In 1925, the “Great Race of Mercy” sent antibiotics by dog sled across the territory of Alaska to combat an epidemic. Calvin Coolidge was president, the Scopes trial had just proved America wasn’t ready to teach evolution, and The Great Gatsby had just been published. It was then, midway through the Roaring Twenties and knee-deep in prohibition, that wealthy businessmen from Chicago built the Wandawega Hotel.
Today, you can still stay on the shores of Lake Wandawega, “the lake in southern Wisconsin no one has heard of.” David A. Hernandez, the current owner of Wandawega, explains that since its doors opened as a speakeasy, Camp Wandawega has hosted “everyone from sinners to saints. Literally.”
As an illicit moonshine joint, Wandawega was built with multiple exits, trapdoors, and hidden hatches. The feds didn’t take long to catch on. As early as 1931, Wandawega was shut down by a “Prohibition Padlock.” But it took more than that for Wandawega to lose its reputation as a “bawdy house of ill fame.” Ladies of the night helped the place earn the nickname Orphan Annie’s, and they continued to serve all manner of clients until the madame herself was put behind bars at the women’s prison near Fond du Lac.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Wandawega finally cleaned up, getting a second chance on life when the Catholic Church purchased the property. Latvian priests, refugees from World War II, planned on retiring at “Vandavega,” and the old resort-cum-speak-easy became a church camp for kids.
This is where the current owner, Hernandez, comes in. “My mom was a Latvian Catholic,” he said. “I’ve been coming with my family since I was born.” He attended camp for years – flag raising, swimming lessons, canoe rides, the whole nine yards – and when the Soviet Union dissolved and the Vatican ordered the priests to sell the retreat and return to Latvia, Hernandez purchased the property.
“We didn’t really have a vision for it,” he said. “We just wanted to save it from the wrecking ball. The only plan was, buy it, and we’ll figure it out later.”
David and his wife Tereasa Surratt have spent every weekend for the last nine years repairing and restoring the camp, cabin by cabin. As they put it, “If these walls could talk, the stories they would tell.” (When pressed for a lurid example, David said that an armchair historian had recently spent several weeks pouring over micro-fiche and she’d found a kidnapping murder-suicide had taken place on the camp grounds – although he was quick to say, “We don’t tell people which cabin was involved. And I’ve never felt any bad mojo.”)
Now in the process of being added to the register of National Historic Places, Hernandez and Surratt try to find the right balance of hosting artistic and cultural culinary events that they don’t make money on with “strangers to offset the pro-bono things.” They’ve had a stream of illustrious guests as word of mouth has spread, everyone from former supermodel Nikki Taylor to the executive director of Le Cordon Bleu.
“We get a lot of people who live really fast paced lives, people who could go anywhere in the world. But they don’t want to go to Four Seasons, they can do that in their daily life,” Hernandez says. “We’re where they go to get disconnected.”
“It’s all come together really organically,” Hernandez said. “My entire lifetime, there’s always been an almost mythological oral history of the place, but it’s never really been validated before.”
Want to visit ? As Hernandez and Surratt put it, Wandawega “is a private retreat that occasionally makes a few cabins available for recreational camp activities in order to support the ongoing renovation and the largely philanthropic activities. It is very informal and causal. Before visiting, please review our Manifesto of Low Expectations…”
Drop by wandawega.com to learn more.
Weekend Cabin isn’t necessarily about the weekend, or cabins. It’s about the longing for a sense of place, for shelter set in a landscape…for something that speaks to refuge and distance from the everyday. Nostalgic and wistful, it’s about how people create structure in ways to consider the earth and sky and their place in them. It’s not concerned with ownership or real estate, but what people build to fulfill their dreams of escape. The very time-shortened notion of “weekend” reminds that it’s a temporary respite.