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Back to the basics
Camp Wandawega boasts a no-frills style that adds to the fun experience

Photos by Bob Coscarelli

March 2015

Hello Mudda

Hello Fadda

Here I am at

Camp Grenada Wandawega

If summer sleepover camp is a great childhood memory, Camp Wandawega is your chance to relive it. With your kids.

Camp Wandawega is, quite simply, the old-school, zero-frills sleepover summer camp. It is located on the 110-acre Lake Wandawega in Elkhorn. And, according to the camp’s website, if you’re the type of person who thinks the Waltons were a bunch of pampered little brats, then you’ll enjoy your stay at Camp Wandawega.

Husband and wife team David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt purchased the former Latvian Catholic summer camp in 2004 — the same spot that Hernandez frequented as a child. However, the 2004 version of Camp Wandawega was a far cry from the Wandawega of the ’60s. So began the historical refurbishing. And what emerged was an oversized toy village brought to life, ready to be explored by kids both big and small. The original Wandawega Hotel guest house became the Bunkhouse and now features 12 rooms available for vacation rentals. The main building of the old Wandawega Hotel, once a Polish restaurant (complete with speakeasy-era trap doors), is now the Lodge, and the two small cabins that dot the property were also restored and minimally modernized.

Hernandez and Surratt added an eclectic collection of new structures: 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; "Tom’s Treehouse," three stories high and anchored around an enduring elm tree; and, lastly, the "Canned Ham," a ’50s-era travel trailer made by a company in Friendship, Wis.

But all the refurbishing did not produce a luxury camp for the new millennial. If your vacation must-haves include air conditioning, multiple Michelin stars and an Olympic-sized pool, Camp Wandawega may not be for you. Would-be campers are urged to familiarize themselves with the camp’s online Low Brow Manifesto, which proudly points out that air conditioning is available when the wind is blowing, the pool is disguised as a solar-heated lake, and "we have one-eighth of a star on a 5-star scale," according to Surratt.

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 and hipster bloggers alike. The lure of the camp, it would seem, is alive and well. In recent years, Camp Wandawega claims numerous celebrity visits and countless magazine photo shoots.

One half of each summer season is booked solid with philanthropic events, endeavors Surratt calls "the most emotionally fulfilling money-losers ever" — kids camp, art camp, band camp and local community and church events. Every room is outfitted with period antiques fitting its colorful history, from its time as a Prohibition-era lodge and brothel to 1950s summer camp. Guest rooms and cabins come equipped with vintage books, games and puzzles.

Outside, there are communal fire pits and BBQs, swimming, fishing, tennis (wooden rackets provided), archery, horseshoes, hiking, badminton, canoes, boats and more.

The Ritz it’s not. But if you want to be transported back to the summer camp of your youth, then Camp Wandawega — "Nothing new. Nothing improved. Since 1925." — is right up your alley. Oh, and don’t forget your bug spray.

Summer Camp Stories

Although summer camp is usually all about the kids, there’s no denying the fact the counselors find it entertaining and worthwhile, too. We asked directors and counselors from various summer camps throughout Southeastern Wisconsin to recall their favorite camp story or most memorable moment, and here’s what they came up with.

"I’ve been a summer camp director for many years, but there’s one story that was the strangest of all time. It was a little after midnight, and two little girls knocked on my door. ‘Mr. Rick, there’s a monster in our room!,’ one of the girls says. I tried convincing them otherwise, but they insisted that there was a huge monster in their room. So, I walked quietly down the hall with them to their room, trying not to wake the other campers. I opened the door, and there was a 1-foot-long iguana perched on one of the little girl’s beds! Since campers were staying in a CUW student dormitory, turns out that two soccer players had kept the iguana as a pet and could not locate him to take him home for the summer. I ended up catching him the next morning (after he curled up on my lap, actually), and one of the CUW housekeepers took him home as a pet." — Rick Riehl, WCSS/Concordia University Wisconsin Summer Basketball Camp Owner

"While discussing guinea pigs as pets, one of the kids asked what baby guinea pigs look like. Another kid in the group made a strange face and looked at me and says, ‘guinea pigs don’t get married, so they can’t have babies!’" — Megan Katzuba, Education & Donations Assistant, HAWS Kids ‘n Critters Day Camp

"I taught a camp for 5-year-olds last summer with the theme ‘If You Give a Tiger a Tutu,’ and I used the song ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ as part of the camp. Before the kids danced, I was explaining the song to them. One camper raised her hand and says, ‘I know that song.’ I responded that maybe the little girl was thinking of a different children’s song about tigers. However, when the song came on, the little girl knew all the lyrics and belted it out — singing along the entire time, even when I turned off the music! Definitely my funniest camp memory." —Cindy Collins, Camp Instructor, Danceworks, Inc.

