American Getaway, Prologue: "Our Place," Walworth County, Wisconsin, August 2012.
"How dare you, sir. How dare you threaten to take this place away from us."
At this the crowd fell silent. Clearly, emotions were high. After all, when a ninety-year-old woman crosses a crowded courtroom to dress down the county zoning board - directly to their faces - well, then, pretty much everything else comes to a standstill.
And she was just getting started: "Ashamed, the county should be ashamed for even considering something like this," she yelled, quaking with indignation. "That’s our place, that’s God’s place and you will not take it away from us." There was a respectful wave of applause. The venerable woman spent the next several minutes laying out the many noble qualities of the place in question before finishing her statement with a final wag of her finger and a final benediction: "ashamed, you should all be ashamed."
Mrs. Rita Sisk of Walworth County is a devout Catholic mother, grandmother, and first-time zoning board scolder. The inciting incident that had brought so many supporters together that day? A zoning violation. And, “the place” that Mrs. Sisk, along with fifty others had stood up to defend? ‘Our place,’ she had called it, ‘God’s place,’ was an outdoor chapel situated on a twenty five acre piece of property along the north edge of Wisconsin’s Lake Wandawega, known today as Camp Wandawega.
Since the 1960s, when the property was used as a retreat center by an order of refugee Latvian priests, the outdoor chapel at Camp Wandawega had been used during the summertimes for ‘Mass in the Grass.’ For the faithful, the opportunity to pray and hear mass outdoors was more than just a novelty, it was a new kind of sacrament: worship in that first of all temples, nature. Over time, the tradition became sacred. So, in 2012, when the county zoning commission realized that the chapel sat on property zoned for residential use only (and not for religious gatherings), it threatened closure and an end to "Mass in the Grass."
Cue the community uproar. Cue the indignation. Cue Mrs. Sisk and the crowd of people who showed up on a weekday to protest; the local residents, the out-of-towners from Chicago, the members of the Latvian community, the Catholic school principal, a big city ballet director, even former Illinois state representative Joe Lyons. Cue the over three hundred letters of support that came in from around the world, insisting that Camp Wandawega be allowed to remain open as-is and that the loss of Mass in the Grass would be, "a travesty."
In the end, it was a non-travesty: the chapel and the camp were saved from the wrecking ball, or, at least, from closure. It was a victory for the diaspora of those who love Camp Wandawega; the generations of families who had come (and are still coming) to their summer getaway ‘on the lake no one has ever heard of’ in southeast Wisconsin.
But there was a second, less instantaneous consequence in Camp Wandawega’s August, 2012 campaign: in the process of preparing for the court hearing, the camp’s current owners David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt were introduced to decades worth of documentation and first-hand accounts clarifying much of the shadowy history of the resort property which included, in the broadest of strokes, illegal booze, illicit sex, the mob, the Vatican, a panhandling raccoon, and even a murderer on the run. And what they found - the facts they were able to confirm after years of unconfirmed myth and campfire legends - was stranger, more fascinating, and more complicated than they could ever have imagined.
As it turns out, for the past century, "God’s place" - that wholesome, all-American getaway by the lake - has been just as much a sanctuary for sinners, as it has for saints. Since the first modern building appeared on the site in the 1920s, it has been a speakeasy, a secret hideout for Chicago mobsters, a 1930’s brothel, and as the site of a gruesome, 1942 murder-suicide. For almost one hundred years, what is now known as Camp Wandawega has been many things to many people, but one thing has remained constant: the shores of Lake Wandawega have always played host to those who seek, whether for virtue or vice, to get away - both to something, and away from something else.
The story you are about to read reaches back into far away decades, it is populated by real people - both heroes and villains; the facts of their lives and times have been meticulously gathered, thoughtfully considered, and sketched here with as much journalistic integrity as we could muster. There’s a chance that a little ‘color’ has been added between the lines here and there whilst still leaving plenty of room for these tales to grow taller in the years to come. This is the stuff of legends, after all. So crack open a cold one, wrap up in a blanket, and gather in close around the fire...this is the very true, very strange history of Camp Wandawega, American Getaway.
Learn more about the American Getaway book project here, and more about Camp Wandawega here.