In August of 2014, consultants from Legacy Architecture, under the direction of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and funded by a generous grant from the Fuldner Heritage Fund, presented a nomination to the Wisconsin Historic Preservation Review Board on behalf of Camp Wandawega. That same month, the “Wandawega Inn Hotel,” acknowledged as a place of uniquely significant cultural and historical value in Wisconsin, was formally added to the State Register of Historic Places. This official designation is an exciting development in the colorful history of the property and has confirmed what David and Tereasa have believed for many years: There is no place in the world quite like Camp Wandawega.
Not long after being added to the State Historic Register, Jim Draeger, a director at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, wrote at length about what Camp Wandawega represents in the long-view cultural fabric of Walworth County, the state of Wisconsin, and, in many ways, the whole of America.
“Camp Wandawega is a microcosm of the broader history of Wisconsin resorts. In a single property, you can see many aspects of the historical evolution of Wisconsin resorts in the twentieth century. The land speculation that gave rise to its initial development was indicative of a resort fever that swept the state in the 1920s as leisure time increased and the rapid spread of automobiles increased mobility and allowed people to leave urban centers to experience natural areas. Its subsequent ties to bootlegging and prostitution are evocative of the unexpected societal impacts of our failed Prohibition experiment and the penetration of the lawlessness into the most remote areas of the state due to its proximity to Chicago.
The subsequent ownership of the property by the Catholic Church was a phenomenon found throughout Wisconsin’s resorting areas as resorts and summer houses became church properties and functioned as religious retreats because improved transportation infrastructure allowed the wealthy of the Midwest to travel to more far-flung and exotic locations. Its transformation into a summer camp was in line with a blossoming of summer camps in the mid-twentieth century as urban dwellers sent their children to camp as a means to inculcate the values of rural life that they had experienced in their own childhood before seeking the economic opportunities found in larger cities.
Its [current] incarnation [as Camp Wandawega] shows the increasing appreciation of historic preservation and the aesthetic, romantic, historic, and emotional power of a place that has stood against our seemingly relentless need for constant updating and change. Many resorts show one or two phases of this evolution, but what makes Wandawega special is that you see all of these aspects in a single site. Its extraordinary state of preservation allows each of the stories to be clearly seen in the physical fabric of the place, creating a powerful slice of time and place that transcends any of these single stories.”
What Camp Wandawega has evolved into over the past decade, under the careful shepherding of the current owners, is an identity that is both something very familiar and very new. By reclaiming the grounds and buildings and restoring them to a livable state, they were able—like Harry Beckford, the Andrzejewski family, and the Marian Fathers before them—to create a desirable destination, a proper wilderness getaway with just enough modern amenities to be practical, and just enough rustic novelties to be truly exciting. By channeling the free spirit of Anna Beckford Peck (though in far more legal ways), Camp Wandawega continues to be a place of celebration and merrymaking—a place to cut loose and go a little wild. Along with their daughter, Charlie, David and Tereasa have, like the Andrzejewskis before them, installed a family as the center of the Camp Wandawega universe. And, in continuing the Marian tradition of using the property as a means of blessing others, whether through Mass in the Grass or by hosting philanthropic events, Camp Wandawega exists as twenty-five living acres of holy Wisconsin ground; a place of refuge for sinners and saints.
But what is new, what has become one of the central attractors for many of those who come to Camp Wandawega today, is the long and colorful heritage of the place itself. By celebrating each of the property’s individual historic eras in different ways, Camp Wandawega has become a kind of living curiosity shop—a new museum of American anthropology. Or, as Mr. Draeger observed, Camp Wandawega has become a destination for pilgrims on a quest to experience the “aesthetic, romantic, historic, and emotional power of a place that has stood against our seemingly relentless need for constant updating and change.”
And so, in opening its gates, its guest rooms, and its shoreline to a cast of twenty-first century characters, Camp Wandawega is writing an entirely new chapter in the long, strange biography of the little American resort “on a lake that nobody’s ever heard of” in southeastern Wisconsin. A new chapter populated with sinners and saints, who, like so many before them, went looking for some place to get away and somehow found their way, once upon a time, to Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin.