Unfolding a Home


For returning veterans of the “Greatest Generation,” barracks life shifted to “Trailer Camp” during medical school.


On cold, late afternoons in mid-January, the wind sweeps down the hillside east of the University of Vermont campus. At the bottom of the hill, on the road that leads to the Centennial Field ballpark, the air sifts through a line of old hemlocks before it drifts it out over the lonely bleachers. It would be difficult to stand here for long in the below-zero wind chill, and still more difficult to conjure up a vision of the hardy souls who, more than seventy years ago, turned this windy field and a few dozen flimsy structures into their own little village. But do it they did. It’s a classic “lemonade from lemons” story: how a group of people who’d survived an economic depression and a world war endured one more tough time while finishing their medical education, and how they turned their meager surroundings into a place bound by camaraderie and good cheer—a place they fondly recall as Trailer Camp.

“People today would be surprised to know just how desperate things were,” remembered the late Emeritus Professor Stanley Burns, M.D.’55. He was not, as one might think, describing his childhood in southern Vermont during the long, severe economic slump of the thirties, or his Army Medical Corps experiences treating the wounded from the Battle of the Bulge or the survivors of Dachau. For returning vets of World War II such as Burns, the relief of being back home, out of uniform, in a revitalized economy, was tempered by the post-war housing shortage—the most serious, widespread squeeze on living space ever seen in the United States.

From the war’s end in August 1945 through the end of 1946, millions of servicemen and women were demobilized and sent back into civilian ranks. The U.S. Army was discharging about a million men a month by the end of 1945, and the Navy another 250,000. As the beginning of the 1946-47 academic year drew near, many of these veterans married their pre-war sweethearts and prepared—with financial help from the recently enacted G.I. Bill of Rights—to finish an education that had been abruptly interrupted by the war.

There was virtually no place for them to live while going to school (a situation strangely reminiscent of today’s housing crunch in the Burlington area). For the ten years of the Depression, there had been very little home building in the country. During the war, the economy rebounded, but all available building materials had gone into defense uses. With the war over, industrial construction used up most available resources. At least five million homes were needed right away in 1945: only 37,000 had begun to be constructed by the beginning of 1946. As historian William Manchester recounted, “North Dakota veterans converted grain bins into housing, and Benny Goodman and his band played for a Cleveland benefit at which citizens pledged rooms for rent.” The cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who had risen to prominence with his drawings in the armed services news­paper “Stars & Stripes,” and who was now published nationwide, drew a savage depiction of a landlady turning a former GI and his family from her door. A sign on the door reads “Rooms—No Children or Dogs,” and the landlady says “You soldiers just don’t seem to understand our problems.” It was a situation in which horror stories were inevitable, and sad tales abounded. As Manchester noted, “In arctic Minneapolis a husband, wife, and their little war baby spent seven nights in their car. In Atlanta, 2,000 people answered an ad for one apartment. Atlanta’s distressed city fathers bought a hundred trailers for veterans’ families. Trailer camps were springing up around every community of any size, especially those with campuses.”

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And so it went at the University of Vermont. In the fall of 1945, the school enrolled a grand total of 1083 students. In October 1946, the student-run Vermont Cynic reported that returning veterans had swollen the total number of students to 2041. This near-doubling of the student body in the course of one year was only the beginning: UVM president John S. Millis announced that 400 more Vermont students would be admitted on January 1, 1947. The Vermont legislature appropriated money to pay for new student housing. “This will be welcome news to many Vermont veterans,” reported the Cynic, for crowded conditions at the university had forced many to postpone their entrance.

A few weeks later, the Cynic reported on one new development for married students—many of whom were enrolled at the College of Medicine—in an article titled “Community of Trailers for Veterans and Wives Forms City Within a City.” “Tucked away near a corner of Centennial Field, Burlington’s most interesting housing project is providing homes for forty-six veteran UVM students, their wives, and children,” the article read. “It’s a going community complete [with] everything except unit hot and cold running water and taxes. Both may come later.”

To the residents’ mixed relief and dismay, neither ever appeared. It’s almost impossible to imagine any campus resident today cheerfully accepting a lack of running water in their housing; but in the midst of the housing crisis, it all somehow seemed livable. “How did we put up with it?” asked George Higgins, M.D.’55. “We were young! We were all in our twenties and all starting out together, and we managed together.” The Cynic gave a rosy description of Trailer Camp in its earliest days:

It’s comfortable down there. The little community consists of fifty expansible trailers ... It’s exclu­sive, too. Only married service men who have served in World War II are eligible to live there. Each home unit contains two double beds with spring and mattresses, one studio couch, two fold­ing chairs, a folding table, two burner oil stove with detachable oven, oil space heater, a 2 ½ to 3 cubic feet ice chest, and a fifty gallon oil drum with stand. Nothing elaborate, but all the essentials are there, and it only needs, as Edgar Guest would say, “A Heap of Living” to make a home.

