Often history can be right under the tread on our RV’s tires, and we fail to see it. Such is the case of the campground my friend Chris and his family own and run in Central Virginia.
I wrote about Chris last week – mostly his dilemma over rising operating costs and irresponsibility on the part of some campers. What I did not share was when and how the campground began and has continued to exist for the past century and a half. It is an interesting story – one that I am sure many other campgrounds may share.
This particular campground is on a working family farm. They plant soybeans and corn in two of the fields while maintaining a large part of pasture for hay. They have about forty head of beef cattle along with the usual coops of chickens, a few hogs, two mules, a horse, and some goats. The lake on the farm is home to many wild geese and domestic ducks.
I listened intently as Chris began his story:
“The farm goes back to my great grandfather who bought the 321 acre farm shortly after the end of the Civil War for the partly sum of $2,900.00. Yes, that is less than $10 an acre – and according to family legend, he was criticized by folks in the community for paying too much.”
“Since the farm is close to a busy roadway that runs into Richmond, VA., travelers and farmers bringing their harvests of tobacco, cotton and other crops to the Richmond markets and docks needed a place to stop for the night. The farm offered travelers free camping along with water and pasture for the horses or mules drawing their wagons. My great grandfather operated a small blacksmith shop on the farm and often performed repairs on the traveling wagons.”
I looked over at Chris and asked, “You mean the very spots where we park our RVs today was once used to park wagons drawn by animals going to market?”
“Yes”, Chris replied, “and the spot where the blacksmith shop stood is where our maintenance shop is now sitting”.
“Wow”, I thought, “I never would have imagined that I was camping on top of such a historic spot.”
Chris continued with his history lesson.
“By the early 1900’s the farm had been passed onto my grandfather. He continued to allow travelers to camp here. When the Model T’s were introduced, farmers began to use trucks to haul their harvest. Other people that were not farmers began to use the long body model T’s and A’s as campers to sleep in when traveling. Grandpa put in two outhouses and dug a well for water where people stopped to camp. I understand that he charged a dime to stay overnight, but waived the charge for most of the folks and accepted chickens, tobacco, produce or hams in trade. Many of the travelers would stay around a few days and help with chores on the farm. So, Grandpa built a bunkhouse that could accommodate up to eight men (only men) for the night. The bunkhouse was where the new camping cabins are now sitting.”
“Grandpa did not serve in the military during World War I, but his two younger brothers did. Neither one of them returned from the war, leaving Grandpa as the sole heir to the farm.”
“Grandpa continued to provide camping sites to folks after the war. My grandmother died a few days after my Dad was born in 1925, so he was raised by my great aunt who also lived on the farm. Grandpa never remarried and thus my Dad was the sole heir to the farm.”
“When the peak of The Great Depression hit there were thousands of folks that had no jobs, homes, or money. Grandpa put some of these men to work building the original dam for the lake. Every shovel full of dirt and stone for the original dam was laid by hand. These were folks that worked simply for food and a place to stay in the campground. Grandpa was able to feed them from the farm’s harvest and even set aside a place for them to grow their own gardens and keep a few chickens. Two new outhouses were added – I understand one was a triple seater 🙂 – and a shelter with a tin roof was erected where the current pavilion sits. Some of the men stayed through the winters in the bunkhouse or the loft of the barn with the hay for the animals.”
“Grandpa continued to operate both the farm and campground through World War II. When my Dad returned from the war, Grandpa began to turn much of the operation of the farm and the campground over to him. Dad married and spawned me in 1946, along with my younger brother Richard and my sister Sara in ’50 and ’52.”
“After the war, camping for fun began to increase. During the course of a year, hundreds of families would come here to pitch their heavy canvas tents, sleep in military surplus bedrolls, and cook in tin pots over campfires. Quite a few travel trailers were on the road by then and some of the more wealthy folks were camping in well appointed converted buses and trucks.”
“In 1961, Grandpa made it official and created a business entity separate from the farm operations for the campground. It was a good business decision that provided protection for both the farm and campground should one or the other fall on hard times.”
Grandpa passed away in 1968. Dad took over both the farm and campground. After my Senior Trip to Vietnam, I came back home and needed a job. Dad turned operation of the campground completely over to me in 1970 – the same year Karen and I were married. My sister married a hippie-like guy from California and moved away. Sadly, my brother was killed in a car crash in 1971, the same year our son Bobby was born. Penny came along in 1973.”
