A Wisconsin gem with a stranger-than-fiction past

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ELHKORN, Wis. (CBS58) — A campsite nestled on what has been dubbed a “lake no one’s ever heard of” in southeastern Wisconsin has a nearly 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 cabin and build little cabins on the hill, and we can all stay together forever in these little cabins on the hill,” said Camp Wandawega co-owner David Hernandez. “As a little kid, it never occurred to me that one day we might buy the whole place.”

Hernandez began visiting the camp decades after the infamy it was known for in the 1930s and 40s. By the time Hernandez set foot in Wandawega, it was an old-fashioned American summer camp run by Latvian priests fleeing the Soviet invasion in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“It was a lifesaver,” Hernandez said. “I’m saying maybe metaphorically, but almost literally, just to be able to get out of town and have a place like this was really amazing for a little kid in Chicago.”

The Latvian Marian Fathers owned the camp, known as “Camp Vandavega” because there is no “w” sound in Latvian, for 42 years.

Due to church ownership, Hernandez and his wife and camp co-owner Tereasa Surratt believe it has flown under the radar, one reason they call it “the lake no one’s ever heard of.” “.

“You know what’s crazy? The locals don’t know we’re here. We’re 100 years old and were in the news a lot in the 1920s. speakeasy, a lot of crazy things have happened here,” Surratt said.

Hernandez once told the priest in charge of the camp that he would be the first to buy it if it ever came up for sale.

“One day we got a phone call and he said, ‘Okay, if you’re serious, now’s the time,'” he said.

Saving the camp, with all its memories and history, was the couple’s main goal. They have since transformed what was once the “Wandawega Hotel”, a brothel and speakeasy, into a place that 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 disrepute. Mrs. Anna Peck ran it and used the bedrooms for the women who worked here… When you walk through the halls you will see that it is not there are only rows of rooms on either side.”

Peck, a Swedish immigrant who came to Wandawega in the mid-twenties when her adoptive father bought her, ran a bootlegging operation outside the hotel with a brothel. She was arrested several times, eventually serving a few years in prison before ending her life on the main street of Elkhorn.

“When I tell people the story, that there’s everything here, from fugitive criminals to contempt of court, to multiple interdiction padlocks, multiple federal raids, murder, kidnapping, a suicide. So much has happened here over the years that people look at me and think I’m crazy,” Hernandez said.

“Our imagination ran wild when we were little. We always thought that this place with a forbidden past probably had incredible stories, but the stories we made up were nothing compared to the reality we learned over the years. time.

From the 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 disowned him in the city, kidnapped a friend, forced her to drive him to Camp Wandawega, and ultimately committed suicide inside one of the buildings. Many who have stayed at the camp claim to have seen the ghost of Gabriele wandering by the lake.

“I personally haven’t seen it, but we’ve had numerous reports of other people seeing it. So I’m going to have to take their word for it,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know if there was too much whiskey around the campfire late at night, or if they actually saw a ghost. Maybe we’ll never know. »

The whole history of Wandawega, sordid and pleasant, fuels the couple’s passion for the camp. They have owned the 25-acre property since 2004, rehabilitating and reviving its buildings while adding their own.

“For the past 18 years, we’ve spent every free dollar from our day jobs and every minute we have here to fix it, save it,” Surratt said. “It was a labor of love, with the focus on hard work.”

One of the first additions to camp was a small cabin that traveled 350 miles to end up at Camp Wandawega. It’s 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’s like it’s always been there.”

Another incredibly significant building on the property is what they call “Tom’s Tree House”. It’s a treehouse dedicated to Surratt’s late father, who christened the camp when they bought it by adding swings to various trees.

“When [Tom] is dead, the tree is dead too. Even though the branches 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 allowed the two to go on a journey of preservation when it came to things that others could easily throw away.

“One of our biggest passions, and one of the reasons we have Camp Wandawega, is that we love saving old buildings. We love moving old buildings, we love restoring old buildings,” said Surratt.

As they continue to expand the camp with new additions, they also keep old traditions alive, like “Mass in the Grass”. Hernandez, who grew up going to Latvian Catholic Church Mass in Wandawega during the summers, vowed to keep the tradition alive.

“Latvian volunteers started making the pews, as well as the altar, and it has been going on now since the 1960s. It’s a tradition that goes back more than 50 years,” he said. “We concluded a handshake with [Father Baginskis]. We said as long as the will of the people wants to continue to have Mass here, we will continue to sponsor and support it…I see grandparents with their children and grandchildren sitting there enjoying mass and I just imagine myself back in the early 1970s doing the same thing,” he said.

Every Sunday between Memorial and Labor Day, up to 200 people can be outside to enjoy mass at Wandawega.

“We joke sometimes on this side of the chapel…we’ll have people drinking Bloody Mary’s and on this side we’ll have people saying Hail Mary’s,” Hernandez said.

Today, Camp Wandawega is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and visitors can rent a stay at the couple’s unique American getaway, learn about its long history and enjoy its magnificent views.

“There’s so much incredible history here, so much incredible nature here that I think we sometimes take for granted,” Hernandez said. preserve the things that can still be preserved rather than pushing things back, emptying things completely. I think that’s part of the story we’re trying to tell here. Getting people to really appreciate the historical assets and the natural assets of the place.

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