Marshfield History – Marshfield’s Rollohome in Africa        

The following article appeared in a NWCHS newsletter from 2017 and was written by the late Bill Rebholz who volunteered with NWCHS for a couple of years. Bill really enjoyed helping us process various archival collections that had come into the NWCHS. He wrote the following article upon completion of cataloging a collection of Rollohome photographs.

Gatti Trailer
This Gatti trailer, destined for New York and the Gatti expedition, was one of 4 which was part of a goodwill caravan tour between Wisconsin and the states between.

The North Wood County Historical Society has an archive of many documents: old photographs, letters, newspaper stories, and much more.  Some interesting stories can be revealed in seemingly dry documents from the past.  A case in point is a collection of documents related to a one-time major industry here in Marshfield, the Rollohome Trailer Coach Company.  This collection was donated by Shirley Burt, whose husband Robert had worked in sales for many years at Rollohome.  Among the many items in the collection are two scrapbooks, filled with photos, correspondence, publicity photos, and newspaper clippings that tell of the relations that Rollohome had established in the early 1950s with an adventurer and explorer in Africa, Attilio Gatti.

Gatti, who was commonly referred to as Commander Gatti, was a veteran of the Italian Air Force during the First World War.  After the war, he moved to the United States and became an American citizen, where his reputation was then established as an explorer, author, and filmmaker.  Commander Gatti led a series of 13 expeditions to Africa, from 1924 to 1957.

Much of the financial support for these expeditions was raised through the cooperation provided by manufacturers of equipment needed for the expeditions, in exchange for publicity for these companies who contributed the equipment.

Rollohome enters the Gatti story in 1951, when Gatti was preparing for his 12th expedition from Cape Town, South Africa to Mombasa, Kenya.  Gatti contacted Rollohome and made arrangements to supply 5 trailers for his caravan through the African bush.

Rollohome Ad proof from the Chicago based Trailer Topics magazine.
The ad was for a Chicago-based Trailer Topics magazine.

By far, most of the scrapbook contents are letters exchanged between Commander Gatti and Rollohome officials, primarily Sales Manager Mac Matthews, detailing the construction of the trailers.  It is evident from Gatti’s letters that he was a colorful character, an experienced showman, and an accomplished self-promoter.  Gatti informs Rollohome that the company will receive plenty of publicity through the two motion pictures and many publications that he has planned for telling the story of the expedition. The correspondence in the scrapbooks comes to an end in 1953, with news of the completion of the expedition in January of that year.  Correspondence from 6 months after that includes queries from Rollohome to Gatti, asking when he will fulfill the commitments he had made to Rollohome.  It is here that the story comes to an end, which leaves us asking if Rollohome ever received the benefits that they expected from their investment in the Gatti African expedition.

Mrs. Gatti’s trailer.

NWCHS note:

Upon a bit more research we were able to find one Sterling Television film preserved by Periscope Film, LLC archive entitled ‘”The Great Gatti ” Explorer Commander Attilio Gatti Shows Off His New York Home’.

This 1950s documentary-type film features a young lady who desires an interview with Commander Gatti for her school newsletter. In the video, the narrator mentions that Gatti just returned home from his 12th Expedition. However, upon closer inspection of images from this film and a 1947 film called ‘An African Adventure with Attilio Gatti’, it appears that much of the footage used in this later film was from the earlier production. Needless to say, the promised promotions for Rollohome apparently did not come to fruition.

Included in the Rollohome collection donated by Bob and Shirley Burt, besides the Gatti/Rollohome archives, are a large number of images. The majority of the photographs had been taken by the LaMere Studio and capture the Rollohome employees in action, various manufacturing areas, finished trailers, and promotional images. The Historical Society will have opportunities for folks to help identify images in the near future. If you would like to help with this, please contact Kim in the office at 715-387-3322.

Art deco style divider graphic

This slice of Marshfield History has been provided by the North Wood County Historical Society.

If you enjoyed the story and would like to see more like this from Explore, consider supporting NWCHS by making a donation, becoming a member, or volunteering. Your support will help to preserve, educate, and disseminate historical information about Marshfield and our local community.

Thank you to NWCHS for sharing this fascinating story with us!