“I was able to get a bank loan to upgrade the campground the same year Penny was born so that we had electricity and water available to twenty camping sites; we bulldozed down the outhouses and the wooden bathhouse and put up a new cinder block building with real flush toilets and hot showers. A dump station was added along with the camp store. Dad had the dam on the lake expanded so that it was higher, wider, and stronger. The surface area for the lake grew to 22 acres.”
” The enlarged lake was a real drawing card for the campground. It offered rowboats, canoes, fishing, and a sandy swimming beach. The lake hosted an assortment of geese and ducks and was well stocked with fish. We added a picnic area and even allowed non-campers to come into the picnic area and lake for 50¢ a day. The overnight camping fee for tents rose to $2.00 and trailers that used electricity plug-ins and water to $4.00 a night. The forty trailer sites and the tent camping area were packed all summer long.”
“Dad continued to operate the farm and pretty much left me alone to do my thing with the campground. I gradually found the money to upgrade the electrical system – twice – once to a full 20 amp service and then again to 30 amp service. All of the electrical wires were overhead on poles. We covered all of the interior dirt roads with gravel, leveled out the RV campsites, added a softball field and a swimming pool along with a second bathhouse, and an expanded camp store.”
“In 1990, Dad had a cerebral hemorrhage. He survived, but was not able to resume the work he had been doing on the farm. My sister Sara and her (new) husband, Buck, along with four boys having strong backs and a desire to work, came back that year. Buck and the boys are now helping to run the farm while Karen and I continue to run the campground.”
“By the early part of 2000, the campground had really aged. We were having trouble with the septic system, the bathhouses were inadequate, the campsites were too small for many of the newer and bigger rigs with slide out rooms, people were wanting sewer hook-up at their campsite, the electrical system was overloaded and the pool (concrete) was cracking and leaking badly. Attendance was down as many campers were going to facilities that were more spacious and modern. The daytime only picnic and swimming beach attendance had virtually ended and tent camping had fallen off completely.”
“We decided that if we were to keep the campground open that some serious renovations would have to be undertaken.”
“I hired a local retired architectural engineer that had experience with RV park design to work with me on drawing up a site plan along with water, sewer, and electrical specifications. We put the project out for bid in early 2004.”
“We closed the park right after Labor Day in 2004 and immediately began a total renovation of the campground that lasted through the winter. We invested almost a million dollars improving the campground – all new electric and sewer along with larger sites featuring concrete pads and patios. We built two new bathhouses and put in a new pool, paved the entrance road, added four camping cabins, a new pavilion and a large barn for indoor events that includes a stage and kitchen. We closed down the tent camping area and expanded the seasonal camping area into what had been used for tent camping so that campers might stay on site for longer periods (Many call them permanent sites, but the law only allows people to occupy them for a maximum of 180 days out of a year.) A storage area was created in the mostly unused front pasture for folks that wanted to leave their RVs here rather than tow them home.”
“We reopened in May of 2005 with straw covering the mud in all the open areas. Grass did eventually grow and covered the mud.”
“Our attendance is back up – but as I shared earlier not without new problems. We need to reassess our rates as they barely pay the monthly bills, let alone the debt service. I hate to go up on our rates because I know some campers will no longer be able to afford paying the high price for gas or diesel to come here plus a higher camping charge. Maybe I can trade camping space for eggs and ham? :)”
Chris’ Dad quietly passed away in his sleep last November at the age of 90.
Bobby is poised to take over the campground in the next couple of years (if he wants it).
Sara, Buck and the four boys intend to keep on farming the land.
Chris and Karen are looking forward to doing some extensive travel in a new motorhome and staying in someone else’s campground.
And all this time I just saw it as a campground like any other.
It is really a privilege to be camping on the same ground our ancestors used 150 years ago for their camping journeys. Shucks, it is entirely possible that one of my family ancestors camped on this very spot. Wow, I wonder what my great grandpa would say if he could see the style we are camping in now?
HAPPY CAMPING TRAILS TO ALL!
Author’s Note: Photos shown in this blog are representative of the period in history when this story takes place. They may not be authentic photos of the campground in the story. The names used for the persons referenced in the story are not their actual names. The real campground owner has asked that I not publish the name of the campground.