Rustic Ridge Resort, a tucked away gem
If you have ever been on Hwy 33 about 5 miles Southeast of Wildcat Mountain State Park, on a very sharp bend, you just might have whisked by a place called Rustic Ridge Resort. I know I have, literally a few hundred times.
On the West side of the road, just a couple hundred feet South of that bend, sits a sign just as its name would imply.
A joint venture by Brian Sullivan, his sister Diane Gabbey, and her husband Bob, this story begins about 15 years ago.
Diane and her husband had driven past the place for many years. Having hunting land in the area, Diane said, “We would drive past it for the past 15 years, sometimes it would be jammed packed with people, others it would be closed up tight like it was vacant.”
Diane stated she and Bob love this area, and feel it is just a beautiful part of the state. So, Diane and Bob started driving around on weekends, and when visiting Wildcat State Park, they would pass by, see this place, and wonder about it.
Eventually, the Gabbeys started looking for a retirement home to buy, and low and behold they found the very place that had puzzled them for years for sale on the real-estate website Zillow. Without question, they visited the property and fell in love with it.
Diane said her and her husband were thinking about buying it for a retirement business and home, and so, her brother went and bought it for them. “Actually, we bought it all together,” she said.
The Gabbeys had Brian visit lots of other places before finding the property, and initially had him join them to visit this property as well. “It’s a really nice place with a story and history. It’s been around since 1908 as a church camp,” Brian said.
There used to be a plaque in one of the hallways about the founders and describing the property as a “Chautauqua”. Chautauqua is an Iroquois word with a few meanings - “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” and describes the shape of Chautauqua Lake, located in southwest New York. This area was the setting for the first educational assembly (Chautauqua Institution) and so provided the named to the movement.
When started, the camp didn’t have any buildings, as time passed, buildings were added.
As a church camp, it wasn’t one church’s camp. It was used by all of the Wesleyan churches in Southwestern Wisconsin, and fittingly was named the Wesleyan Church Camp.
“All of the churches’ kids and parents would come here. Over the years, they met kids from all over Wisconsin, and would see them every summer for 10 or 15 years.
Sometimes it was a kid’s camp, and sometimes a family camp. They aren’t here anymore, but there is one little white building left (from that time) by the shower house,” Brian said.
With other little houses just like the one Brian mentioned, dotting the property, some families eventually purchased them, and when they came to the camp, used them as a home away from home.
Other families had to camp, although there were two buildings that had many bunkbeds. One was the boy’s dorm and one was the girl’s dorm. Brian stated that he didn’t know where the parents stayed. “We just hear stories because no one has filled the gaps in. Sometimes the pastors come back to visit,” he said.
At some point when buildings were added, families purchased or sponsored a room, and subsequently would own it. They provided the bedding and decorations for their rooms.
Brian admitted, “We don’t have a lot of confirmation, but people have come and said “That’s how it worked when I was here”. We’ve even had pastors come back that were ordained here.”
A lot of the kids that used to come here are now in their 60’s. Brian shared that they have taken them to buildings where the dorms were, and some found their names right where they remembered they had written them on the walls. “It’s kind of cool with all the names on the walls and the beds. Kids like to do that at camp, and they even find their friend’s names. They say ‘I know this one, and this one’ which they are still in contact with on Facebook. So that’s pretty neat that they grew up with these kids for a long time, but lived in different parts. They weren’t their neighbors because they came from different parts of the state,” he said.
Originally 170-some acres, as they went through hard times, the church sold off some of the acreage This left the property today as 10 acres, where sits all of the buildings with the rest as fields and the more modern campground. The rumors are they housed 400 to 500 kids at the camp each week, making it quite an impressive camp. “We know that because we had to clean up all of the stuff that was left behind; all the beds and pillows,” Diane said.
There was a warehouse where they passed out the kid’s stuff and all of the kitchen supplies that filled a whole building. A big metal building served as the camp’s tabernacle that has a slanted floor with benches so they could all see, that led to a stage where they probably held their church services. “That is probably why it was so big, to have that many people. I can’t imagine that many people being here, Diane said.