The paper went on to report the formation of a community government in Trailer Camp, one of whose officers that first year was the late Peter Czachor, M.D.’50. Years later, retired and living on the Maine coast after practicing medicine in Portsmouth, N.H., he recalled that one of the tasks facing the new council was dealing with the lack of sidewalks. The residents of the camp used shower and bathroom facilities located at either end of the camp. There was also a separate laundry building. But walking from “home” to any of these facilities was no easy task in mud season, particularly while hauling a large bucket of water or a basket of laundry. The camp residents appealed to the university, which gave them lumber. “They gave us the materials,” said Czachor. “And it was up to us to build the ‘sidewalks’—really boardwalks—ourselves.’’ The university also issued paint to the residents, and by the spring of 1947 a little village in multiple pastels—part suburb, part Dodge City—was firmly established. A few enterprising campers took the do-it-­yourself ethic to greater lengths. When the residents of three trailers discovered that the laundry building’s water line ran directly under their units, they dug down and connected their own makeshift kitchen taps. For the life of the camp, their trailers remained the only ones with running water. The trailers themselves were folding structures that had been used during the war to house defense workers at a Connecticut factory, recalled Paul Demmick, M.D.’55. Each one unfolded into a square structure, approximately twenty feet long on each side, that could be divided inside into kitchen, sleeping, and living areas. The round-cornered entrance section on the front of each gave the units a vaguely Art Deco appearance. Some residents built their own extra storage shacks off the back wall. “UVM was building dorms up on campus,” recalled Czachor, “and they gave us some of the scrap lumber to build our sheds.’’ The trailers’ space heaters could only do so much when set against the harsh Vermont winter. “I remember some cold days when there would be ice around the baseboards, and we’d keep our two young daughters in bed for as long as possible while things warmed up,” remembered Caroline Higgins, wife of George Higgins, M.D.’55.

“How did we put up with it? We were young! We were all in our twenties and all starting out together, and we managed together.”
–George Higgins, M.D.’55


Miriam and Joel Janvier, M.D.’50 work on the pathway outside their Trailer Camp home. The Janviers lived in the structure for all four years of their time at the College of Medicine. Dr. Janvier had served as a commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II.


The only substantial break in the record of Trailer Camp contentment occurred in the fall of 1953, when the Burlington Daily News published a four­-day, front-page series under the banner headline “UVM Trailer Town is Called Worse Than Slums.” The final installment in the series (and a story in the rival Burlington Free Press the same day) detailed a group meeting of all the camp residents at which most supported a highly favorable emergency report by the Burlington city health officer, and the comments of one camp resident who said “It may not be a palace, but we knew it when we came here, [and the low rent] means the difference for most of us between being able to go to school and not being able to.”

The rent—$25 a month—was low, and it remained unchanged for the whole of Trailer Camp’s existence. The UVM Bulletin for 1952 noted that few furnished apartments in Burlington were available at that time for less than $50 a month. For a veteran family on the GI Bill who received a $75 monthly living stipend, being able to cut the rent in half was significant. In-state yearly tuition for the College of Medicine at that time was only $425—one-eighth the cost, in constant dollars, of today’s medical education.

In mid-June of 1956, a small article appeared in the Free Press, with the headline “Temporary UVM Trailer Camp to be Closed After 10 Years.” Future married students would reside in units in Converse Hall and at Fort Ethan Allen. “We didn’t get much notice, if I remember correctly,” said Caroline Higgins. “They auctioned off the trailers, and they were folding some of them up as we moved out.’’ For the Higgins family, the move came at a good time. George was about to begin a residency at Presbyterian-Sloan Hospital in New York City. Soon they inhabited a fifth-floor walk-up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It had running water and steam heat. “But it wasn’t much bigger than the trailer,” said Caroline Higgins.

By the end of the summer of 1956, Trailer Camp was gone. No one seems to know who bought the units. Perhaps there’s the chance—a very slim one that somewhere deep in the Vermont woods, someone’s hunting camp is a curious three-room structure distinguished from its surroundings by its slight Art Deco flair. Even if none of the old trailers still exist, the Camp itself lives on in the memories of the few surviving former students who resided there, and their children, who knew it as their first home. Trailer Camp’s value, after all, lay not in what it was physically—anybody who had to run down the board­walk from the showers to their trailer on a cold January day would know that all too well—but in what it allowed students to accomplish. The camp helped to give dozens of physicians the opportunity to receive their medical education. It did its job, and then its former residents left to do theirs. They went off to practice medicine across the nation, and the little corner of Centennial Field they called home for a time was given back to the wind and the hemlocks and the baseball fans.

(Above) Hand-tinted photo of UVM’s “Trailer Camp”