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Door County’s RV Culture

I didn’t have to ask Jan Harlow a lot of questions. I showed up at Aqualand Camp Resort to talk to the owner, Mike McAndrews, to get a feel for the place, and after a few minutes he stopped talking and said, “you know what, I should just take you down to meet Jan and Wayne.”

We hopped in his golf cart and cruised down the gravel road through the thick trees of the property on County Highway Q outside Sister Bay. Until 1978 there was a small zoo here, believe it or not, and the ponds are still here, nestled in the swampy area on the east side of the 167-acre campground.

A few spurs down the road, past several trailers and motor homes with elaborate gardens, patio lights, and yard art, McAndrews turns down to the Harlow’s site, where he drops me off unannounced.

dclv10i02-feature1-aqualand-RV-peopleI say hello, tell Jan I’d like to talk to her about life in the campground, and pretty soon I’m following her around their site and getting a tour of the campground. Mike wheels away quickly – he knows his best tour guide has it covered. The Harlows have been coming here since 1982 and spent their first full summer here when Ronald Reagan was beginning his second term in office.

They came up for the summer, plus fall weekends, when Wayne could break free from his teaching job at Park Beach Junior High in Park Beach, Illinois. They started by tenting, then progressed to a little pop-up trailer, and eventually grew into a motor home. In 2002 they retired and moved to Spokane, Washington to be near their daughter and two grandsons. That’s when they became full “seasonals,” as those who stick around from May through  October are known. Seasonals occupy 130 of Aqualand’s 150 sites. The Harlows spend about seven months each year in Washington, then travel to Door County to spend five months with friends at Aqualand.

“Here, we are all family,” Jan says. “Throughout the winter we keep in contact – sickness, a death – they email or call us and we send it to everyone we know from Aqualand.”

Family is by no means a stretch. Their neighbors at Aqualand include Wayne’s sisters and some of Wayne’s former colleagues. His old superintendent and three of the teachers he worked with have lots at Aqualand, as do a couple of former students.

On a warm August night the campground is surprisingly quiet considering how many people are living in such close proximity. Occasionally a vehicle passes us as we chat about the camping life in front of the Harlow’s 40-foot RV. The most prominent sounds, aside from Jan’s excited, enthusiastic voice and Wayne’s understated chuckles, are the sounds of birds and the occasional child squeaking to a sibling in the distance.

Photo by Taylor Schultz.

Aqualand Camp Resort was once a small zoo. Photo by Taylor Schultz.

The Harlows are the social networkers of the campground, McAndrews says. Wayne, a former woodshop teacher, has built several of the porches that expand the space for many fellow residents, while Jan is the talkative tour guide quick to make new friends.

They don’t get out of the resort a ton, they admit. A trip for groceries, to do laundry, maybe a run to the drive-in, but they don’t like traffic and the crowds of the peninsula’s festivals. Plus, they feel a responsibility to be around.

“We’re sort of the social directors of the campground, so if we’re gone people come looking for us,” she says. In retirement, Wayne says, “It’s nice to be needed.”

Wayne strolls with us, happy to let Jan do most of the talking as he fills in occasional gaps. Affable, with graying hair that he wears close-cropped like his goatee, Wayne’s engaging smile is that of a contented man.

Jan says they try to be welcoming, but also give new residents space. There’s one big rule – if the blinds on a camper are closed, nobody bothers you. If they’re open, you’re accepting guests.

They both came from families that loved to camp and they always enjoyed it themselves, but the RV life affords them a vacation lifestyle in retirement that might otherwise be out of reach.

“We sleep in our own bed,” Jan says. “With two people we don’t feel cramped at all. We have a full refrigerator, kitchen, bathroom. The bedroom can get tight though.”

Most trailers and motor homes are about 40 feet by 8 feet, and no bigger than 400 square feet (the maximum to qualify as an RV). At a footprint smaller than most studio apartments, it sounds like extremely tight living, but stepping inside it doesn’t feel that way. The Harlows have your average home furniture – a comfortable swivel chair that Wayne plops into, full couch, a small dining set like you might see in most larger resort suites, decorative valances over the windows and a full kitchen.

They still have a traditional TV, but more and more of their neighbors sport flat-screens. “I’m waiting till this one dies,” Wayne says.

When you live in a small space Wayne says you tend to keep it clean. “A little clutter can become a big mess pretty easily,” he says. “But we spend most of our time outside.” The porch and a screen house in back serve to expand their living area.

This is their third RV, having grown into their 40-footer, “our last one,” Wayne says. They’ve been on the same site since 2002, and like most long-term seasonals they’ve made it their own just like people do with their homes. Each site has its own feel, some with elaborate gardens, others with Koi ponds, some with classically-tacky yard art.

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Sandy and Bob Servais. Photo by Len Villano.

On Saturdays many of them get together for a potluck where Wayne and a neighbor share grilling duties and folks gather at picnic tables along the Harlow lot to eat. Another neighbor hosts movie nights by projecting films on the back of their RV. People simply pull up their golf carts, a common amenity for those who like to visit, for the miniature drive-in show.

A “Booming” Visitor Segment

The Harlows are part of a wave of Baby Boomers that have fueled the growth of the RV industry. The number of households that own an RV grew 15 percent from 2001 to 2010.

The Boomers have provided the numbers, but technology is revolutionizing the RV lifestyle, making it a more attractive vacation option, or as so many in Door County use it, a much more affordable summer cottage. A trailer or motorhome runs $40,000 to $80,000, and a seasonal site at Aqualand is another $2,200. Not a bad investment for your own slice of Door County living.

McAndrews estimates that a third of his campers are from the Chicago area, a third from Milwaukee, and a third are weekend warriors from Green Bay. He says the latter might have a little more fun, and usually have more kids in tow.

