IU’s Trailer Towns

Residents gather around the Woodlawn Court trailer town on November 10, 1946.
Woodlawn Trailer Court, Nov. 10, 1946. Photo courtesy of IU Archives, P0046741

When World War II ended in 1945, the country welcomed back hundreds of thousands of young men, many of whom had cut their higher education short, or skipped it all together, in order to fight for their country. The new Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, paid for, among other things, the education of any qualified veteran who wanted to go to college. This meant an influx of veteran students at IU.

In 1946, veteran enrollment at Indiana University was 5,961—far exceeding the university’s prewar peak of student enrollment. At the same time, housing availability in Bloomington had been greatly diminished: The economic lull of the Great Depression and the halt of construction during WWII meant there were about half the number of available houses and apartments in Bloomington in 1946 as there had been in 1930.

This created a unique and frightening challenge for IU. Turning away perfectly good students, not to mention veterans of WWII, because of a lack of housing, was not an option. After several meetings, the university came up with a solution—trailers! The U.S. military needed a place to offload the barracks left over from the war, and IU purchased some of them to accommodate the growing number of students. Soon enough, IU’s veteran students were back in the barracks they had spent months, even years, waiting to get out of.

IU acquired enough trailers to create little villages with them. Property in Monroe County was at a premium, so the “trailer towns” were packed full. The families came pouring in. Each trailer town housed about 700 adults and some 175 children.

Trailer life at IU in 1946. Photo courtesy of IU Archives, P0030572

In IU’s trailer towns, unlike in the military, former colonels, captains, lieutenants, and privates alike all lived side by side, as equals. They came from different backgrounds and studied different things but had one thing in common: the war. This shared experience generated much camaraderie within the trailer towns. The veterans’ wives reportedly became close as well. Many of them attended school along with their husbands, worked, or did both. But many also stayed home, especially if they had children, and got together to help each other with housework and child care. In this way, the trailer towns quickly became worlds unto themselves, with a sense of community that could not be found elsewhere at IU.

In fact, some of the trailer towns were “self-governed.” One of the towns, called Woodlawn Court, even elected a mayor. In other trailer towns, problems and disputes were resolved through informal means. Impromptu meetings were called and votes were taken to find solutions to difficulties.

But, according to student residents, major disputes were pretty rare in the trailer towns. In hindsight, this seems incredible since space was so cramped, both inside and outside of the trailers. Living in a barrack was like living in a shiny little wood-paneled box. The kitchen was at the center of the trailer, right as you walked in. Then, at one end, a divan and bookcase made up the living room, and a bedroom was at the other end, with, sometimes, a sliding door to provide some extra privacy. None of the trailers had running water. But each village had a number of trailer washrooms strategically placed, so no one had to walk more than three trailer-lengths to get to the restroom. As a result, going to the restroom became a social event. This is where friends were made and news was spread.

Trailerites also found social camaraderie in the “community house,” a grouping of three or four trailers at the center of the village, which served as a community kitchen or a laundry. Sometimes, on weekend nights, couples would take the doors off their hinges, place them on the laundry tubs, and cover them in crepe paper to transform the laundry room into a club. The couples would drink and dance all night long.

Between 1946 and the early 1950s, the need for surplus housing at IU diminished as the veteran population graduated and more dormitories and apartment buildings were constructed. But when housing became less pinched and the university invited veteran students to move themselves and their families into more comfortable facilities, many of the trailerites refused. They had become so accustomed to the ways of the trailer towns that they didn’t want to live anywhere else.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine, a special six-issue magazine that highlights Bicentennial activities and shares untold stories from the dynamic history of Indiana University. Visit 200.iu.edu for more Bicentennial information.

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Written By
Ellen Glover
Ellen Glover, BA’18, was an intern with IU’s Office of the Bicentennial, and a contributor to 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine.