PART V: Camp WANDAVEGA (2004-Present)
A long time ago, in the days before endeavoring to rescue and resurrect the old Vandavega property, David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt had simpler, more straightforward lives: creative professionals with rising resumes and fast-paced big-city lives. But then, in 2004, they got a phone call from Father B. “David,” the familiar voice said, “remember when you said to call you if camp was ever going to be sold?”
For David, the purchase was more than personal. In buying the Vandavega retreat property, he was endeavoring to save the sacred old place from the hands of the wrecking ball or, even worse, from cookie-cutter lakefront developers. Lake Wandawega had been, after all, where he had spent some of the happiest moments of his childhood and adolescence. For David and the many other kids who attended the Latvian kids camp, Vandavega was the place where the summers of his youth lived: climbing trees, swimming in the lake, and feasting on countless Latvian pancake breakfasts. When the property came up for sale, David just couldn’t bear to see it subdivided and scrubbed of its seventy-five year history— he “would have been heartbroken if someone else got it.” And so, he told Father B.: “We’ll take it.”
Tereasa, on the other hand, had no personal history with the camp; only the stories of David’s summers there. In fact, her first impressions upon visiting the property were ones of shock and sadness. Though she had never seen it before, it was hard to believe this was the place she had heard David describe so fondly. To her, the property seemed not only neglected but abused, only the gray shadow of its former self. And yet, despite its state of decay, the once vibrant speakeasy turned brothel turned summer camp had an intriguing appeal for Tereasa. So much history. So much potential. What treasures were hidden in the walls of Orphan Annie’s Bar? What secrets lived under the rotting floorboards? How many lost stories were waiting to be discovered around the property, and how many more were just waiting to be written?
There was, of course, only one way to find out.
Like all the other “new owners” throughout its history, renamed the property now under their care and supervision, calling it “Camp Wandawega.” And so, what would begin as an act of nostalgic optimism would over the next decade become the most complicated, challenging, and fulfilling adventure of the young couple’s lives. They would discover they were not satisfied just to rescue the camp—they would restore it and reimagine what this good, rolling land, which had seen so many people come and go over the years, could become. And maybe, just maybe, in the hands of the right caretakers, there might still be some magic left in the old place.
What does it take to renovate a 1920s summer resort in the twenty-first century? Vision and optimism seasoned with a liberal dose of grit. Good friends willing to work for free. After that, you need hard work — several years of it.
By the time David and Tereasa had taken over as owners, the Vandavega property and all of its buildings were in bad shape. The hotel building was in a state of squalor: broken windows, mold and mildew, rooms overflowing with the forgotten detritus of two decades of neglect. The sandy beach, boat dock, and tennis court were nearly unrecognizable. And what are now the Bunkhouse, Lakeside Cabin, and One Bedroom Cabin had all fallen into disrepair. Even the beloved outdoor chapel was overrun and crumbling.
These were structures in need of much more than a coat of paint. The closer they inspected the grounds, the more Tereasa’s impression of sadness was confirmed. But so too was her resolve to bring new life to the ailing campground. Step one in initiating the Camp Wandawega renaissance was, clearly, to throw a party. Or better yet, a wedding—their wedding.
But for to make the property presentable (forget perfect) for their summer 2004 wedding, an entire army of workers would be needed, a great mass of debris and overgrowth needed to be carted off to the dump, and a small colony of intimidating squatters needed to be evicted. Luckily for the industrious couple, they have very industrious friends and family members who offered countless hours of free manual labor to help get the property presentable. Using every spare hour between January and August, and calling in every outstanding favor they could think of, David and Tereasa were just able to get the property to pass muster. On August 24, 2004, the couple was married in the camp’s outdoor chapel. It rained the entire day. Tereasa walked down the aisle in rain boots. And ever since their wedding day, she has been quick to remind others “wet knots are very hard to untie.”
The wedding preparations and general camp cleanup were just the beginning. The micro- and macro-level repairs and improvements at Camp Wandawega have been ongoing since 2004 and, in the tradition of the days of Vandavega, have been executed primarily by generous volunteers. The most significant push in renovations took place between 2004 and 2008. After first making the grounds presentable on the most basic level, David and Tereasa set out to make the facilities actually livable—a place to where friends and guests might, once again, want to get away.
Slowly but surely, the resort began to emerge out of its gloomy state. William “Pat” Lano, a longtime caretaker of the old Vandavega property, witnessed the incredible transformation, noting “these two people have done more to fix this place up in four years than anyone else in forty-five years.”
The original Wandawega Hotel guest house emerged from the restorations as the Bunkhouse and now features 12 rooms available for vacation rentals. The main building of the old Wandawega Hotel, once the Andrzejewskis’ celebrated Polish restaurant (complete with speakeasy-era trap doors), was rechristened as the Lodge and has, in recent years, become the epicenter or tall tale telling, whiskey sipping, and fireside card games. The two small cabins that dot the property were also restored and minimally modernized.
Along with improvements to the existing structures on the site, David and Tereasa began introducing an eclectic collection of new structures to the grounds of Camp Wandawega: the tiny Sterlingworth Cabin, which once overlooked Mill Lake; three vintage Boy Scouts of America platform tents configured around their own private fire pit; two Native American-inspired canvas teepees; an outdoor camp shower, taken from the nearby Juniper Knoll Girl Scout Camp and thought to have been designed by modernist architect Harry Weese in the 1950s; and, lastly, the centrally located architectural highlight of Camp Wandawega: “Tom’s Treehouse,” anchored around an enduring Elm tree and reaching a height of three stories, designed and built entirely by volunteers as a memorial for Tereasa’s father, Tom.