“We have stock traders, professors, business owners,” he says. “These aren’t cheap folks, they’re just people who enjoy this lifestyle.”

Part of the lure of that lifestyle is spending a lot of time in the outdoors, grilling out, and sitting around a fire, but Door County’s campgrounds aren’t home to the sparse living of yesteryear.

Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, says the evolution of electronics has had a huge impact on the industry.

The flat-screen televisions and other space-saving electronics have made RV travel much more attractive, Broom says. “Ten years ago even a small television would require a three-foot cabinet,” he says, “but today a large flat-screen requires only a wall to hang on.”

While tent campers seek out heavily wooded campgrounds or isolated backcountry locales, RV owners often like wide open campgrounds that often look more like a drive-in theater than a campground. Why? To get reception on their satellite dishes for cable and Internet service.

Such changes have helped the industry rebound after it suffered a huge blow after the economic crash in 2008.

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Elizabeth, Lianna, and Isabelle Stojaradovinic poke around the fish pond at Aqualand Resort in Sister Bay. Photo by Len Villano.

Over 390,000 units shipped in 2006, but the industry suffered a 30 percent fall in 2008, before rebounding to 252,300 units in 2011. Shipments were up nearly 10 percent through the first quarter of 2012 over the first quarter of 2011, Broom says, and he expects growth to settle in at about 5 percent by year’s end.

Broom said 85 to 90 percent of RV sales now are towables, like the popular fifth wheels, with an average price slightly below $40,000.

“The price varies,” he says. “You can get some pop-ups for about $6,000, or you can spend over a million dollars, though that’s very rare. Then you can hit almost every price point in between. You can get a really well-equipped unit for surprisingly low price. For $30,000 you can get a new fifth wheel that can sleep 6 to 8 people with a flat-panel TV, washer, dryer, and refrigerator.”

Plus, most motor homes qualify as second home purchases, allowing loan interest to be deducted as second home mortgage interest.

The Unsung Visitor Niche

Door County boasts over 2,200 seasonal and transient campsites, most of which are claimed every night in July and August. It’s a surprisingly large portion of the visitor base that often flies under the radar. Those campgrounds are the summer destination for a healthy chunk of the one million coaches, trailers and fifth wheels that left Florida on April 1. That’s right, an estimated 1 million RVs exit the state that day.

Now retired after selling his business, Property Maintenance Supply, Bob Servais lives with his wife Sandy about 10 minutes northeast of Green Bay in New Franken, Wisconsin. For 30 years they made frequent visits to Door County to go boating, but 10 years ago they ditched the boat and bought an RV.

“I had to change it up,” Servais says.

Last summer he brought an entire RV club, the Monaco RV Club, to Baileys Grove Campground in Baileys Harbor for a rally, eager to introduce its members to Door County.

Servais loves the RV life, especially the people he comes across. “You get to meet a lot of new people,” he says. “You start a whole new line of friendships. Everyone is there for similar reasons, to relax and meet new people.”

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Golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation in most RV parks. Photo by Len Villano.

Josh Kropuenske has owned the Baileys Grove Campground with his wife Alicia since buying it from his father in 2007. After several years managing hotels, Kropuenske has grown to love the campground business, joining with partners to buy the old Path of Pines campground in Fish Creek two years ago, now open as the Fish Creek Campground. Since he has so many seasonal campers who return each year he develops stronger bonds with his customers.

“Generally speaking campers are a pretty friendly bunch,” he says. “There’s much more mingling than you would have in a hotel, so you get to know the people who come back year after year.”

Kropuenske has met people from all walks of life in his few years hosting campers, even some from the other side of the world. A few years ago a family from New Zealand rolled into his driveway. The couple, in their early 40s, sold all their property, flew to Pennsylvania, and bought a fifth wheel and a pickup so they could spend a year touring the United States with their two teenage children.

“They said they wanted to spend time as a family and see the country,” Kropuenske says.

The Scottie Rally held each May in Baileys Harbor brings a surprising boost to his business, with seven or eight people arriving specifically for the event, in which proud owners march their dogs in a parade through town.

“Last year a lady pulled a fifth wheel all the way from Montana with her three Scotties just for the rally,” he says.

Kropuenske met one couple who had lived out of their RV, traveling the country, for 21 years. “That’s the longest I’ve heard of,” he says. “I don’t know how you do it that long. Most people seem to go for a year or two, maybe five years. When they get out of it it’s usually because they miss having space, miss having a home and a garden.”

Though Servais loves camping and expects to continue doing it part time for 10 more years or so, he said doing it year ‘round is beyond his interest.

“There’s no way I could ever full time it like some people do,” he says. “First, it blows my mind to think of selling everything I have and just going with the coach. But more importantly, you better get along with your wife really well to live in a trailer full time.”

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Josh Kropuenske runs Baileys Grove Campground in Baileys Harbor. Photo by Len Villano.

A few years ago Kropuenske became a seasonal himself when he was between jobs, Kropuenske and his family (he and Alicia have two boys) spent a summer living out of a 27-foot travel trailer. Throw a dog into the mix and the space could get awfully tight.

“When the weather was nice it was great,” he says. “But on rainy, miserable days it was terrible.”

That’s probably why most of the RV culture is made up of retirees, usually social folks in their 50s and 60s looking for a sense of community. Harlow says that to stick with it you have to enjoy camping and enjoy people, because they’re never far away.

Come March, the Harlows start getting antsy to make the trek back to Door County. “We get excited to see everyone,” Jan says, “We come for the people. There are people that lose spouses, but they still come up because their neighbors here take care of them.”

The RV culture, it turns out, isn’t so much about the RV after all.

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