By Kristine Hansen | Photos by Shanna Wolf, unless noted
Simona and Jeremy Ebner didn’t set out to create a cool glamping spot. In their nearly two-year search, they merely yearned for a property to satisfy two wish-list items: a place to live and an eventual “side hustle,” or way to earn some additional income.
More than ready to uproot from their Milwaukee digs in a high-rise building, not yet clear about what that side hustle might be but knowing it would produce rental income in some way, they scoured rural land in counties within driving distance of Milwaukee. Relocating to the country became an intrinsic goal. “We were looking for some acreage to live on,” says Jeremy, “and room to stretch our legs.”
Finally, they stumbled upon their own version of utopia at a decommissioned Girl Scout camp in East Troy, formerly known as Oakwood Knoll, located along Wisconsin Highway 20. They discovered the property by accident, when Simona happened to drive by the property on her commute to her day job in Whitewater. She especially noted the old-growth forest on the property. “In all of our searches, we hadn’t seen anything like it,” says Jeremy. A walk-through of the 80- acre site sealed the deal.
The couple — who met while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison — already considered themselves “old souls,” enamored by antiques, flea markets, history and repurposing, as well as the great outdoors and camping. “Bringing something new back to life is an innate passion,” says Jeremy. A dilapidated camp that had been dormant for several years didn’t scare them at all. Quite the opposite: the prospect invigorated them.
The idea of restoring the Girl Scout camp grew into Camp Kettlewood, a place where campers of all ages don’t have to give up little luxuries — like a real bed — and can pack only the essentials: their toothbrush, towel, clothes, a swimsuit, food and drinks. Simona and Jeremy hosted their first overnight guests in 2020, with a goal to make camping accessible and far from frightening or overwhelming for those new to it. By providing most of what one needs to camp — and removing the option to pitch your own tent — they hope that time in the woods suddenly seems liberating. Access to board games and craft kits, which the Ebners either supply or sell, makes any camper feel like a scout again.
The Girl Scouts of Wisconsin-Badgerland Council owned the property from 1967 to 2018. Under the Ebners’ restoration, those original platform tents that once hosted generations of scouts sit on their own campsite near restored vintage trailers and Airstreams throughout the property, all of which are open for nightly rentals between Memorial Day weekend and the first weekend in October. An additional campsite is named Oakwood Knoll, a nod to the camp’s history. That rentable site offers accommodations in a vintage 1957 Holly trailer with a kitchenette, banquettes for the dining area, and bunk beds with enough sleeping space for two people, or two adults and a small child. Keeping with the 1950’s theme, aqua-blue is the dominant color inside the trailer, right on down to the coffee pot.
At another site on the property, Mushroom Gulch is a veritable trailer village: three “canned ham”-style trailers accommodate two campers in each. Each boasts a different exterior color scheme, making it feel like its own little neighborhood. Blue-striped awnings in front of Last Resort, a 1977 Airstream Land Yacht, provide shade from the sun and enough room to eat at a cherry-red dining set beneath. Up to four people can sleep inside, on beds covered in buffalo-check blankets.
Groups of friends traveling together tend to book the ironically named “Hilton” group site, home to five private platform tents original to Camp Oakwood Knoll. Each is outfitted with antique furnishings, vintage plaid and striped wool blankets, and mosquito netting to ward off bug bites. Four tents are for sleeping accommodations and one is designated for socializing, especially important should rain occur. Up to eight people can sleep at the Hilton site — on cushy mattresses, of course.
Each campsite has its own fire pit (with bundles of firewood provided), propane grill, outdoor chairs and charmingly strung fairy lights. Despite the seclusion, there are opportunities to make new friends at the other campsites while hiking the trails on property or enjoying the views of the pond. Communal bathhouses feature flush toilets, modern plumbing and electricity. Soon the Ebners hope to host events on the grass valley, which has already functioned as a rustic wedding venue.
“We saw the potential,” says Jeremy, thinking back to their first visit to the property. “It’s been really rewarding to bring something back to into use that had, for lack of a better word, been forgotten.”
