Camp Wandawega is a historic campground on the shores of Lake Wandawega in Wisconsin, owned and operated by Chicago-based husband-wife duo David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt. By day, Hernandez and Surratt work in the advertising world. He’s the Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy and Mather, and she is the VP Global Group Creative Director at Ogilvy, but in their spare time they don their flannel shirts and wellies, roll up their sleeves, and get their hands dirty, restoring and running every aspect of the camp. Thanks in part to its close proximity to Chicago — just under two hours — as well as a blend of positive local and national press and enthusiastic word-of-mouth from guests, Camp Wandawega has emerged as a unique destination for everyone from city dwellers to large brands, providing visitors with a place that’s as much a bucolic getaway as it is a direct link to a simpler time.
But let’s start at the beginning: The history of Camp Wandawega is long and varied. The Wandawega hotel was built in 1925 by a group of Chicagoans looking to create a speakeasy during the Prohibition Era, and the building was quickly outfitted with all the essentials for illicit activities— think trap-doors, hidden spaces and extra exits— making it an ideal destination for gambling and illegal liquor distribution. Despite these tricks, the Feds raided and temporarily shut down the operation in 1931. Shortly after, the property reemerged as Orphan Annie’s, a lively, debauchery-filled tavern run by Anna Beckford Peck, who entertained various characters with gambling and booze (though liquor had been legalized by then). After Peck went to prison in 1942, the property began a more wholesome chapter: it was bought by a Chicago family, the Andrzejewskis, and converted into a lakefront resort. Despite its popularity with Chicago families looking for a getaway, the property was then purchased by the Catholic Church, which used it to house Latvian priests who were unable to return home during the Soviet occupation. Thus, in 1970, Wandawega became a Latvian church camp, which eventually went up for sale in 2003.
This is where Hernandez enters the camp’s story. He and his family had always spent their summers visiting Camp Wandawega, and the place was close to his heart. So, when the property went up for sale, Hernandez and Surratt decided to buy it and breathe new life into the camp, which is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. With an eye for design and a passion for digging up vintage treasures, they’ve spent the last 15 years painstakingly restoring the camp, all while still working their demanding advertising jobs. It’s a passion project for the duo, who come up most weekends with their daughter, Charlie, who is now the fifth generation to spend summers at Camp Wandawega. “It’s a communal family project, in that when we are there, we’re doing the work ourselves. We don’t have investors, and we don’t even have big construction companies do the renovations. It’s very much mom and pop,” Surratt says. “David’s parents come up every weekend, and it has become a place for us to spend time together that we wouldn’t otherwise have if we just stayed in Chicago. Here, Charlie gets to go to weddings, attend art camp and band camp, and have s’mores every night. It’s a different sort of upbringing for her, and we feel very fortunate to be able to give that to her.”
In restoring the camp, Surratt and Hernandez have spruced up the cabins, lodge and other structures, adding vintage items and outdoorsy decor that expertly pairs with Wandawega’s natural surroundings. The vintage-rustic design has attracted a wide range of visitors. In fact, since it was started, Wandawega has hosted everything from art, theater, culinary, and kids’ camps to company retreats, as well as weddings, photo shoots and collaborations with top brands, including Warby Parker, Faribault Woolen Mills, Threadless, the Land of Nod, and many more. While Wandawega is often booked for full-camp private events, in between, Hernandez and Surratt open up the Camp to visitors, continuing the camp’s long-standing tradition of providing a respite to families, including many from Chicago.[metaslider id=”3472″]
Despite the pitch-perfect design, Hernandez and Surratt do their best to inform prospective visitors that Camp Wandawega wasn’t created to be a luxury experience. Their website includes a “Manifesto of Low Expectations,” explaining that the camp is the “definition of rustic.” There’s no air conditioning, a weak wi-fi signal, old-school camp showers, lumpy mattresses and shared kitchens and baths. But rather than offer high thread-count sheets and luxury steam showers, Surratt and Hernandez aim to bring visitors back to a simpler time and help them connect with life’s simple pleasures. Of course, Surratt realizes the rustic experience isn’t for everyone; “Some people say they love the idea of camping, but they really don’t,” she explains. “When they get there, they’re like, oh shoot, this isn’t glamping, this is full on sleeping in a tent with no air conditioning.”
But those who are along for the rustic ride are treated to an almost immersive trip back in time to an old-school summer camp. Scattered across the 25-acre grounds, you’ll find every sort of camp activity imaginable: an archery field, shuffleboard, horseshoes, a tennis court (wooden rackets provided), more than 20 acres of hiking trails, a fleet of vintage bicycles, canoes, several vintage aluminum boats, fishing equipment, a private lakefront, and a giant bonfire pit, complete with s’mores fixings. The lodge, the main building of the former Wandawega Hotel, provides indoor communal areas, such as a great room and dining room, and guests are welcome to cook their own food using any one of the camp’s grills, smokers or griddles.[metaslider id=”3476″]
The newest addition to the camp is the Hill House, a recently restored three-bedroom, two-bath home adjacent to Camp Wandawega’s property. “It was sitting on four lots next door,” Surratt says. “We bought all the lots of the land that it sat on. We wanted to own it because it was bordering us, plus it was falling apart, and we wanted to fix it up.” Surratt and Hernandez rehabbed the property over the course of two years. The project attracted the interest of notable vendors, including Kohler, Rejuvenation and La Marzocco, who provided a deluxe espresso machine, giving the home a more upscale vibe than the camp’s other accommodations. “The Hill House is for folks who really want central air conditioning, good coffee, and a culinary kitchen, but still want to go down and visit camp.”
According to Surratt, the Hill House is an extension of the camp, and they similarly use it for everything from individual rentals to corporate retreats, brand shoots, and photo shoots. Because of Walworth County rental restrictions— Airbnb proprietors are allowed to rent out properties in seven-day segments, or they can rent for less than seven days, but with only one rental per week— Hill House can be rented a maximum of four times per month, which is an ideal situation for Hernandez and Surratt. “We would much rather have fewer guests than a constant turnover,” Surratt says. “We’ve invested too much in the house. I have family heirlooms in there, things that are really easy to break. In that way, it’s totally different from Camp Wandawega.”
When Hernandez and Surratt bought Camp Wandawega in 2004, they sparked something back in Chicago. Since then, Surratt says around a dozen of their friends, all from the city, have purchased second homes in the area, creating a community away from home. “It’s a blessing because you’re seeing all these old buildings, sometimes abandoned buildings, come to life,” Surratt says. “It’s great to see a resurgence of interest in an area and a real diversity of creative types.” She attributes this in part to the abundance of amenities in the area. Visitors to Walworth County have access to the lush natural landscape, a vibrant food and drink scene, artisan-made products, creative entrepreneurs and much more. “There are so many boutique grocers, growers, farms, and makers that are moving here from downtown New York or Chicago, since they have the ability to launch their brands and businesses from almost the middle of nowhere,” Surratt says. “It’s providing so many more options. It’s not just solitude, though it can be.”
Given how close Wandawega is to their hearts, plus the community and amenities offered in their home-away-from-home, it is not surprising that the family has been discussing moving to the Lake Geneva area permanently. But Surratt says that at the moment, splitting time between Chicago and Walworth County is the ideal set up. “Right now, it affords us a certain degree of balance,” she says. “We can go up and recharge, then come and [enjoy Chicago]. It’s the best of both worlds.”
For more information on Camp Wandawega, visit: www.wandawega.com
By: Molly Each
Photography by: Bob Coscarelli