Chuck Cronquist, a Vietnam vet disabled by Agent Orange during his tour of duty in the 1960s, isn’t much for talking about the war. He’s more interested in explaining how Veterans Campground on Big Marine Lake is a rare gathering place for military families.
“The most important thing out here is that we all have a camaraderie, whether we want to share it or not,” said Cronquist, of Cottage Grove, who has joined crews of volunteers over the years to rebuild 11 deteriorating 1930s-era cabins. On this day, the Navy veteran was securing blue plastic to the floor of a duplex under construction to protect it from the sleet and rain.
More popular than ever, the nonprofit camp near Marine on St. Croix in northern Washington County has seen a fivefold surge in reservations since 2010, driven by a huge pool of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This year the camp reached a record 17,000 visitors in its April-to-October season, and it’s already booked for 2018.
More aggressive marketing, and efforts to broaden the camp’s appeal to young families, also figured in the increase. “What we thought was extremely urgent was getting the word out,” said board member Lori Ahlness, a retired major with the Minnesota Army National Guard and former Marine reservist. “We had to change a lot of dinosaur perceptions that this was a well-kept secret.”
Formerly known as Disabled Veterans Rest Camp, the 69-acre property was a modest retreat for most of its long history, home to substandard buildings with little money available to change with the times.
Once a farm, the camp began in 1926 as a refuge for shellshocked soldiers burdened with the horrors of World War I trenches. The former soldiers lived in a dormitory attached to a farmhouse that overlooked the lake, and their nurses stayed in a number of mismatched cabins trucked from various locations.
The camp’s goal of providing veterans with rest and recovery continued as World War II servicemen arrived with much the same psychological burden, this time called battle fatigue. For recent veterans, similar afflictions are known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
But the camp isn’t a hospital; the World War I dormitory is gone. Instead, it’s a place where vets instinctively understand each other’s experiences and problems, Ahlness said, and help overcome them.
As camp manager, Army veteran Ken Larson has seen the struggles firsthand almost daily. “Fighting those kind of demons, war-related, yes,” he said. “We all get along, we all listen. We’re all veterans here and we’re here to help each other out as much as we can.”
‘Whole new breed’
Veterans Campground is run by members of a board appointed by three Ramsey County veterans groups — the Disabled American Veterans, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars — and the Ramsey and Washington county boards.
Today it draws a “whole new breed of veterans” who bring their children and expect more amenities, Ahlness said. The camp has fewer World War II and Korean War veterans and many more who served in Vietnam. But the influence of younger veterans from the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts is apparent.
That’s why the board changed the name of the camp. “You hear the word ‘disabled,’ you’re not reaching the younger crowd,” Larson said.
The camp has two new playgrounds and a third on the way. Activities include boating and swimming on Big Marine Lake, family movie nights and an adventure camp for children. Just last week, an ice fishing clinic for military kids was being planned for February in the camp canteen.
One of the fishing organizers was Staff Sgt. Joseph Hill, on full-time duty with the Army National Guard and the 32-year-old father of five children. Younger vets identify with older ones because of a common bond, he said. “Veterans connect because they all have that one thing that nobody else has,” he said. “If somebody served in the military, I don’t even have to know their background. There’s a connection, they’re brothers and sisters.”
Increased revenue from the growing number of reservations now pays for camp operations, while funding grants and volunteer labor have contributed to new living quarters, roads and trails. Several labor unions sent volunteers to build two footbridges to connect portions of the camp. Construction has begun on a new welcome center and storm shelter. “We’re always rebuilding or renovating something,” Ahlness said.
About a decade ago, the organizations that run the camp expressed alarm at its deteriorating condition. The picturesque many-gabled farmhouse, the camp’s centerpiece, was long gone. Twelve original cabins were falling apart. The paved path connecting those cabins was narrow and inclined, making it difficult for veterans in wheelchairs to navigate. None of the cabins had wide doors, and only a few had ramps.
Camp leaders decided on an expansion that would include pavilions, a lodge, eight more duplex cabins, more sites for recreational vehicles, a shower house, walking trails and 32 more boat slips in the marina. Most of that got built.
Now comes the current round of construction, and Cronquist, a 71-year-old board member, said the transformation in the past decade is nothing short of dramatic.
“It’s unbelievable what’s happened,” he said.