- David Grant McCombs
The Canned Ham Man
This article was previously published in the June 2013 issue of Cool Tears and Tiny Campers Magazine and was the first article NOT about a teardrop! While this company is no longer in business, the article is an interesting read. Welcome Canned Hams as part of the Tiny Campers side of the magazine. If a canned ham trailer is your thing, then check out https://tincantourists.com
"I had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) when I was a kid and nothing really held my attention very long. Then I discovered trailers, and my world changed," Chris Burkhardt said. "If I wasn't building trailers here, I"d be building them someplace else." Burkhardt and his sister, Shelly Nichols, own The Canned Ham Man, a trailer repair, restoration, and rescue business in Riverside, California.
"I am a perfectionist. A trailer we had recently finished restoring was ready for the customer to pick up. I decided, under closer inspection, the new paint really needed some wet-sanding. The "finished" trailer was re-"finished" eight hours later. I have an obsession with details. I'm old school - my name is everything," said Chris.
"I keep waiting for someone to yell at me or get me in trouble for goofing off," Nichols said. "It's fun to come to work with my family; I mean, I bring my little girl to work. Where else can you do that? It's a great job"!
The Canned Ham Man gives happy credence to the adage, "Get a job doing what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." But life for Burkhardt has not always been so wonderful.
"My life was pretty terrible," Burkhardt said. He was savaged by devastating personal tragedy and awash with alcohol and drugs. He slinked into a dilapidated trailer on Lytle Creek to await the end, but in reality, that old trailer was the beginning. Burkhardt turned that bleak necessity into a thriving empire.
"I used to wake up in the morning and say, 'Why did I have to wake up at all? Why couldn't I just die in my sleep?' Now, I'm excited. I can't wait to see what the new day has in store for me," he said. "Now, I can't get him to go home and get some sleep"! Nichols interjected playfully. "He's always here."
Although the atmosphere of the shop is low-key and fun, restoring vintage trailers is a serious matter. The shop itself has half dozen trailers in various stages of restoration. "It would be easy if they were all the same. Each trailer is different, each unique," explains Burkhardt. "They might be the same year, the same model, but they are very different. They differ not only in their restoration needs, but in floor plans. In the day, trailers were built like in a new car dealership: you could order different options, color schemes."
"We are restoring one trailer with a gourmet kitchen, another to be a traveling art gallery with custom skylights to allow natural sunlight in, and a special walk-in trailer for developmentally disabled artists to create their own art with a touch screen. It's very exciting," Nichols added.
"We want people to be able to go out and enjoy camping in their trailer, chill with their families" Nichols said. "We do everything we can to help them achieve their dreams. They can bring us a trailer and we will restore or repair it to any level, within any budget or they can buy a trailer from us that has already been restored."
There is a program available should a person want to come and work on their own trailer. With a signed waiver of liability, they can use Burkhardt's shop and tools. They can get personal satisfaction and invest their own love in the trailer. When they get to the campsite they'll be leaning on the trailer and say, 'I helped build this.' Burkhardt will also pay them for their time in reduction of the cost of the restore or repair.
Burdkhardt doesn't rescue these trailers from oblivion himself. He leads a dedicated and devoted team of craftsmen; brother Sean Burkhardt, Tommy Merritt, Mike McFarlane, Heather Cobham, and shop director, Bekah Nichols (Nichols' daughter, age 4).
While the Canned Ham Man deals mainly in vintage camping trailers, they do have a resident teardrop trailer authority. His name is Andrew Ortega and he is nearing graduation from high school in Norco, California. He built a teardrop trailer in his woodworking class in school: 2 hours a day, 5 days a week. He is an apprentice trailer restorer.
Seeping from the shop and into the huge lot next door are even more vintage trailers. There are beautiful examples of the many trailer companies and popularity. Some await a facelift, some are inventory. It's basically trailers shoulder-to-shoulder, four rows deep, with nary an aisle between them to walk. And then there are some that look like they crawled into the lot to die. "You have to use a lot of imagination with some of these," Nichols laughed. It sure gives new meaning to the words "trailer trash."
She wasn't kidding. Several trailers have broken windows, damaged frames, missing panels, ransacked interiors or were still filled with old trash, pots, pans, brooms, old jeans or t-shirts. "We do find a lot of really cool stuff. Once I found a stash of Italian money under a mattress. It was neat to think how this was someplace somebody had for their secret hiding spot," Nichols said. they also have another lot full of vintage trailers at another location.
When the Canned Ham Man folks aren't rescuing, restoring, or repairing vintage trailers, they are giving back to the community. They attend car and trailer shows for charity. "We go to the car shows and sell these wooden bird houses (shaped like canned ham trailers) and all proceeds go to CHOC (Children's Hospital of Orange County) and the animal adoption shelter next door to us," Burkhardt said.
"Our lives here are awesome; we want to give back to the community. We are proudly creating our own "car and trailer show' here in the month of September and all proceeds will go to benefit those charities."
When Burkhardt was a boy, he was Cub Scout at his troop's rummage sale. He was attempting to sell some of his woodworking projects. Legend Huell Howser stopped and admired the boy's art. "Really nice work, son," Howser said. "You're definitely on the right track. Keep it up"!
After only two years his successful business with an overflowing waiting list and projects on the horizon, Howser's words never rang more true for The Canned Ham Man.