by Guy Thompson
It was a decision that affected not only Tom Corson and his family, but one that would ultimately affect the Town of Middlebury.
In April 1964 Tom, along with brothers Keith and Claude, got together to start making travel trailers, picking Middlebury as they knew the area, it was close to Elkhart-based suppliers, and there was a good supply of workers.
That three-man startup became Coachmen Industries, a leader in the RV industry.
Corson’s connection with the Middlebury area stretches back to his grandfather and grandmother, who had settled in the area in the 1800s. Growing up, Tom and three siblings lived in Elkhart, where his dad worked before passing at an early age. His mother then moved the family to Bristol because “she wanted to raise her kids in a small town,” Corson explained.
After high school, Corson headed to Purdue University but soon enlisted in the U.S. Navy’s air force program. Like many of his generation, he enlisted because “I wanted to be a part of it (WWII). I could have been drafted, but I wanted to decide what I wanted to do,” he stated. And that was to fly airplanes.
He was sent to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York before returning to Purdue for another semester. Finally, he found himself transferred to the Dallas Naval Air Station. “We got through training with the small planes,” he said. “And then, at that point, the war was over.”
Corson received his discharge and returned to the area, as well as got married to Dorthy, known to everyone as Dot, whom he met while stationed in Dallas.
“I planned to go back to college, but went to work for Associates Investments in South Bend and soon worked back in Dallas,” closer to his wife’s family. He remained with the company for 16½ years and during that time, they moved 11 times. “I went from Dallas to Little Rock, Little Rock to South Bend, back to Little Rock, Houston, Dallas.” He helped open the first office in Wichita, Kan., before coming back to South Bend. Then Pittsburgh, where he was the vice president overseeing over 30 offices.
Back in Wichita, he had worked to finance RVs and knew what that industry was about. One brother was a sales manager, and the other was a manager with a manufacturing company back in Elkhart. “I had the finance, sales and marketing background,” Corson said. Those elements all fell into place to allow Corson to leave the job in Pittsburgh and return to northern Indiana.
“We had all been around the area and had seen the early days of RVs,” Corson recalled. They had even done summer work with mobile home manufacturers.
The company started in a rented space in Middlebury, producing 12 travel trailers, a single truck camper, and 80 truck caps. The company would soon buy the building and later build their first plant where the current Cardinal Bus garage is located.
The company grew, as those driving past the current plant on the north side of Middlebury can clearly see, and became a household name in RVs. They were innovators as well and were the first to have pre-finished interiors as part of the manufacturing process. They introduced new body designs, including a rear cab-over, which provided additional sleeping area. Their smaller units could be pulled by cars, a popular idea.
Corson also recalls the challenges of the industry, which has suffered through the oil crisis in the early 1970s. “I worked out the finance plan to help dealers get through that,” he said. Even with the impact on the economy, they saw their growth continue.
“Being in Middlebury helped,” Corson said. “We had good people with good work ethics. If you give them loyalty, they gave you loyalty back.” He pointed out that many of the industry leaders in the RV business, which is so much a part of Middlebury and Elkhart County, got their start at Coachmen.
Corson, who turned 90 in mid-October, retired in 1997 and worked with other investments. His daughter, Claire Skinner, took over the reins at the company until her retirement. His son, Benjamin, lives in Idaho. Both were raised in Middlebury and graduated from high school here.
Corson has been a member of Middlebury American Legion Post 210 for 50 years, and was active with local groups. “I am strong on education,” he added, having served on the Ball State Board of Trustees, the Indiana Business Board, and the Interlochen Center for the Arts Board. He has also been on the President’s Council at Purdue.
He and his wife helped provide funding for IU’s Elkhart Campus, and have supported numerous scholarships. They were instrumental in the creation of Ivy Tech’s Elkhart Campus, as well.
Corson was also involved with numerous RV industry activities throughout his career, leading to recognitions that include inclusion in the RVMH Hall of Fame in 1990, RVIA’s Industry Leadership Award, RVDA’s Titan Award, and the IMHA-RVIC Legacy Award. In 2001, he was awarded the Indiana Chamber’s Distinguished Leadership Award.
Locally, he was the Middlebury Outstanding Citizen in 1974, the Lions Club’s Citizen of the Year in 1997, and received the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash in 1998.
Others who have benefited from the Corson’s generosity include the Middlebury Boys and Girls Club, Middlebury Dollars for Scholars, YMCA-YWCA, the Hugh O’Brien Youth Foundation, Bashor Home, and the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry’s Masonic Learning Center in South Bend.
He has been a Mason for over 50 years as part of three lodges in Wichita, Ft. Wayne, and South Bend, and is a 33rd degree Mason, an honor very few have earned.
Go to any campground in the U.S. today and you are bound to find at least one Coachmen sitting there. According to the company, over ¾ of a million Coachmen recreational vehicles have been produced and sold since the three brothers began the company in a rented space here in Middlebury.