David Hernandez was just a baby the first time his family stayed at Camp Wandawega, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. He went on to spend nearly every boyhood summer at the camp, which was run by an order of Latvian Catholic priests. "There are so many memories," says Hernandez, whose mother was born in Latvia. "Rowboat trips to the wetlands to catch frogs, flashlight tag after dark, lying on the bluff on our backs looking up at the Perseid meteor showers."
Three decades later and newly engaged, he took his then fiancee (now wife), Tereasa Surratt, to see the camp, by that time fairly well worn. With Surratt under the spell, the couple -- both Chicago-based advertising executives -- left with a parting request to the priest: "If you ever sell, please contact us first." He did. And they bought the place -- all 25 acres of it, including an 800-foot stretch of Lake Wandawega shoreline and a group of no-frills cottages that were built in the 1920s for booze running and gambling before becoming a legitimate summer camp in the 1940s.
During their nine years of ownership, Hernandez and Surratt have overhauled the buildings and grounds, with friends and family members regularly pitching in. "We have a talka [Latvian for "work party"] every spring to help get the property open for the season," says Surratt. Over the years, they have transported a 90-year-old one-room cabin from Surratt's hometown in Beardstown, Illinois; added three vintage Boy Scout tents; erected two tepees from Craigslist; and built a modern tree house high in the branches of an old elm.
Despite various improvements, Wandawega still offers all the charms of a bona fide camp experience -- archery, rickety pier fishing, and plenty of rope swings -- without being kitschy. "It was never intended to be fancy," says Surratt, who likens the lodgings to "camping indoors."
The three-story hotel, rustic lodge, and cottages have become a working showplace for Surratt's extensive collection of Americana (which she chronicles in her book "Found, Free and Flea"). "We found so many objects here when we bought it -- little clues of a bygone era -- and I've become obsessed with finding more of those same items," she says. Fishing lures hang like art on a bedroom wall; vintage life vests, weathered water skis, and worn oars read like creative installations; and cooking and baking tools are displayed in artful groupings in the kitchen. "Wandawega has been unapologetically simple since the time it was built," says Surratt. "It would feel disingenuous to do anything else."
Want to see more of Camp Wandawega? See our photos of the camp.
Camp Wandawega, about a 90-minute drive from Chicago, opens Memorial Day weekend and remains open as long as the weather permits. Rooms from $200 per night (two-night minimum). W5453 Lakeview, Elkhorn, Wisconsin; wandawega.com.
The "Found, Free and Flea" Philosophy
Surratt's favorite items to collect, and her tricks for turning even the humblest found objects into art.
The couple found a treasure trove of colorful hand-painted lures around Wandawega when they bought the camp. They've hung them in clusters across walls and used them to decorate gifts. Since lures from dealers can reach exorbitant prices, Surratt recommends searching for damaged ones on eBay, where you can snag a dozen or so for $25 or less. "If you don't need it to catch a bass, it doesn't matter," she says.
"Proven fact: A gin and tonic tastes better when served in a vintage pheasant-laden rocks glass," says Surratt. She likes to combine the "gorgeous little orphans" she finds in thrift stores for about $1 each to create an interesting set.
Vintage utensils and tools -- rolling pins, wooden spoons, graters, cookie cutters, whisks, bottle openers -- are some of the cheapest and easiest items to collect, says Surratt. (Not to mention practical -- most are still perfectly functional.) Once she has enough to merit a collection -- more than three -- she'll often display them on kitchen walls and shelves.
Old pitchers can pull double-duty as vases or bathroom cotton ball holders. "The stockpile we keep at camp gets used for everything," says Surratt. She also suggests grouping pitchers on their own by hue -- Pieces of different shapes, sizes, and periods complement one another when they're in the same color family.
Wandawega kitchens are outfitted with hand-crocheted hot pads, but Surratt also hangs them in wall groupings. To find them, she heads for the no-man's-land of fabric-scrap and dollar bins at the junk shops. "If you dig deep enough, these little gems will always turn up," she says.
Surratt's collections of wooden tennis rackets, skis, oars, arrows, croquet sets, and baseballs have almost all been rescued from flea markets and thrift shops for spare change. She loves repurposing wooden oars in particular and suggests mounting them on a wall to use as coat racks or kids' height charts.