An unparalleled way to enjoy nature – camping, completely immersing oneself in the tranquility that is the Lakeland area.
And for 40 years, the Krueger family has dedicated their time and energy to ensure that Northwoods campers and RVers enjoy their time to the fullest at Fox Fire Campground.
Over those four decades, Walter “Wally” Krueger, his wife, Jeanette, and three children, Ken, Kim Dumask and Bob, built strong relationships with their guests.
“A lot of the campers we’ve known for 30, 35, even 40 years ... We are still very close to many of them and we consider them an extended family, so it’s been good.” Bob said.
Beyond the friendships they’ve forged over the years, owning and operating Fox Fire Campground has several other rewards. For Jeanette, it’s the simple fact of living in the Northwoods.
“Other people come up for a week or two, and we get to enjoy it all the time,” Jeanette said.
“A lot of times it will go through my head – what kind of person I would be if we were still in the city compared to the person I am now, because we are such outdoorsy people,” Kim said. “I’m so thankful that we had the opportunity to grow up in this area and enjoy all of this around us.”
But it’s no easy task keeping a campground up and running.
“The most difficult part is the busyness of it – trying to be a jack-of-all-trades and juggling what needs to be done maintenance-wise with managing,” Bob said. “When we’re busiest in July, we could have anywhere from 300 to 350 people in the campground, and every single one of them wants to talk to us.”
Since Wally’s passing in 1996, the Krueger children do everything they can to help their mother, Jeanette, run the campground. Bob recently retired from Air Force Reserve as a Lieutenant Colonel and moved back to the Northwoods in April 2011 to support Jeanette with Fox Fire.
“After dad died, we had to think about Mom running this place alone,” Kim said. “We had to think of how to make this easier for her, so we’ve turned to having more seasonal campsites available. [My husband, Mark, and I] have three children, and they are always a big part of helping out, too.”
How it all began
The family’s 40-year run with Fox Fire Campground started in 1972.
“We were offered a job position as managers and just decided to move up,” Jeanette said. “The kids were six, eight and 10 when we moved, and we thought it would be a great place for them to grow up.”
At the time, Wally was a police officer in Midlothian, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and Jeanette stayed at home to raise their three children. Prior to the move, the Kruegers had only been to the Northwoods on one occasion.
“We came up as a last minute thing about two years before moving up here,” Jeanette said.
“We actually stayed on Brandy Lake. Never having been to the area before, and then two years later find out that now we’re moving up here,” Kim Dumask, daughter, said.
It was a snap decision to take on the management role at Fox Fire Campground. Over the course of only a few months, Wally and Jeanette uprooted from Chicago to begin a new life in the Lakeland area.
“They had a rare opportunity and they jumped on it quick,” Bob said.
“We heard about the job opportunity in July, came up in September and saw all the beautiful leaves, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll move,’” Jeanette said. “It did happen fast. I think we took the previous owners by surprise, too.”
The previous owners were caught so off-guard that they still weren’t moved out of the house located in the campground – the house that the managing family occupies.
“We had to live in the campground rec hall for a month and a half before they found a new house and moved out,” Jeanette said.
One over-sized room complete with an outdoor bathroom was how the Kruegers began their lives in the Northwoods.
“We were all sleeping on mattresses on the floor,” Bob said.
“With all of our moving boxes making room dividers,” Kim said, reminiscing with Bob.
Though it was cutting it close, the Kruegers were able to celebrate the holidays in their new house, moving in a week or two before Christmas.
Between July and November, the whirlwind of moving to the Northwoods and starting a new life didn’t allow for much time to stress, reducing the difficulty of the transition.
“It all happened so fast that we were up here before we knew it,” Jeanette said. “But there’s still a lot of family back in Chicago that we’ve left behind, so we’ve missed out on a lot of family events. We couldn’t go back for everything, especially during summers.”
With their new home in a vacation destination, however, their relatives often came to see the Kruegers.
“I think the whole extended family has great memories of coming up here. Not just working and helping us out, but playing and enjoying the area and the lake in the summers,” Bob said. “But I think every one of them has at least one thing that they did for the campground. Fox Fire Campground has always been a family-affair business.”
After only a few years of managing the campground, the Kruegers made the decision to purchase it, solidifying Fox Fire Campground into their family legacy.
Growing up in a campground
Living next to a lake and finding built-in friends in the young campers that stayed in the summer was like a dream come true for Bob, Kim and Ken – at first.
“It started out being a lot of fun,” Kim said of her childhood. “Then they put us to work.”
“Once we hit 12 it got a little harder,” Bob said, agreeing with his sister. “Honestly, to me it was almost like working a farm: You’re working a bigger piece of land and it was hard work. And yet we had a nice upbringing. This was our backyard.”
From lawn care to maintaining rental boats and everything in between, the entire family pitched in at Fox Fire Campground.
