Just Say Yes: A Campground Love Story
Geri and Joe Walter met as teenagers 37 years ago and became true best friends and high school sweethearts. Then, after nine years of dating, living together and having a baby, they got married, had two more babies, moved four times, built two homes and remodeled another one together. Geri and Joe have always been up for a challenge as long as they're together.
Then camping became a part of their lives. The Walters, Geri’s sister Caron and her husband Kyle spent three years as seasonals at ARVC member-park O’Neil Creek Campground in Chippewa Falls, Wis. where they had many a conversation on their futures.
“Oftentimes, while sitting around our campfire, we would talk smart, like ‘if we owned this campground, we would do this, this or this’ . . . basically imagining ourselves flipping it,” Geri says. “Then one day, I got a call from the previous owner who asked, ‘How would you like to own a campground?’ I said, ‘That sounds fun!’”
So Geri texted Joe, saying, 'You are about to receive a call from the campground owner. He will ask you a question. Please keep an open mind, and just say YES!' The rest, as they say, is history. After getting a huge commitment from Caron and Kyle that they would work with the Walters to help run the campground and after watching the movie "We Bought a Zoo," Geri and Joe became the proud owners of O'Neil Creek Campground which spans 105 acres and has 380 campsites.
“It became a family affair,” Geri says. “My sister is my right-hand man. She has been with us from the start. Caron and Kyle's children, Isabel and Jack worked with us and so did our kids, Jake, Claire and Jeret. Gradually, our parents also started to volunteer their time. My family is important, I love them!!”
At first, the Walters made the rookie mistake of thinking that owning a seasonal campground would mean working hard all summer and taking vacations in the winter. But, as they soon discovered, not so much. They started with just five employees and now have 35-40. One of their greatest accomplishments is mentoring the young teens who come to work at the park and helping them develop their skills.
This May will mark ten years since the Walters purchased the campground and in that time, they’ve come a long way.
“We often say, if we could write a book (we’re not sure who would read it, LOL) but boy, the stories of campground adventures are endless! We have had a robbery, fires, explosions, a streaker, deaths and a tornado. During our first season, we even had a film production company approach us about doing a reality TV show about a family running a campground together! The producer loved the footage we sent her, but then she left her job. We never heard from her again, but it was a neat story for us!”
Geri says running a campground the size of theirs is like running a small city. While their roles are shared, they try to stay in their own lanes. Joe handles the business side, such as paying bills, doing payroll, digging holes, blowing off fireworks and running activities. Geri handles tasks like HR, scheduling, ordering and planning activities.
Together, the Walters have updated the snack bar and built a new camp store, maintenance shop, fun park, outdoor theater and recreation area. They’ve added 12 rentals and made many more improvements. They also belong to an ARVC 20 Group which Geri says has catapulted their business growth and enabled them to make lifelong friends.
As for working together as husband and wife and as business partners, Geri will be the first to admit that it’s not always exactly a walk in the park.
“I’m not going to lie. It is hard on a marriage,” Geri says. “Between us, we have six businesses— a printing company, a screen printing and embroidery company, an advertising firm, storage units, a professional hair care line and the campground. We have power struggles, argue about many decisions and debate over many topics, but we are both very strong in growing our businesses. We become laser focused on balance, growing, attitude and abundance .”
After 26 years of marriage and a decade as campground owners, the Walters’ love story continues.
“So often,” Geri says, “We reflect on how we have grown and we both agree we are so blessed to have had each other and love every minute as long as we are together.”