Diane said, “During the day they had to have kept the kids busy with activities. They had a baseball diamond across the street, they took them horseback riding, they took them canoeing. Obviously, there is stuff here for them to do but you have to keep 500 kids occupied, so that was a big deal.”
Brian and the Gabbeys had heard that it was the longest continuously operating campground in Wisconsin, a statement that Brian intends to prove otherwise. He said so far through researching the plaque mentioned earlier, that there were no other camps back then. “We aren’t talking State camps; we are talking a real campground. This was actually functional.”
Over the years, the church constructed buildings and added on. The bottom part of the one building was a kitchen. 30 years later, they added a second part where the bedrooms are, where the youth ministers, pastors, and camp counselors would stay.
It was told to Brian and the Gabbeys, that one year, an Amish man brought the existing chapel here, and wanted the church to buy it. They weren’t sure if they wanted to, so they left it to wait and see, but the Amish man never came back for it or any sort of payment. Today, that same chapel stands with a new deck area and is available for weddings.
The large tin shed on the property was originally used as a basketball court. Prior to the trio purchasing the property, it sat vacant for 5 years. “We have been maintaining what was here. A lot of the buildings were scraped and painted and then updated. Brian put up new windows and roofs, but there is a ton more to go,” Diane said.
Brian said that they will never be done, because “there are a million things on the to-do list. It’s not that it was neglected, but things start to fall apart. We are always working on cutting trees as they die. That is the first thing we did was cut up all of the trees that had fallen down on the buildings. It was a disaster. There are a few limbs that we still have to get to, but it’s hard to get to everything. A lot of that is ongoing (maintenance) that distracts you from other things. There are 27 picnic tables that we had to redo because they were rotted, so we had to rebuild them, prime them, and paint them, and we are still working on them. Now, we put them in for the winter so they don’t rot. We have a huge agenda of what we want to do, but there are all of these side things that happen everyday that need our attention.”
There are 9 buildings, in total, that the trio have been working on to update. Business wise, Brian and the Gabbys haven’t really branched out too much yet, with yet being the key word. For the past 3 years, they’ve been in the fix/clean-up mode, although the campground is always open.
The campground, located down the center of the property features 12 campsites. Six of them have water and electric, while the other six are primitive sites. There is an additional primitive group camping site along with what they refer to as a very “rustic” group site, both on either side of the main camping area. The property does have a fully functional bath house with flush toilets and showers available for campers.
The resort offers lodging as well. Rustic Ridge Resort’s 50’s style motel features four quaint individually themed rooms, with private bathrooms with showers.
Additionally, Rustic Ridge uses the dormitory that now hosts eight rooms that are also individually themed, with bathrooms and showers down the hall. While it has a total of twelve rooms, four rooms are currently used for other purposes, one being Brian’s office.
Rustic Ridge resort has converted the old basketball court building into a full event venue, complete with ample seperate space for caterers to provide food.
“We want people to have their personal space and personal touches for their events, and be able to offer onsite housing for weddings or other events. We can offer bachelor/bachelorette parties, family reunions, and rustic weddings,” Diane said.
The resort can accommodate 200 for weddings, and if it isn’t a formal sit down, 225-250 with picnic tables outside. The trio can alter the venue for what people are looking for.
The property also totes a building on Hwy. 33, which the trio believes was the boy’s dorm. “We are in the process of working on that building. Maybe one day we will host monthly rummage sales or open a store there, as Brian is an artist.” Diane said. She added, “That would be a dream for us. It would be a unique setting for him (Brian) to sell his artwork. We like to antique and could sell some furniture.”
No resort would be complete without official hosts though. Becky and Ed Rohn originally of Hillsboro, Wisconsin, are the hosts. Diane said, “They are lifers in the area. They go south and visit their kids in the winter. This is their eighth year straight with us. We inherited them with the camp. They are here if we need to be gone for a weekend, and they help people in and out of the rooms and the cleaning.”
With no shortage of views, history, and possibilities, Brian, Diane, and Bob truly have a Driftless gem that is noteworthy. Next time you hit that sharp curve on Hwy. 33, be sure and see for yourself.