Camp Wandawega: A Wisconsin gem with a past stranger than fiction
ELKHORN, Wis. (CBS58) -- A campsite nestled on what has been dubbed a "lake no one has ever heard of" in Southeastern Wisconsin has an almost 100-year history that includes bootleggers, a brothel, and the Catholic Church.
“When we were little kids, we used to fantasize about, ‘when we grow up, maybe we can all buy a little cottage and build little cottages up on the hillside, and we can all stay together forever on these little cottages up on the hillside,'” Camp Wandawega Co-Owner David Hernandez said. “It never occurred to me as a little kid that someday we’d be able to buy the whole place.”
Hernandez started visiting the camp decades after the infamy it was known for in the 30s and 40s. By the time Hernandez stepped foot in Wandawega, it was an old-fashioned American summer camp run by Latvian priests fleeing the soviet invasion in the late 60s and early 70s.
“It was a lifesaver," Hernandez said. "I say that maybe metaphorically, but almost literally, just to be able to get out of the city, and have a place like this, was just really amazing for a little city kid from Chicago.”
The Latvian Marian Fathers owned the Camp, known to them as "Camp Vandavega" because there is no "w" sound in Latvian, for 42 years.
Because of the church's ownership, Hernandez and his wife and Camp Co-Owner Tereasa Surratt believe it flew under the radar, one reason they call it "the lake no one has ever heard of."
"You know what's crazy? The locals don't know we're here. We're 100 years old, and we were in the newspapers a lot in the 1920s. During the prohibition era, when it was a brothel and speakeasy, lots of crazy things went down here," Surratt said.
Hernandez once told the priest in charge of the camp he would be first in line to purchase it if it were ever for sale.
“One day, we got the phone call, and he said, ‘okay, if you’re serious, now is the time,'" he said.
Saving the camp, with all its memories and history, was the couple's main focus. They have since turned what was once the "Wandawega Hotel,' a brothel and speakeasy, into a place visitors can rent during their stay, renaming it "The Bunkhouse."
"Today, The Bunkhouse is a modern building in a 100-year-old shell," Surratt said. "It was built to be used as a house of ill fame. The Madam Anna Peck ran this and used the bedrooms for the women that worked here...When you walk down the halls, you'll see there are just rows of bedrooms on each side.”
Peck, a Swedish immigrant who made her way to Wandawega in the mid-twenties when her adoptive father purchased it, ran a bootlegging operation out of the hotel along with a brothel. She was arrested multiple times, eventually serving a few years in prison before finishing out her life on the main street in Elkhorn.
“When I tell people about the history, that there is everything here from criminals on the run, to contempt of court, multiple prohibition padlocks, multiple federal raids a murder, kidnapping, suicide. So many things that happened here over the years that people look at me and think I’m crazy," Hernandez said.
“Our imaginations ran wild when we were little kids. We always thought that this place with a prohibition past probably had some amazing stories, but the stories that we made up were nothing compared to the reality that we learned over time.”
From ladies of the night to a grisly murder-suicide that crossed state lines: the story of "Johnny Sweetheart." John Gabriele, a Chicago man, killed his lover after she denied him in the city, kidnapped a friend, forced her to drive him to Camp Wandawega, and ultimately took his own life inside one of the buildings. Many who have stayed at the camp claim to have seen the ghost of Gabriele wandering the lakeshore.
“I personally haven't seen him, but we’ve had numerous reports of other people who have. So, I’m going to have to take them at their word," Hernandez said. "I’m not sure if it was too much whiskey around the campfire late at night, or if they really saw a ghost. Maybe we’ll never know.”
All of Wandawega's history, sordid and pleasant, fueling the couple's passion for the camp. They have owned the 25-acre property since 2004, rehabbing and reviving its buildings while adding their own.
"For the past 18 years, we've been spending every free dollar from our day jobs and minute that we have available here fixing it up, saving it," Surratt said. "It's been a labor of love, emphasis on labor."
One early addition to the camp was a tiny cottage that made a 350-mile journey to end up at Camp Wandawega. It is a cottage that once belonged to Surratt's grandmother in Central Illinois.
“It was so meaningful to be able to save a piece of my childhood, bring it back here and bring it back to its glory days," she said. “It feels like it’s always been here.”
Another incredibly meaningful building on the property is what they call "Tom's Tree House." It is a treehouse dedicated to Surratt's late father, who christened the camp when they bought it by adding swings to various trees.
“When [Tom] passed away, the tree died also. Despite the fact that the limbs were starting to fall, and the tree was getting ugly, Tereasa wouldn't let us cut it down," Hernandez said.
Finding beauty and purpose in long abandoned buildings has kept the two on a journey of preservation when it comes to things others might easily discard.
"One of our biggest passions, and one of the reasons we have Camp Wandawega, is because we love saving old buildings. We love moving old buildings, we love restoring old buildings," Surratt said.
While they continue to grow the camp with new additions, they are also keeping old traditions alive, like "Mass in the Grass." Hernandez, who grew up going to Latvian Catholic Church Mass at Wandawega in the summers, promised to keep the tradition going.
“The Latvian volunteers started making church pews, and the altar as well, and now it’s been going on since the 1960s. It’s a tradition going back over 50 years," He said "We did a handshake deal with [Father Baginskis]. We said as long as the will of the people wants to continue to have mass here, we’ll continue to sponsor it and support it...I see grandparents with their children and their grandchildren sitting there enjoying mass and I just imagine myself back in the early 1970s doing the same thing," He said.
On any given Sunday between Memorial and Labor Day, up to 200 people might be outside enjoying mass at Wandawega.
“We do joke sometimes on this side of the chapel...we’ll have people drinking Bloody Mary's and, on that side, we’ll have folks saying Hail Mary's," Hernandez said.
Today, Camp Wandawega is on the National Register of Historic Places, and visitors can rent a stay in the couple's one-of-a-kind American getaway, learn about its extensive history and enjoy its gorgeous views.
“There's so much amazing history here, so much amazing nature here that I think we sometimes take for granted," Hernandez said. "We’re trying to get more and more people excited about embracing the cottage vernacular, embracing the simple architecture, and preserving the things that can still be preserved rather than pushing things over, completely gutting things. I think that’s part of the story that we try to tell here. Get people to really appreciate the historical assets and the natural assets of the place.”