Naming their venture and new lifestyle Camp Kettlewood wasn’t an instinctive choice. The process took 18 months. First, the couple looked at indigenous and native names to honor the land’s roots, but nothing felt right. Then, they investigated the question of what the place means to them. Gazing out at the land revealed their answer. “The wetlands on the property are [called] kettles,” says Simona, referencing the geographical name for a portion of the glacial topography of the property. They decided to weave kettles into the new name.
The Ebners chose to source the trailers already restored, making a conscious decision to leave the refurbishing to the pros. Finding the right options has been an epic journey. The Ebners say they often find the trailers through Facebook Marketplace and Craiglist, and not always within a short drive. Sometimes it requires them to make a decision on whether to purchase the trailers within a day, just as with any used item for sale where there are no multiples. Three trailers were ready for bookings during the 2020-2021 season and others are in the process of being prepped.
“I flew out to Los Angeles to get one of the trailers (a 1951 Empire) and drive it back,” says Jeremy. Another came from northern Wisconsin. “That one was completely dilapidated and we bought it from a gentleman who restores them.”
Whether campers are first-timers or seasoned pros, the Ebners strive to make them feel welcome. It’s also important to the couple that the vibe at the camp feel unpretentious, not wanting to emulate some pricey glamping spots across the country, which may charge as much as $1,000 per night to sleep under the stars. Yes, there may be nice platform tents, but there are no concierges other than Jeremy and Simona, who are happy to share favorite local hiking spots (like the 22,000-acre Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, a 10-minute drive away) and restaurants, or help you get a fire started.
“We really didn’t want it to become that high-end glamping resort where there’s room service, chocolate and wine,” says Jeremy. “Some of our sites are a good intro for first-time campers,” Simona adds. “Or, if you want your own corner of the woods, you’ve got that.”
Next up at Camp Kettlewood, the Ebners will add a collection of cabins from another decommissioned Girl Scout camp nearby, Camp Pottawatomie Hills on Pleasant Lake, which closed in 2020. The cabins date back to the 1940s and were relocated to Camp Kettlewood for the cost of a song, working with a building mover in East Troy.
“We worked out a deal where we bought eight cabins,” says Jeremy. “We’ve got a ton of excitement from people who used to go to camp there.” They never questioned leaving the interior graffiti untouched although they did remove any unsavory scrawls and doodles, of course. “Someone could build a new cabin for sure,” says Jeremy, “but they’ll never have the history that these do.”
Restoring the original main camp lodge into their personal residence was another labor of love. Throughout the process, they were committed to retaining the original charm, keeping the floor plan open and the floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace untouched. Fresh coats of white paint — even on the beams — transformed the building from a rustic, woodsy lodge into a more modern farmhouse. White shiplap walls completed the look, along with a nod to new and old in every room, like a clawfoot tub beneath a chandelier in the bath. The Ebners say that cooking their meals with cast-iron pots and pans scored from flea markets reminds them of the camp’s vintage past.
Visiting antiques stores and flea markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including the Elkhorn Antique Flea Market, keeps their journey to restore the camp humming along. They are continually on the hunt for more interior décor that’s campy, vintage and, well, “them.” “We’re always on the lookout for that one missing piece,” says Simona.
The couple’s career backgrounds have served them well. Simona has worked in marketing for a decade and knows how to make things look appropriately on-brand. She and Jeremy’s sister Jessie designed Camp Kettlewood’s logo and Simona handles its social media, website and search engine optimization. With her help, swag like beer-can cozies and enamel camp mugs depicting the camp’s logo are for sale. On the analog side, both Simona and Jeremy stage and decorate each of the cabins, trailers and tents. Jeremy is handy with construction and has worked in jobs with a focus on developing and creating new products and solutions. “I love creating something from nothing,” he says.
That mantra — to find beauty in decay and utility in abandonment — guides nearly everything the Ebners do at Camp Kettlewood, as they invite campers into the woods to dial it back a few decades, turn off their phones, and connect with nature and each other.