“First of all, we all did everything, pretty much ...” Bob said.
“Wait a second, did you clean bathrooms?” Kim interjected.
But Bob maintains that he did in fact clean bathrooms as well as wash dishes. Another important daily task for the boys was gathering and delivering firewood to campers.
“That was usually at the end of our day. The beginning of the day would start with getting the garbage. “Most families complain about having to take out their one can of garbage, but we had multiple cans,” Bob said.
“Not only that, we have a fish cleaning house that we had to clean every day. We really enjoyed that job,” he added, emphasizing the word “really.”
While the boys took care of the outdoor projects, Kim manned the campground shop.
“I was pretty much in the store and then had the lovely job of cleaning bathrooms every day,” she said. “I remember we had a small time frame where we made donuts. Dad said we were going to do donuts, so that was our new job every morning – making fresh donuts.”
And the friends they made in school were not immune to the endless campground chores.
“With a lot of my friends, we would put up our own tent and camp during the summer for a couple of days or so,” Kim said. “A lot of them got put to work, too, but they thought it was fun.”
But because they “whistled while they worked,” their friends always enjoyed themselves while spending time at the campground, Bob said.
Music of the campground
Though Wally has passed away, his memory lives on at Fox Fire for many campers who had the honor to meet him – and enjoy the music and entertainment he provided.
“Eventually my husband got to a point where he was playing an organ in the rec hall, and then a keyboard because it was easier to lug around. He had been playing before, even back in Chicago,” Jeanette said. “So he would entertain down there, and we had parties and dances and a lot of fun.”
With no music lessons, Wally was able to learn how to play instruments of all kinds – organ, piano, guitar, accordion, clarinet, trombone, trumpet and more – simply by listening.
“He could play any instrument,” Kim said. “He could pick it up for the first time and play by ear.”
For his family, this is a favorite memory of growing up at Fox Fire Campground.
“I can remember the rec hall being jam packed with people and music and dancing,” Kim said. “There were always several campers that also played instruments, so they would all be up there together to join my dad playing. I just remember it was a really good time.”
But Wally wasn’t just a musician – he was also a magician, “a regular entertainer,” as Bob described.
“On his break from playing the keyboard he’d do magic tricks, so he really didn’t get much of a break at all,” Jeanette said, painting a picture of her husband’s dedication to captivating the audience’s attention.
Wally took his unique talents and shared them with Fox Fire campers, who still remember it after all these years.
“That was the core of the campground in the 70s. To this day, everybody talks about those times when he’d play,” Bob said. “Both sides of our family are Polish and German, so there was a big German influence with my dad. They always played the German polkas and everybody loved that stuff back then.”
For years there was one sound that dictated the days and oftentimes nights for the Kruegers – the bell.
“That was the sound of our life,” Bob said.
A doorbell located at the main office and campground store was wired to the Kruegers’ house, so if a camper needed anything at all, they simply needed to ring the bell.
“When people wanted a pack of gum from the store – even though it was closed – they would ring the doorbell. We might have been right in the middle of dinner and somebody would have to get up and take care of it,” Bob said. “That bell was definitely the center of the 70s.”
“And the campers couldn’t hear it, so they thought it wasn’t working and would keep ringing it,” Kim said. “I remember dad saying, ‘Jeanette, the bell. It’s your turn.’”
Though the doorbell ringers themselves couldn’t hear the bell, it was nearly impossible for the Kruegers to miss it.
“It wasn’t just a little electronic beeper. It was like a fire alarm bell. Sometimes, if you weren’t prepared for it, it would send your blood pressure through the roof,” Bob said. “One of the best things we ever did was take down that bell.”
A different day – every day
Though the bell is disconnected and no longer haunting the family, there still is no such thing as a “typical day” while running the campground.
“The sky is really the limit as to what happens here,” Bob said. “Last year I took one little girl who had gotten a fishhook in her finger to the emergency room. There’s just so many different things that have happened.”
Because of medical emergencies and, on occasion, alcohol-influenced incidents, “your day is not routine at all,” Jeanette said.
“Can’t plan a thing,” Bob said, agreeing. “My goal every year is to not call the police and not call an ambulance. I succeeded this year.”
With the camping season over for the year, the real work is just beginning for the Kruegers.
“Everybody thinks when we close it’s a party. Boy is that untrue. We use as much of the time as we can to clean up and do the projects we can’t do during the summer,” Bob said. “We just try to get as much done as possible before the first big snowfall.”
But reflecting on their lives and experiences of owning and operating Fox Fire Campground – bell included – the Kruegers wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I just can’t thank my parents enough to have the courage to come up here with three little kids and start a new life, because I think it’s made us better people,” Kim said.
“And the way everything worked out, you really couldn’t plan that,” Bob said. “They say timing is everything and it just worked out this way, and here we are.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org