PART III: wandawega Lake Resort (1951-1961)
‘Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.’ Henry James
By the end of the 1940s, the cloud of scandal that had long surrounded The Wandawega Hotel had, by and large, passed into history. At the start of a new decade and under the vision of new owners, the old ‘bawdy house’ of Prohibition days was refashioned into a legitimate family resort. No more ladies of the night. No more illegal liquor. No more escaped murderers leaving suicide notes. Instead, the next chapter in the history of Camp Wandawega can be seen as the beginning of its more wholesome history.
The innkeepers that followed Anna Peck were, like her, immigrants to the United States. The Andrzejewski family came to America from Poland and, like Anna, had made their way to Walworth County via Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Andrzejewski were a retired couple who took over ownership, management, and renovations of the Peck’s hotel property along with their son Joe and his young family. Mr. Andrzejewski, a former gymnast, circus performer, and an avid fisherman quickly settled into the role of the resort’s patriarch - with his striking physique, contagious smile, and knack for telling tall tales. But then, shortly after relocating to Walworth County, Joe Andrzejewski’s young wife died suddenly, leaving him to raise their two daughters, Celeste and Samantha. And so it was for the Andrzejewski family that their new enterprise at Lake Wandawega should be both a business venture and, a kind of haven for the grieving family: the inn - busy with the flow of holiday seekers, the land itself - a woodland refuge against the forces of sorrow and loss.
In their taking over the Wandawega Hotel property, a corresponding evolution took place in both the overall atmosphere of and the kind of clientele who made their way to the rechristened ‘Wandawega Lake Resort.’ The Andrzejewskis were an honest, hardworking, and hospitable family of first generation immigrants to the United States and their tenure as owner-operators of The Wandawega Resort was defined by these qualities. There, guests could get their fill of the outdoors, homemade Polish cuisine, and the easy living of long summer days. And in the decades after the second world war, when the, ‘rapid spread of automobiles increased mobility and allowed people to leave urban centers to experience natural areas,’ ‘The Wandawega Resort would be a destination for the common man and his family to get away. The modest resort quickly became an idyllic getaway for middle-class Chicagoans looking for a convenient, affordable retreat from the city. For those working class Americans who couldn’t travel to Europe, the Caribbean, or the Pacific Islands on vacation there was, instead, The Wandawega Lake Resort.
At the center of the the new Wandawega Lake Resort was the Andrzejewski’s traditional Polish style restaurant which quickly became popular with resort guests as well as with Walworth County locals. Grandma Andrzejewski’s homemade pierogi, kielbasa, and potato pancakes, all ‘prepared from century-old secretly guarded recipes’ added a distinctively exoctic appeal to the ‘little Polish joint’ in southeast Wisconsin. The resort’s bar, no longer known as ‘Orphan Annies,’ was re-opened and served as a popular gathering place for guests and the growing year-round community. Bonfires, friendly card games, birthday parties, and family reunions were what drew guests to the Andrzejewski place, self-styled as ‘Wisconsin’s Finest’ vacation getaway. But humans were not the only guests who showed up to socialize at the Wandawega Lake Resort...
Along with the families of birds, foxes, and deer who frequented the twenty-five acre resort property, there was also one particularly social critter who was even a regular visitor to the resort restaurant: a little racoon that the Andrzejewskis named ‘George.’ Almost nightly George would arrive at one of the restaurant’s screen doors, scratching until he was welcomed inside, at which point he would proceed to make the rounds, table by table, staring down the diners one by one - awaiting whatever bits of Polish fare he could convince them to share. Once satisfied, George would make his way toward an exit, scratching at the door to notify the staff he was ready to leave, and then wander off into the night, having eaten his fill and delighted the entire dining room with his antics.
During those years, George become the de facto mascot of The Wandawega Resort, and, in time, all manner of George-related mythology started popping up: he doesn’t age and can’t be killed, he’s a guardian angel, he’s killed three hundred snakes!, I heard he was ghost, I heard he was king of the woods, I heard he was the reincarnation of an old bootlegger who came here back in the 20s. And who can say whether or not there was any truth to the legends that grew up around George? But certainly, any encounter with the raccoon king of the Wandawega woods was a highlight for the resort guests of the day and, as such, a photo of the surly little raccoon was featured proudly on all of The Wandawega Lake Resort promotional brochure.
It was these resort brochures - tracts to the gospel of Wandawega - available at gas stations, tourist offices, and travel agencies in the region, that planted many a ‘first seed’ in the minds of families looking for their next summer vacation destination. One surviving brochure from the mid 1950s paints The Wandawega Resort in a heavy-handed, though undeniably charming light:
"A HIGHWAY OF HAPPINESS...Leading to the heart of Southern Wisconsin...and directly to WANDAWEGA LAKE RESORT...The Vacation Wonderland...RUSTIC -- INFORMAL -- RESTFUL...an ideal rendezvous for lovers of the great outdoors and just the place you have so often visualized in your dreams...there is adventure wherever you may look for it."
Trumping The Wandawega Hotel’s relatively unimpressive promise of ‘boats, smokes, and candies,’ the Wandawega Lake Resort pulled out all the stops in marketing their little ‘Vacation Wonderland,’ emphasizing the Resort as a getaway with all the trimmings:
‘Whether you come with your family or as an individual...we aim to please...exceptionally low rates, ample parking, electric lights -- hot and cold running water -- and above all, a clean and restful atmosphere. Our Polish style cooking has brought us fame far and wide...prepared from century-old secretly guarded recipes. People gather here from many parts of the country to enjoy the friendships they have made and to make new friends. Shuffleboard, table tennis, badminton, bathing, boating, and fishing...[and] don’t forget the kiddies, we love them and have special rates for them. In fact, children are very happy here.’
But perhaps more illustrative than the decorative language of the resort’s promotional materials is the wealth of photographs that survive from that era. These images tell the The Wandawega Lake Resort’s story best; black-and-white snapshots populated with little girls in pigtails, babies at play on the beach, Grandpa Andrzejewski in his undershirt - holding up the day’s big catch. In these frozen moments in time, a family gathers around a Thanksgiving turkey, teenagers goof off in row boats, and sunny young women pose for the camera in their best homemade dresses. A proud father holds up his son, old friends drink bottles of Wisconsin beer at a picnic table, and couples dance to the sound of summer songs that have long since faded away.
But the arcadian days of The Wandawega Lake Resort were, like the days of all summers, golden but few. In 1961, the Andrzejewskis sold the Wandawega Lake Resort to the Catholic Church and returned to Chicago.
Though the tenure of the Andrzejewski family and the Wandawega Lake Resort was relatively short lived, it was a profound chapter in the history of the property. The Andrzejewskis spent a decade building up a communal, family-friendly, and legitimate business that both washed away any lingering stigma from the ‘bawdy house’ days and set the stage for the ensuing eras of the history of Camp Wandawega. From 1951 onward, The Wandawega Lake Resort established the twenty five acres at the lake’s edge as a place where new friendships were established, where average, middle class families could escape the gray busyness of their urban workaday lives. In their own modest way, Joe Andrzejewski and his family succeeded in creating a ‘vacation wonderland’ for the common man in the restful ‘heart of southern Wisconsin.’
Though the Wandawega Lake Resort would close its door forever, there were certainly many more golden days to come. More long summer days spent on Lake Wandawega. More photographs of evening dances and trophy catches of bass and panfish. But, for many of the people who have had a love affair with the little retreat just off U.S. Route 12, the happy days of the Wandawega Lake Resort is where their lasting romance first began.