Craig Dorsey, the renowned trailer restorer who moved to rural Nova Scotia
Posted on November 03, 2021 | By Stephen Kimber | 0 Comments
Art? Business? Business as art? Art as business? Perhaps all of the above!
It was June 2000, and Craig Dorsey had just pulled off a minor miracle. He had art directed a TV commercial shoot for a mega furniture store in Newport Beach, California, and — despite the hours and the odds — had brought the project in creatively, on time and on budget.
But the commercial’s producer, who was “not a nice fellow — I’m keeping it as clean as I can,” Dorsey tells me on the phone from his current home in Clementsvale, near Digby, Nova Scotia — kept finding things to complain about anyway.
Finally, Dorsey admits, he became “unglued. I just walked up to him, shook his hand and said, ‘That’s it. I’m done.” He telephoned his wife. “Honey,” he said, “I’m going to restore trailers.”
At the time, Craig Dorsey had a hobbyist’s obsessive passion for buying and fixing up old trailers, but the reality was that he and his wife also had two small kids, a mortgage and no business plan to go with his creative dream.
Still, he did understand the magic he could make inside a vintage trailer and the impact that magic had on others. Four years earlier, he’d bought a tiny 1956 Mercury trailer (known among aficionados as a “canned ham” because the outside looks like the tin for packaged Hormel ham). Dorsey had paid a couple of hundred bucks for it, fixed it up in his spare time and then drove it to a swap meet in Mexico. “People lined up just to look inside,” he marvels; one of them offered him $3,500 for it.
“Something happened that day,” he allows. Art met commerce.
Dorsey soon began orchestrating his own weekend rallies around California for like-minded hobbyists. “We all like old cars, we all like antiques, we all like vintage clothes, so we like to get together and boast about our finds and show off the work we’ve done,” was the way he explained those camp-outs to L.A.’s Daily Pilot in 2002. “We’re so proud of what we have. And you can only show them off to your friends so often. So, we really like the public to be able to come and experience this.”
That same year, Dorsey — who’d transformed himself into not only the go-to guy for anyone with an old trailer in need of an artful makeover but also the expert on the history and growth in popularity of travel trailering — starred in a US History Channel documentary, Wheel Estate, that documented America’s passion for its roading past-time.
By 2004, the New York Times reported that Dorsey’s Anaheim-based Vintage Vacations venture had fully or partially restored 40 trailers, some of them high-end projects for movie stars and studios, even a $200,000 interior reimagining of a famous airplane-inspired Silver Streak trailer.
But wait a minute, you may be asking yourself. How did Dorsey, a “southern California surfer dude” end up living in southwestern Nova Scotia?
We’re coming to that.
By 2007, he’d completed 150 trailers and his business had six employees. But that was the problem. His business had become a business. “There was no fun in it.”
So, he and his wife decided to get out of southern California, change up their lives. “We looked at Oregon and Washington, obvious places. We bypassed the middle [of the U.S.]. Too cold. We looked at New England but…”
In July of that year, Dorsey saw a postcard on eBay: “Beautiful Nova Scotia,” it read.
“I could hear the angels sing,” he jokes. “It sounded so romantic.” He and his wife moved to Nova Scotia through the provincial nominee program, a scheme designed to fast-track entrepreneurial immigrants. Though he had barely enough credits from a long-ago community college program to qualify for the program, he now had an ambitious business plan. He and his wife had “fallen in love” with a property near Liverpool, NS, that was big enough to hold their dream. That dream: to develop a destination trailer park to attract vintage trailer aficionados from all over North America as well as provide working space for Dorsey to work his magic on old trailers as the spirit moved him.
“I’m not a trailer restorer as much as a transformer,” he explains.
Business as art.
Everything seemed to be in place. And then, along came the 2008 global financial meltdown.
Dorsey had been banking on the equity in his California properties to underwrite his new venture, but their value began “plummeting daily.” In the end, he admits he sold the properties for significantly less than he’d hoped — “we got what we got” — and that was the end of their original dream.
“I’m not complaining,” Dorsey says today. In retrospect, he doesn’t think he was cut out to be a professional host. “Occasional overnight guests are one thing, but…”
He decided to slow down instead, and he began working freelance as a wildly overskilled carpenter. “I still do.”
But his reputation in the larger trailer restoration world followed him. So did would-be customers. “People still find me,” he tells me. But he chooses his projects carefully. “I like to have creative freedom and I need to feel an energy with the other person,” he explains.
Which bring us to Terry O’Reilly, the advertising guru and host of CBC Radio’s Under the Influence. O’Reilly had a longstanding fascination with the iconic Airstream trailer. “I’ve always been a fan… I love the vintage aspect, the look of them. I’d always say to my wife, ‘One day I’m gonna own a trailer.”’
So, when he complained to his wife — also his show’s producer — one more time about his four-hour weekly commute to a Toronto studio to record his program, she wondered aloud if he could convert an Airstream into a portable recording studio.
“That’s when the light bulb went off,” O’Reilly says.
In 2017, he bought a vintage 1969 Airstream Caravel and began the daunting task of finding someone who could not only restore its innards but also transform them into a state-of-the-art recording studio.
O’Reilly soon found what he assumed was the U.S.-based website of a guy with “a long history of converting Airstream trailers. His work is beautiful,” he marvels, “his finishing so tasty and inspired. I noticed on his website that he had done trailers for celebrities and for Hollywood editing companies, so he had a sense of what a recording studio might require. I looked to see what state he’s located in, and I can’t believe my eyes.”
Craig Dorsey, Nova Scotia, Canada!
Even before Dorsey began working on O’Reilly’s trailer, O’Reilly recalls, the man he wanted to hire peppered him with questions: “what my passions were, the things I did outside my day-to-day.” O’Reilly told Dorsey about his Beatles memorabilia collection, his 1963 Karmann Ghia car. “I love vintage things.” Dorsey worked with that. “He is a good listener and had excellent recommendations,” O’Reilly says.
But at some point, deep into the transformation process, Dorsey, who had been supplying regular photo updates of his work, suddenly stopped. “I want the rest to be a surprise,” he told O’Reilly.
While that “could have been scary,” O’Reilly admits today, “his work is so good I could take that leap of faith with him.”
He wasn’t disappointed.
Dorsey created a vintage look for the trailer’s interior, covering cabinets with material from Fender amplifiers, installing vintage microphones on the walls that he converted into lights, adding old-style toggle switches as audio controls. “When we went to Nova Scotia to finally pick it up,” O’Reilly recalls today, “the impact of finally seeing it all finished was a glorious moment. I know he also put more into it than our budget allowed for. He over-delivered. So rare in this world.”
Art? Business? Both.
Craig Dorsey says he’s open to whatever the universe may bring him — from transforming an old door into a curio cabinet art piece, as he did for an Art Gallery of Nova Scotia fundraising auction in 2016, to continuing to create inlaid floor rugs using a stock of vintage linoleum tiles he discovered in a California salvage yard way back in 1986 to… well, whatever the next trailer brings.
“I like to create something,” he says simply.
Art as art. And business.
• To see the full Terstream restoration, click here.
• For more Craig Dorsey restorations, check out his work on this Cabin Cruiser Serro Scotty vintage trailer and this Adirondack Airstream vintage travel trailer.
Odd Jobs is a new online series dedicated to sharing the stories of Atlantic Canadians with unusual occupations. Suggestions welcome! Click here to send your ideas to Stephen Kimber.
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