July 18, 2018

Making Happy Kampers: Documenting the History of KOA

by Jodie Foley, Montana Historical Society State Archivist

What does summer mean to you?  Hiking, swimming and picnics?  For most of us summer is the time to hit the road and explore as a family.  One of the most familiar sites folks see as they travel our highways is the big yellow and black KOA sign.
KOA signs have called to weary travelers since the 1960s, but many don’t know that the company behind the sign has its origins in Montana.
[Dave Drum, Life Magazine, September 29, 1972]
In 1962 Dave Drum, local business man and entrepreneur, noticing the high number of travelers heading for the Seattle World’s Fair, decided to set up a campground on his property just outside of Billings.  Following on that successful summer, Drum surveyed his visitors asking what they thought of the facilities, location and to give general impressions of the campground.  The enthusiastic responses encouraged Drum and his new partners to think bigger and by 1969 they had expanded Kampers of  America into a network of over 250 modern campgrounds across the county.
1967 KOA Directory
Unknown family at the Billings KOA, ca.1960s

In time KOA’s bright yellow logo became synonymous with America's modern ideas of camping—hot showers, concession stores, swimming pools, game rooms and other amenities meant to make camping accessible and attractive to a larger audience.

Today there are nearly five hundred KOA campgrounds, either corporate or franchises, in the United States and Canada.  
2016 KOA Directory
Much of the success of the company lies in its ability to promote both its services, its franchise model and its overall mission in bold color.
KOA promotional materials
With the donation of these records, researchers can now learn more about a company that has been dedicated to making “Happy Kampers” for over 50 years.  Come see this and many more collections that explore Montanans' love affair with the great outdoors!  A description of the collection can be found in our catalog at http://mhs.mt.gov/
"We're Happy Campers" coaster, no date