"At Fashion Boot Camp last summer, high school girls traveled from all over Wisconsin (and some as far as Poland) to share their love of fashion. These girls were busy learning the ins and outs of the fashion industry, from designing 3-D boutiques and merchandising displays to illustrating personal collections and sewing skirts. The campers started out not knowing each other, but by the time the fashion show was over, they were confident fashionistas and best of friends." — Trish Kuehnl, fashion instructor at Mount Mary University and Fashion Boot Camp co-director

"Last summer in our Discovery Kids Camp, students got to see a real-life emergency situation. The theme of the camp that week was "Let’s Go... Learn About Heroes in Our Own Community!" Each day, a different speaker came to visit the children to talk about his/her role in the community. This particular day featured a visit from the firefighters of the Brookfield Fire Department. They arrived riding in a fire truck, which left the children awestruck. As the firemen climbed down and began to meet with the children, an emergency call came in. They explained that this is what it’s really like to be a firefighter. You have to be ready to go help people at all times. The fire truck drove off with sirens blaring; the kids were jumping up and down and waving excitedly. Another fireman arrived shortly thereafter to complete the talk, which attests to the devotion of our firefighters — real heroes in our community." — Julie D’Arruda, Summer Program Director, Brookfield Academy Summer Days Program

"One day when it was pouring outside, all the campers in the horse program were upset about not being able to ride, so we surprised them with an indoor competition! They did a scavenger hunt around the barn, horsemanship trivia jeopardy, and a race to label the parts of a horse. Most of them didn’t realize how much they learned because they were so into winning the competition. Everyone ended up having a blast, and the next year one of the returning campers came to me and says, ‘I really hope it rains again this year!’" — Karen Eash, Counselor, Camp Anokijig

"Last summer I came across an 8-year-old girl crying in front of our cabin. After hearing that she had been very close to reaching an archery award but had just missed it, I took her back up to the archery range, which was closing for the day. Not only did the archery staff re-open, but they took the time to coach her on her technique. The look on her face when she finally hit the right score on her target was priceless. Being able to see a child achieve something new is one of my favorite things about camp." — Kayla Gardner, Counselor, Camp Anokijig

"I have been a camp counselor for eight years now and have loved every minute of it. I’ve had the privilege of being a camper, junior staff, senior staff and assistant manager. One of my fondest memories that always makes me laugh was when a camper asked me how old I was. I told the child I was 21. The child responded by saying, ‘oh my gosh, you are already in middle school?’ Working with children as a camp counselor will always put a smile on your face and help you become a stronger person." —Abby Cushnie, Counselor, Camp Anokijig

"My favorite thing about being a camp counselor is watching how our campers grow and learn throughout the week. Nothing is more rewarding to me than seeing that camper, who was so shy on opening day, smiling and laughing with newfound friends and telling me about all the outrageous fun had at archery, the corral or photography. Everyone knows camp friends are the best friends you can make, and there is no better place to find your best friends than at Camp Anokijig." — Catie Strigenz, Counselor, Camp Anokijig

"I distinctly remember a unit day during my first summer as a counselor that involved various challenge stations — where the cabin would earn ‘ingredients’ like mayonnaise and ketchup to put in their blender. At the end of the day, they got to blend everything together and dump it on their counselors. I’ve never seen their eyes light up so fast at the idea of torturing the counselor, but it became an instant bonding moment for the group. It was all they could talk about and made smelling like barbecue sauce for several hours 100 percent worthwhile. Watching a cabin come together as they create friendships and share memories as the week progresses is one of the best feelings as a counselor. A little torture is worth it." — Grace Barlow, Counselor, Camp Minikani

"Two years ago I was fortunate to be the counselor of a camper who traveled from China to come to camp. Although the language barrier made communication difficult, it also enabled some great memories for both of us. One night, while the entire camp was playing an enormous game of hide and seek at dusk, I saw this particular camper sprinting away from the rest of the group. I ran after him, thinking he was upset. When I caught up with him, he giggled and continued to run aimlessly, but I eventually realized that he was chasing fireflies — something he had never seen before. The look of awe in his 9-year-old eyes when he caught one sticks with me to this day, and it goes to show that camp gives each camper a unique new experience, whether it be their first time camping in the woods, riding a horse or chasing a bug." — Keegan Hasbrook, Counselor, Camp Minikani 

- By Jen Hunholz


This story ran in the March 2015 issue of: