"Gypsy" caravans make a comeback as micro-homes

  • Photo by Flickr user Anguskirk

    Think micro-homes are a new trend? Tell that to the Romani people, who lived in ornate wagons in the 19th century.

    Romani living wagons, or "vardos," appeared on English roads in the late 19th century. And although the traditional wagon industry largely died out by the end of World War I, the micro-home and small footprint movements have recently embraced these unique abodes.

    Though they are still typically used in similar ways, as a home away from home for travelers, there are some big differences between the old designs and the new ones. Back then, they were commissioned by wealthy Romani or carnival workers and ornately crafted by a team of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, wood carvers, gilders and painters. Now it's typically one small group of collaborators or one family working to create these little homes for themselves in their spare time. Where they were once pulled by horses, they are now pulled by a car or truck.

    "I don't know horses, and I don't know how I would convince the beast to pull my wagon around the highways and byways of America," said Jim Tolpin, a wagon builder, author and Port Townshend School of Woodworking faculty member, in a statement. "But I do know how to pull trailers behind my pickup truck, so I built my wagons to be roadworthy for travel at highway speeds."

    Children's books like Roald Dahl's "Danny, Champion of the World" and Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" brought the vardo tradition to Americans like Tolpin, and other artisans worldwide.

    "In the part of the world where I live -- the Northwest -- there aren't many Gypsy caravans," he said, "at least not when I became enchanted with them. So the only way I was going to get one was to build it."

    Artistry and dedication to craft are still a big part of the caravan industry, which continues to value hand wood carving and the five traditional wagon styles -- Reading, Ledge, Burton, Bowtop and Openlot. But today's wagon makers aren't afraid to bend the rules.

    Tolpin, Canadian Michelle Wilson of Hornby Island Caravans, Englishman Laurence Ward of the Gypsy Caravan Company, Englishman Greg Mort of Greg's Gypsy Bowtop Caravans and other modern wagon makers have a knack for creating caravan micro-homes that cater to new tastes without ditching the old ways.

    One of Wilson's caravans even has the setup for a small refrigerator.

    "My caravans aren't exactly traditional," Wilson said. "I think people might be more inclined toward the modern version of the vardo or caravan just because of the logistics of transporting the caravans on the roads."

    "I think caravans and small spaces really appeal to a lot of people, especially those people who loved forts and playhouses when they were young."

    Check out these nine traditional and not-s0-traditional vardos.

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    Ilyce R. Glink is an award-winning, nationally-syndicated columnist, best-selling book author and founder of Best Money Moves, an employee benefit program that helps reduce financial stress. She also owns ThinkGlink.com, where readers can find real estate and personal finance resources.