SMALL TOWNS: Oconto County resort offers fairy tale setting

The story behind this fairy tale setting in the Northwoods
Updated: Sep. 8, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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MOUNTAIN, Wis. (WBAY) - Tucked away in Wisconsin’s Northwoods is a property that makes you feel as if you’re in a 15th century fairy tale.

It’s all thanks to one man’s creative vision and incredibly hard work that began 100 years ago.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Mountain, in Oconto County, to visit the one-of-a-kind Camp Lake Resort.

Born in 1893 and raised in Ohio, faraway places and dreams lured Wilmot Swanson from home.

“He left Ohio, he registered for the draft, he went into Canada, got to Alaska, came back through Wisconsin, almost somewhat by chance,” says Denis Gullickson, a frequent resort guest.

“Of all the places he had been, this is the place he liked the most,” says Steve Larson, Wilmot’s grandson.

In 1920, Wilmot purchase an abandoned logging camp between Mountain and Lakewood known as Camp 9.

He had a vision.

“He had in mind a resort from the get go,” says Gullickson, who’s become a Camp Lake Resort historian.

Wilmot’s first order of business was to build two log cabins on the shore of Camp Lake, known today as the Green Cabin and the Blue Cabin.

That was just the beginning.

After getting married in 1927 and starting a family, Wilmot kept building, but now with stones he gathered on the property as he worked the fields with his team of horses.

“When Wilmot started building in stone I think he really discovered the textures and the colors and the sizes of stone that he could manipulate into that vision,” explains Gullickson.

A vision to take his guests back in time.

The Stone Cottage would be Wilmot’s next creation.

“Wanted to build more, more cabins all the time,” recalls Esther Larson, Wilmot’s daughter.

Esther is one of Wilmot’s six children.

They all helped their ambitious father.

“And I remember helping him, put rocks in a pale with water and hand to him when he was making the walls,” explains Esther.

A cabin named Rock Rest would be next, and for Wilmot, there was always very little rest.

“My mother used to talk about him coming home and not even being able to talk he was so tired,” says Esther.

In the early 1950′s, Wilmot completed his final masterpiece, The Gingerbread House.

Camp Lake Resort in Mountain
Camp Lake Resort in Mountain

“I never met Wilmot Swanson, he passed away when I graduated from high school, the Gingerbread House was completed about the time I was born, but literally hundreds of hours of time there you get to know Wilmot and you get to appreciate the depth of what was being achieved there,” says Gullickson.

Gullickson has been a regular guest at the Gingerbread House for the past 30 years.

He’s written three books here, and his fourth will detail the resort’s history, created by a man without any blueprints or even sketches.

“If you look at a round door on the cottage, and you think this man literally had to spend 40 hours, 60 hours, 100 hours on this particular piece and then fit that into the whole. Certainly people would pass by and go what’s this guy about, what drives him, why is he doing this, you can just build a cottage on a lake, lots of people do that, but Wilmot needed to have some kind of different expression from people and so that’s what he’s left us, this beautiful creation,” says Gullickson.

Today, Camp Lake Resort receives around 200 bookings a year.

For most of the guests, it’s an annual pilgrimage back in time.

“That’s one thing that our guests constantly say, like wow this place hasn’t changed,” says Steve.

“And their love for the cabins makes the cabins more beautiful as well, it’s hard to explain, but somebody was here last week who had been here for 70 years since he was a boy and their love holds this place together too,” adds Wendy Larson, Steve’s wife.

After Wilmot passed away in 1972, his daughter Esther continued running the resort, before turning it over to her son Steve and Wendy.

“I think when I went to college you realize what you have after you’re gone and this is something special,” says Steve.

It’s very poignant to my heart to realize that a man’s craft can outlive his years and for this long. It’s been so many years since he’s been gone, before I was born, and yet here it is,” says Wendy.

“I think he’d be pleased, it’s why he built them, as well as for income, but I think he’d be amazed it’s still in the family too, all this time,” adds Steve.

It’s been 50 years since Wilmot Swanson passed away, and yet his vision and incredible artistic talent continues to be enjoyed by guests every year at Camp Lake Resort.

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Jeff's journey takes him to Camp Lake Resort