In exchange for hook-up fees and utilities, 'workampers' do odd jobs around RV parks.
By PAUL BOURGEOIS
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Just because you live in a recreational vehicle or motor home doesn't mean you spend all your time relaxing, taking in a life of on-the-go luxury.
Some RV enthusiasts favor working, at least part time, and some prefer staying in one place -- even if their homes are on wheels.
They're called "workampers" -- members of the growing RV lifestyle who work at RV camps in exchange for hook-up fees and utilities.
Some paint, mow grass, pump propane or run the office. Most work part time -- 24 or 25 hours a week.
"We've been using workampers for years," said Allen Beadel, who recently sold the Cowtown RV Park in Aledo in north Texas. "They are an excellent source of knowledgeable, reliable employees. Since they live and travel in RVs, they know the system and they know what a camp needs."
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association estimates that 1 million Americans live at least part of their year in recreational vehicles. Among full-time RVers, more and more are working their way around the country.
Greg Robus, owner of Workamper News, said many wouldn't be able to afford the RV lifestyle without a little work on the side. Workamper News, based in Arkansas, has a newsletter and a Web site that helps connect RV-camp owners with their traveling work force.
It has more than 70,000 subscribers.
The freedom to move
"It is about independence," said Don Brenneman, 75, who lives at Cowtown RV. An Iowa native who came to Fort Worth, Texas, to sell furniture, he retired in 1993. His wife died a year later, and when his house in west Fort Worth no longer fit, he bought an RV about 30 feet long.
"You're independent and your home goes where you go," he said, although neither he nor his home has gone anywhere in nearly 10 years.
Knowing he could pick up and go is enough. And he likes where he is just fine.
At Cowtown RV, he's in the country -- sort of. Fort Worth is 10 miles east. Weatherford is about the same distance west. There's a pool, friendly neighbors, no property taxes and odd jobs to keep him busy.
"I think you need to stay busy," Brenneman said. He's been working part time at Cowtown RV since 1996.
For the RV-park owners, it's great.
"We have people working here who know more than we know," said Sharon Cosper, who with her husband, Rodney, took over Cowtown RV recently. They had owned and managed more than 400 apartments in Abilene, Texas.
In some ways this is similar, but with much less upkeep. Here, Cosper said, people take their apartments with them when they move out.
At Cowtown RV, about a third of the 140 spaces are occupied fairly permanently.
Among the more permanent working guests is Peggy Tooley, 55. She's been there two years, starting soon after she retired from teaching in Fort Worth and Weatherford schools.
She and her partner bought a 36-foot RV, and they say they couldn't be happier.
Tooley, who works in the combination office and convenience store, said they meet nice people from all over the country.
'Just like a family'
Ophelia and Bill Miller have been there about four months. Bill, 64, paints and fixes plumbing to cover the rent on their space.
Ophelia, 60, works for pocket money in the office. Ophelia ran a convenience store in New Boston, Texas, for years.
They took up the RV lifestyle about two years ago. Their house burned down, and they decided to scale back their accommodations and find something on wheels.
"It's just like family," said Alma Van Winkel, 60, who lives at the park with her husband and seven dogs -- a Yorkie and six Chihuahuas -- in a 37-foot motor home.
"You get to meet different people, and you get to meet more law-abiding people," said Van Winkel, who spent 20 years as a jailer before retiring about two years ago.
But not all RVers are retirees or seniors.
Beadel, Cosper and Robus all said many more thirty- to fortysomethings are trying out the RV lifestyle on weekends and vacations.
Some say the big boom is on the horizon.
"The baby boomers are fixing to hit retirement, and they are going to be buying lots of motor coaches. They are ready to retire and kick back," Sharon Cosper said.
She said some will work, but many won't have to.
There are those with deep pockets and lavish homes on wheels that can cost more than $200,000.
Cosper said she saw one "rig" recently that included a 45-foot motor home pulling a 20-foot trailer and a car in tow behind that.
The 20-footer, she explained, was for the chauffeur.