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We Bought a Camp!

Rather than let a storied Wisconsin getaway fade into the forest, a Chicago couple bought Camp Wandawega and set out to rebuild the rundown property as a vision of what summer camp used to be.

Saving a legacy

The 86-year-old camp has had many lives. Trap doors in the floor of the main building hint at its life as a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The long line of small rooms in “the hotel” echoes a stint as a brothel. And an altar under big pine trees reveals its more recent role as a Latvian church retreat. 

In the 1970s, David came to Wandawega on family retreats where Latvian moms from Chicago led their kids through summers of flag raisings, canoe outings, crafts and flying above the lake on a tire swing. By the 1990s, the camp had fallen into deep disrepair, and David saw a chance to save a legacy. So he brought Tereasa (then his fiancée) up from Chicago for a look.

“It had ceilings falling in, and it was full of raccoons,” Tereasa says. But then she saw old photos of the place and heard David’s stories about four generations of his family coming to Wandawega. And she signed on. “The deal I made with him was that we really had to commit. ... And we did.”

Pictured: Tereasa Surratt and David Hernandez with daughter Charlie.

Saving a legacy

The 86-year-old camp has had many lives. Trap doors in the floor of the main building hint at its life as a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The long line of small rooms in “the hotel” echoes a stint as a brothel. And an altar under big pine trees reveals its more recent role as a Latvian church retreat. 

In the 1970s, David came to Wandawega on family retreats where Latvian moms from Chicago led their kids through summers of flag raisings, canoe outings, crafts and flying above the lake on a tire swing. By the 1990s, the camp had fallen into deep disrepair, and David saw a chance to save a legacy. So he brought Tereasa (then his fiancée) up from Chicago for a look.

“It had ceilings falling in, and it was full of raccoons,” Tereasa says. But then she saw old photos of the place and heard David’s stories about four generations of his family coming to Wandawega. And she signed on. “The deal I made with him was that we really had to commit. ... And we did.”

Pictured: Tereasa Surratt and David Hernandez with daughter Charlie.

Island of nostalgia

After nine years of work by David, Tereasa and practically all of their friends and family, Camp Wandawega has emerged as an island of nostalgia that seems like equal parts movie set, pop-culture museum and archaeological site. Tereasa crafted each of the property’s unique spaces as an authentic set piece picturing a moment anywhere from the 1920s to the 1960s.

With a budget of $200 per room, she went to work. Sometimes the camp provided treasures, like the large Fiestaware collection discovered behind a false wall in the kitchen. Tereasa estimates that a quarter of the decorating items were found on-site. Other pieces came from her tireless shopping of flea markets and secondhand sales (she lays out her strategies in her book Found, Flea & Free). 

Pictured: Yellow chairs in the dining hall echo Fiestaware found behind walls. 

Throwback vacations

As the camp gradually came back to life, David and Tereasa (who still live in Chicago) began hosting overnight guests—guests who see the charm in a throwback vacation that requires a hike to the shower house. They can choose one of the hotel rooms, one of several small cabins, a teepee or a Boy Scout tent.

“People say, ‘It’s open air and bugs can get in!’” David says. “Yeah, that’s how camping used to be.” 

Pictured: An early-morning canoe ride is one of many simple pleasures. 

Stewards of tradition

Keeping old-school camping alive means David and Tereasa are forever on the search for another cabin to rescue and move to the property to create one more walk-in time capsule. “We don’t really think of ourselves as the owners,” David says. “We’re just the stewards trying to pass it on to future generations.”

For information: wandawega.com

Pictured: The lodge features worn leather seating, blanket-covered cushions, vintage taxidermy and an antler chandelier. The Vs in the old Wandawega entrance sign indicate the time Latvian priests owned the camp. 

Click ahead for more photos of Wandawega.

Family memories

David’s family stayed in the hotel’s rooms when he was a kid.

See a video about the camp's history>

In the trees

Friends built “Tom’s tree house,” named after Tereasa’s dad, with salvaged items. A ladder forms a railing for the loft filled with books, many about Wisconsin and bought for under a buck each.

 

Video: Tree house tour

Camp Wandawega co-owner Tereasa Surrat gives a tour of the property’s storied Tom’s Tree House and its handcrafted elements.

Summer fun

The tree house provides fun all summer for friends, family and guests. 

Flea or free

A simple line of lanterns creates an artistic composition against newly exposed, white-painted rafters in one restored cabin. “As a rule of thumb, we didn’t want to pay retail for anything. Everything was happily found, free or flea,” Tereasa says. 

What a find!

An old Girl Scout camp yielded this outhouse-turned-shower building. Inside, spigot handles affixed to walls act as towel hooks.

Budget bedding

Retro style comes from decorative pillows made from old blankets, sweaters, embroidery and, in this case, crazy quilts.
 

Revival

Hudson Bay blanket-covered cushions and fresh paint gave new life to a wicker rocker found on-site. (The badminton rackets are ready for use!)

Free art

Old camp photos—on a clipboard or hung with clothespins—are easy wall decor.

Bathing beauty

A 1950s bathing suit and oar personalize the shared hotel bath. Other uses for oars around camp: wall hanging, coatrack (with hooks) and sign (paint on paddle).

Designer look

Grouping sports collectibles in one room increases their stylish impact. Arrows in a thermos are an everlasting alternative to flowers in a vase. 

Telling a story

Late ’50s boy-theme curtains inspired this room. A totem pole lamp and a throw covered with vacation pennants create classic camp style. 

Spell it out

Letters from letterman’s sweaters appear around camp. In the lodge, a letterman’s sweater was used to upholster an old chair seat. The bench cushion pictured is a salvaged and recycled mattress (with fabulous ticking and embroidery) found on-site. 

Pop art

An avant-garde wall arrangement of arrows is chic and cheap. Frankie, the camp dog, stands guard. 

Video: Camp history

Camp Wandawega co-owner David Hernandez provides a brief history of the resort and shares stories of his times as a youth at this rustic camp.

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