The Camp Dakota Story
This is our story so far. We are far from done, but this is how we got to where we are today.
The Camp Dakota property was first purchased in 1969 for $17,000 by Audine & William Winslow. At that time the property was mostly planted in Christmas trees. While working on moving a more permanent home to the property, the Winslow’s and their four small children moved into a small cabin where they endured a year without indoor plumbing or conventional heating. Water for dish washing and bathing had to be drawn by bucket from a hand dug well for that year first. The only heat source was an open fireplace in one room of the cabin. The winter of 1969/70 was one of the worst on record with snow drifts more than 10 feet deep across Crooked Finger road. One memorable storm that winter would forever be remembered as “the outhouse tipper.” Upon completion of their permanent home, complete with indoor plumbing & forced air heat, the Winslow’s quickly moved the family into the home that still stands today as the primary residence.
The Winslow’s youngest son, John, his wife Jenifer, and their one year old son Dakota moved to the property in 1996 with the idea of building a campground and raising their family. At that time, John and Jenifer planned to purchase a manufactured home to live in. Unfortunately, Oregon land use laws would not allow the Winslow’s to place another permanent home on the property. (Parcels of privately owned farm or forest land are currently only allowed one home per 80 acres.) Eventually, Audine and William were granted a temporary permit allowing a manufactured home due to a medical hardship. Audine and William currently live in this manufactured home. John & Jenifer Winslow, and their two boys Dakota and Houston moved into in the original Winslow residence. Audine works as the bookkeeper for the camp and William, although retired, can often be found fixing the tools that John breaks. (This can be a full time job in itself.)
Some difficult times
John spent the first year working to get approval from Marion County Planning to proceed with the plan to build a campground. The first application was denied by the County and the Winslow’s appealed the decision.
John remembers his frustration at that time.
“The $500 application fee was a lot of money back then. I had just quit my job to move my family here and start this campground. Jenifer was working for just more than minimum wage at that time and we had a baby. I couldn’t understand why Marion County wanted so much money just to tell us if we could build what we wanted on our own property. Next came the appeal, which cost another $300.”
“I had worked for over a year on the application process, and we couldn’t afford to hire a land use attorney to help us. We had some neighbors opposing us, rumors were flying, and the bureaucracy at Marion County was ridiculous.” A lot of my friends and probably some of my family thought I was nuts. Little did I know that this was just a foreshadowing of a much bigger battle that was to come a few years later.”
In early 1997 the Winslow’s Conditional Use permit to build a campground was granted by Marion County. Camp Dakota opened with the first 10 unimproved campsites in October 1998 and was named after John & Jenifer’s first son, Dakota, who was three years old at the time.
From 1998 until 2005, the Winslow’s, worked to build roads, install water and electrical connections, build a shower building, as well as more campsites, yurts, and tee pees. Most of the work was done without contractors or outside help…much of it without the proper tools or equipment.
“We did a lot of hand work during that time. We couldn’t afford to buy a backhoe or a newer tractor at first, so we made do with what we had.”
As Camp Dakota grew, the Winslow’s found that many of the “conditions” that Marion County had imposed when the first Conditional Use permit was granted were unreasonably restrictive. More campsites were needed to make the business sustainable, and certain activities such as paintball had not been specifically addressed.
The Winslow’s decided to risk the uncertainty of the Conditional Use permit process. (Again)
John Winslow recalls this difficult time.
“This was the most stressful time of my life. I had been working on the campground for 7 years and things had been going well but now everything was on the line. If we failed to gain approval for this application, we were going to have to call it quits and give up our dream. There were two more application denials, appeals, three public hearings, huge attorney fees, more rumors, nasty letters, and testimony from neighbors who didn’t like the campground in the neighborhood. We spent a lot of time in prayer and hundreds of our friends and customers supported us with letters and testimony. The bureaucracy at Marion County was terrible. My application was very thorough and should have been approved without all the foot dragging. In the end, we got what we asked for, but it cost us two years of our lives, lost business, and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and application fees. All I can say now is “God is Good!”
“If our family had not come together through strength, courage, and faith, this campground would not exist today. My parents have sacrificed their retirement years to help me build this camp. Without their support, there would not be a Camp Dakota. I would like to thank my wife in particular for the sacrifices she has made over the years, working outside the home, commuting long distances, so that I could pursue this dream. I have to give credit to God for allowing everything to fall into place when there were so many things that could have stopped us. I also thank our great customers and their families for all their support over the years. Without good customers who support our efforts to make a family friendly campground, we would never have gotten to where we are today.”
John Winslow recalls the sacrifices made by his family.
“For the first 10 years of development, we put every dime we made back into the camp to make improvements. Traditional marketing was well out of our budget so we sought alternative options. Word of mouth and free craigslist ads were our primary means of advertising the camp at that time. When Facebook became a thing, we used that to promote our business and it was free to do so at the time. My wife Jenifer worked full time away from the camp, commuting to Salem and even to Eugene to make ends meet. All the while I was not taking a pay check. With two small kids and one income supporting us, we all made a lot of sacrifices. Jenifer’s was the greatest. I don’t know anyone who has a wife who is more patient and supportive. She put up with a lot those first 10 years. Now we get to live and work together all the time and we are so blessed.”
One of the biggest struggles early on in the development of Camp Dakota was the problem of making the camp profitable enough to pay the bills.
“I knew that we needed to add some activities to attract more guests and make us unique. Without a lake or anything nearby to attract guests, we needed to become a destination. We were well off the heavily traveled I5 corridor so most travelers were able to find accommodations closer. We needed something to attract people who lived within an hour or so of our location that other campgrounds were not currently offering. That’s when I met Devin Howe. Devin had a dream of opening up a Paintball field but did not have a location. We got together and formed partnership. Devin provided the startup capital for purchase the equipment and I provided the location. This turned out to be a tremendous success, both for Devin and the campground. Several years later Devin partnered with us once again to build a series of zip lines and a small challenge course. These improvements attracted more guests and helped to make the camp busier and actually profitable.”
As the camp continued to grow and become profitable, John and Jenifer were able to provide summer jobs for their sons Dakota and Houston Winslow.
“Both of our boys were required to work while growing up. We tried to teach them a strong work ethic and how to take responsibility that other kids their age do not assume until much later in life. As a result they both have benefitted from the experience. Although at the time I doubt they would have thought it was a positive thing.“
Adding more staff
By 2010, the camp had begun to become busier and profitable enough for Jenifer to finally quit her regular job and work at the camp full time. As time went by, more employees were needed to keep things running.
“We have been so blessed to have such great employees. Justin “Youngblood” Briley was hired as an adventure guide and worked his way into the position of Activities Director. Then we got busier and he was promoted to Camp Manager. Justin has become a part of our camp family.”
“We now have a full time maintenance and security officer. “Ranger Rick” Hoopes does a great job keeping the camp in good shape and keeping the peace. We all sleep better at night knowing he is on patrol.”
“We recently hired a new activities manager. Tom “Juggernaught” Rooney was a great fit with our team. Coming from a military background, Tom knows how to lead and get things done.”
Camp Dakota currently employs 30 seasonal and part time seasonal staff. Audine & William, John & Jenifer Winslow still live on site and continue to work together with their management team and employees to make Camp Dakota a place where families can continue to come together and enjoy the outdoors.
Not the end….