A Brief History of Utility Trailers

Tim Cotton

Tim Cotton | Jul 16, 2016

My grandfather’s utility trailer was bolted to a heavy duty set of leaf springs and perched on an old car or truck axle. It was constructed of plywood and painted “porch floor” gray. He did not have a pickup truck because he didn’t need one.

A modern utility trailer, in its native habitat. (Tim Cotton)

I most enjoyed the times that we grandkids were allowed to ride amongst the garbage bags and household refuse for the short ride to the dump. I think he always had the safety chains attached, but the 70s were different. Personal safety really was an afterthought and I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning that it wasn’t a good idea.

I am fairly certain Grampa loved us. Mainly because I could see him check for us in the rearview mirror every now and then. An early adopter of being “green,” Gramps did not want his garbage or his grandkids just left in the center of the road. Looking back I can remember the smell was not that of roses and sitting on the wheel well and grasping the ever flexing side panels would keep you out of the stinkiest of the garbage.

In a world awash with the smell of old tuna cans, bleach bottles and exhaust fumes of a fire engine red,1970 Plymouth Valiant life was grand. The watery eyes were welcome as it helped wash the wind-driven coffee grounds and road dust from my prepubescent corneas.

The ubiquitous utility trailer is a part of life in rural New England. While pickup trucks have taken over as the ride of choice, it was not too long ago that the home-built trailer was how you moved the dirty stuff in and out of your life. Sure, curbside garbage pickup was an option in the more suburban parts of Maine, but there were not many suburban parts in Maine. This still holds true. There is some satisfaction in being immersed in the solid waste pipeline both to and from your home.

A Plymouth Valiant--the trailer-hauler of choice for 1970s grandfathers. (By DL24 -  CC BY-SA 4.0)

Automobiles of the 70s were equipped with steel bumpers and a hitch could be added by your local mechanic or anyone with an adjustable wrench and socket set. Utility trailers were usually home-built and relatively unsafe. Mismatched bias ply tires and old studded snow tires shared the same axle and sang different tunes on the asphalt. Trailer sway could be mitigated by adding or subtracting a little speed. Safety chains were important but two of them were not always used. We have come a long way.

The “homemade” utility trailer is becoming a thing of the past. You can go to any big box or building supply store and pick up a properly manufactured utility trailer, fairly inexpensively. There are trailer-specific outlets as well.

Trailers have come a long way! (Hooper Trailer: http://www.hoopertrailer.com/meshbottomLandscape.jpg)

If you don’t own a trailer, you will be borrowing from a friend. Here are a few tips to make it go well.

  • Request the trailer, in person, at least one week in advance. Other people might have dibs for the time period that you need the trailer. Most owners know that they cannot use the trailer during Peak Borrowing Season. In New England, P-B-S runs from April 1st through July 4th and then from September 1st through December 15th. Basically this covers spring clean up and then fall firewood season. Trailer owners have four whole months to use the trailer outside the Peak Borrowing Season. Plenty of time to get their chores done.

  • Make sure to notify the owner if you do not have the properly sized trailer ball. You will of course require the owner to supply you with the receiver bar and ball. No reason to buy a hitch as long as your vehicle has the receiver. This is what friends are for. 

  • Ask the trailer owner to make sure that the tires are aired up to the proper psi for the load you will be carrying. Just another reason why you should notify them at least a week in advance.

  • Request that the trailer owner removes all the debris and material from the bed of the trailer far in advance of your planned pickup. Do not fall for the “old switcheroo.” This is a ploy of many experienced trailer owners. They tend to leave the load or firewood or concrete blocks on their trailer after they make a pickup. They then will grant permission to you to borrow the trailer and pretty soon you have been drafted into unwanted manual labor. Do not become a victim. Plan to do a drive by before requesting a trailer. Trailers are kept in backyards and behind garages. Recon will save you backaches and harsh feelings toward a trailer owner that tries to use you for free labor.  If the trailer is loaded, find another friend with a trailer.


These guys fell for the "old switcharoo!"

One great way to keep track of friends with trailers and stay true to your desire to reuse and recycle is to keep all of those family-portrait holiday cards that pile up around Christmas. You know the glossies that hang on the fridge so you can remember how many kids your friends have. Usually those cards include names and ages.

Here is the trick. Use them as a reminder of what size utility trailer that particular family owns. Jot the information down on the back of the card and file it appropriately. A side benefit is to note the age and work ability of each of the kids depicted on those cards. When help is needed to remove brush from your property, or load the trailer with anything labor intensive, you know where the healthy teens are available for recruitment to help in your endeavors. After all, this is about you. The kids will feel accepted when you ask for them by name.

Notes: James, 14; can possibly steer the truck. Brian, 12; good for heavy lifting. Timmy, 7; skip, he's a biter. Janie, 4; good at finding kindling. (Carissa Rogers via Flickr)

You can also rent a trailer from many locations but it seems silly to spend good money when you can plan accordingly and borrow one. There are times when trailer owners are selfish and need to use the trailer themselves. Try to be understanding of their plight.

Borrowing is nourishment for the bond of friendship. Just make sure you return it so the next person who needs it can grab it before Peak-Borrowing-Season is over.

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