 2001 at age 71.
Dusa, who died in 2013, worked for several different Fibreglas manufacturing companies in his post-Boler days and made, among other things, Ronald McDonald statues for the fast food restaurant chain, according to McMahon.
Erwin moved to British Columbia and like Dusa, worked Fibreglas manufacturing before retiring in the 1990s.
The Boler continued to be produced until 1988, when the last one is believed to have come out of an Ontario franchise plant, Midhurst Fibreglass.
No one really knows for sure how many were built in those two decades but the best guesstimate, Giles said, is about 10,000.
He has no idea how many remain. If you can find one, they typically sell used for about $6,000 to $8,000.
While there are annual Boler meet-ups in many places, including the one in St. Malo Provincial Park south of Winnipeg, the anniversary event at Red River Exhibition Park will be the single largest gathering of the trailers in history, according to Giles.
It is also open to other models of Fiberglas trailers inspired by the Boler, such as Scamp, Trillium, Happier Camper, Armadillo Trailers and others.
Only those with valid passes will be allowed into the event on all days except for one. A public open house will be held Aug. 18 for people to tour the hundreds of trailers that have gathered at the site.
Devin and Keri Latimer, musicians who perform as Leaf Rapids, will be playing at the anniversary event as well as camping in the Robin's Egg blue Boler they have owned for 15 years.
"We love it because its a classic Prairie camper — it's light and so it tows easily behind the van and fits us just right," Devin said about the couple, their two kids and dog
"It's got a double bed for us and bunks for the kids, just enough shelves and an awning makes it pretty cozy. The kids have grown up in it now and its pretty special to us."
Back in 2011, after returning from a tour with then-band Nathan, the couple found their Boler had been stolen from their yard in Winnipeg.
They eventually got it back but not before Keri was inspired to channel her emotion for the loss into a song about the trailer.
Rosanne Bouvier is impatiently waiting for the anniversary, which she's going to with her husband and three children.
"As soon as the tickets came out, I bought my five, "she said.
They bought their 1979 Boler, in original colours and materials, just over a year ago and is already quite aware of the culture she bought into.
"When you meet people with a Boler, they will say, 'Call us. Let us know if you're coming to a part of the country, you can always stay with us,' " she said, adding she's looking forward to making more connections at the anniversary.
Kim and Chad Celaire own Bee2gether Excursions, a Winnipeg company that used to just rent tandem bikes until they expanded into Bolers.
It was prompted by the attention the trailers were getting. The couple park their yellow-and-black Bolers on-site at The Forks, Assiniboine Park, and Birds Hill Park and use them as offices when they are renting the other equipment.
They purchased four Bolers to rent almost five years ago and have never looked back. They say demand is very strong during summer, particularly for the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
"Every year we see growth in the business," Chad said. "I think our company would be nothing without those guys who came together to invent the Boler camper."
The couple say they are looking forward to being in a place to celebrate the invention.
"When you have that many people who are in love with Bolers in one place, you hear a ton of stories," Chad said. "There should be a book written about Boler experiences."
"And we are interested to see the unique things that people have done to their Bolers," added Kim.
More information about the 50th anniversary is available on the event's website page.
The event organizers have also posted route maps and details about where the caravans will be stopping, so others can join up.
With files from Mathilde Monteyne