The result of all that hard work is that the Camp Wandawega of today stands as both a time capsule and a time machine. An oversized toy village come to life, ready to be explored and adventured within—by kids both big and small.
Here—where the little Marian chapel stands beside the bawdy old speakeasy (judging it not), where Scout tents and teepees stand guard against pirates, and where a house up in a tree watches over it all—there is an undeniable spirit that comes to life, or perhaps comes back to life, in those that come here. Call it nostalgia—fine. Summer magic—that’s more like it. But pretentious—not a chance. For, despite all the “Neverland for adults” vibrations Camp Wandawega gives off, it’s still very much a place where guests have to “rough it.” The basic, nuts-n-bolts accommodations that have always been central to the property are, by and large, still very basic. Just see the innkeeper’s official “Low Brow Manifesto” for details:
“Camp Wandawega is the definition of rustic. Expect ladybugs on your pillow, a cricket if you’re lucky. Oh, and the camp showers: We’re talking old-school, boy-scout-camp, concrete-floors, partially-open-air kinda thing. Be prepared to share them with the toads—they were there first. If you require sheets with a thread count higher than 50, a decent mattress, or even someone to pick up the phone, there are dozens of options in the area we would be happy to direct you to.”
Rustic? Sure. But there’s something in that as well. Something wonderful about getting away to a place with miserable cell phone reception and no wireless Internet, but that is home to an abundance of fireflies.
And so, with a mostly resurrected resort up and running by 2008, all Camp Wandawega needed was people to sleep in its beds, climb its trees, and skinny dip in the lake.
David and Tereasa had (re)built it ... but would they now come?
Somewhere in the course of a decade, the preservationists became imagineers.
Empowered by the “can do,” became masters of the “what if?” What if this place could be more than a summer and weekend lake rental? What if we hosted camps of our own? What if other people could get married here? What if artists and chefs and local worshippers could come and gather here all year round? And then, before long, these what-ifs became let’s-do-its.
And so, the camp as a gathering place was reborn. Since 2004, the site has played host to dozens of weddings, hundreds of artists and photographers, and thousands of guests from around the world. Old friends and new have come to fish off the pier, drink beer around the campfire, and shoot the breeze on the porch—families, road trippers, hipster bloggers, and Latvian old-timers alike. The lure of the camp, it would seem, is alive and well. In recent years, Camp Wandawega can claim numerous celebrity visits, countless magazine photo shoots, and at least two babies (that we know of) conceived on the property.
One half of each summer season is booked solid with philanthropic events, those endeavors Tereasa calls “the most emotionally fulfilling money-losers ever”: kids camp, art camp, band camp, and local community and church events.
It’s okay if you want to ask them why they’ve done so much to bring the “Real Summer Resort” back to life—why they’ve made such a huge financial, emotional, and physical investment in the place. They get that question a lot. And their answer is this: “It all depends on how you define invest.” Tereasa clarifies, “This is the best way we knew how to explain what to most (sometimes, even us!) looks like a completely irrational, emotional decision: We do the things that make us happy. And the thing that makes us most happy is making other folks happy. And by this criteria, yes, we think our ‘investment’ has been paying off.”
It makes sense, really. It was always the people that made Vandavega so meaningful to David in the 1970s and 1980s. Not the Latvian pancake breakfasts. Not the volleyball tournaments. Not the contraband beer hidden in the woods. It was always people. It was hanging out with Father B. Goofing off with his brother, his Latvian cousins, and his quirky uncles. The magic of camp was always the odd congregation of people living in close, rough quarters, safe in the bosom of nature, whose only stressor was deciding which fun thing to do next.
And so it is again today. Camp Wandawega is just a place, true—but it is a gathering place, at whose heart are the people who assemble there. Strangers and friends. The found and the lost. Sinners and saints, one and all. Gathered together for a brief moment, there under the stars of southeast Wisconsin: a respite from the busy work of making their way in the world.
Today, David and Tereasa don’t see themselves as the owners of Camp Wandawega. They never really have. “We’re more like stewards or caretakers,” David says, hoisting their daughter, Charlie, up on his shoulders. “Camp is in our care right now, but someday it will pass to someone else, and we just want to make sure there are people who can look back, like I can, and have great memories of this place. The more people that are connected to the history and traditions here, the more likely it will be looked after long term.”
“We’d like to think this place will be here forever,” Tereasa adds, “and we’re just the most current cast of characters that have been put in charge of this strange and wonderful place. And if we’re not adding a little crazy here and there, well then we’re not very good camp counselors, are we?
It’s a mid-summer evening at Camp Wandawega and David is carefully pushing Charlie on the camp’s rope swing. Higher, she calls out, higher, Daddy, higher. And, in our digital age, it’s incredible how refreshing it is to see a child enjoying the pendulum thrill of an outdoor swing; just an old tree branch, a bit of rope, and a little girl learning to fly. But it’s these kinds of moments David and Tereasa treasure most. And they have seen it a hundred times by now—boys and girls of all ages who come to camp and rediscover the grand magic of small things: the joy of angler’s sunrise catch, the audacity of an icy outdoor shower, or the wonder of watching a sky full of fireflies materialize into being. This is why they keep the inn. Why they keep camp alive.
If it were December, it would have already been dark for a few hours, but in mid-summer, the day lingers slowly on its way toward dusk. And the long dark of night may, eventually, cover the old place. But not just yet. It’s the golden hour at Camp Wandawega, and so there’s still enough time to walk the lake’s edge awhile, or mess about in a canoe, or play a game of checkers up in the treehouse, or take another ride on the swing. Still plenty of time today to make a new memory. To stir up some trouble. To discover the unexpected.
Yep, it’ll still be a long while before the sun sets at Camp Wandawega. Before they finally close the books on “our place.”