Camp Grande is hidden treasure on Camano, tucked away at the end of a road, and with the lore of salmon fishing and the mystique of a private community around it.
I remember dad and I fishing in near its famous boathouse…
…but I did not know its story and how it almost became the location of a 72 unit condominium complex in the 1970’s until I interviewed Andrena Caldwell, a high school classmate and friend of my mom.
When Andrena (whose maiden name was Bast) was ten years old her parents purchased the pie shaped, nine acres of Camp Grande in partnership with Andy’s Aunt and Uncle, Margaret and John Thompson and their three boys.
The Thompsons moved from California and the Basts moved from Seattle to Camp Grande in December of 1956 where they shared a duplex. They first began operating the camp in the summer of 1957 when Andrena was eleven.
Camp Grande was built around the summers when kids were out of school. This meant that the Bast and Thompson families had a very short window to make their money. (The Thompsons stayed for only a few years.)
In those days, Andrena remembers, Camp Grande had 24 cabins and 28 boats. They were also able to launch other people’s boats from the famous dock on the water’s edge. A road ran from the bluff to the Boathouse where there was parking. Andrena remembers that there were lots of boats out on those warm summer days.
During the summers Andrena’s dad and mom worked all day long. There was a little store attached to the duplex where the sold all the necessary staples: bread milk, ice cream, pop, ice, and beer. In the summer the store was open from 8:00am-10:00pm, 7 days a week. In the winter it was closed, except for the weekends.
People came to Camp Grande for the weekend, or a week, or a month or even longer in the summers. There were a lot of repeat visitors. The main attraction was the salmon fishing, but there was also sunbathing, beach combing and even camping.
The Basts were industrious. Above the cabins they developed a campground where people camped; eventually Sherman made electrical and water hook ups for trailers. Inga got ambitious one 4th of July weekend; she had 90 tents and trailers, on top of the guests in the cabins. “She didn’t do that again”, Andrena said. Inga also opened the campground up for groups to use, and would charge these groups $1 per car, sometimes a group with 50 cars would come. Those cars/drivers would have had to be purposeful about coming to Camp Grande because it is on the end of a dead end road as opposed to some of the other resorts on Camano like Camp Lagoon and Sunset Beach. In fact, Andrena remembers a number of time people would drive up to Camp Grande and ask, “How do we find Camano Island?” Beneath her breath she’d mutter, “seriously” then say out loud “you’ve been on it for a while.”
During the summers Andrena worked hard at Camp Grande too. She helped her mom at the old store (the store and duplex aren’t there any more; they burned down after Andrena’s time). Her parents would make a deal with people to live rent on the other side of the duplex in exchange for their help in cleaning the cabins. Andy would help them clean the cabins on Monday and Tuesday after the busy weekend traffic was gone. One day a week Andy mowed the grass using a tractor for the large field, and a hand mower around the cabins. All the cabins except for one had wood stoves. So one day a week Andy and her dad replenished the wood on the front porches of the rustic cabins. They sold ice from the store to be used in Ice boxes, sold ice if they wanted to keep something cold.
Her dad ordered the wood and split it during the winter. Andy would help pile it then in preparation for the summer.
Besides these weekly chores, Andy remembers putting the boats in and out of the water daily with her dad. The boats would go out periodically all day long. In the evenings they all seemed to come in at the same time, she remembers. She worked with her dad to clean the boats out, wash them and put them away. They used a hoist system.
When the boats went out, they were brought by pulley to the cart. The fishermen would load into them inside the boathouse. Then a winch would let them slowly down the rail bow first into the water. Andy remarked with a smile that “it was always fun when it broke, which happened a couple of times.” She told me that her dad watched the metal cable a lot to care for it, but there was rust that you don’t see.
The boats came out of the water bow first too. After the winch had brought them into the boathouse, Andy and her dad used a pulley system to hook two boards to two hooks, one on the bow and one on the stern. They would lift the boat off the cart, turn it, wash them out, and then stacked them in the boathouse. Six of those boats were inboards, the motor provided with the boat. All the rest were outboards where people brought their own motors.
The boats were virtually unsinkable, Andrena assured me. And proved it with this picture of a submerged boat that just would not sink!
It was a lot of hard work, but not all work for Andrena. The favorite part of summer for her was when friends she had made returned to stay at Camp Grande. She still has regular contact with one of those girls, and another was a bridesmaid in her wedding. They played at the beach or spent time in the recreation hall listening to music played by the jukebox, playing ping pong on a table made out of a sheet of plywood or the pin ball machine which you didn’t have to pay for. Nights were magical: in front of the Camp was a firepit where a campfire was lit almost every night, marsh mellows roasted and stories told.
Things slowed down at Camp Grande in the fall, winter and spring. Her industrious mom found ways to encourage people to come on the weekend, recruiting square dance who danced in building that was next to the house. Andy remembers at low tides in the winter time digging for clams with lanterns. In the winter there would be big storms. Andrena remembers one of those storms that took out a section of the dock.
People raked for smelt on high tide along the shore. But mostly people came to Camp Grande in the summer to fish for salmon.
They would take their boats across to Strawberry Point on Whidbey Island to fish; and some people caught cod, further down south. Andy studied the fisherman to learn their tricks. She realized that everyone used something different and that all were successful. Even the kids who fished off the dock were successful: They caught perch, small flounder, eels and lots of bullheads.
Sherman and Inga ran Camp Grande until 1970. They sold it in 1970. The buyers had plans to turn it into a Condominium development with 3 buildings with 24 units each. There would also be a yacht club with full marina facilities, a teahouse, a sandwhich shop, and a sauna, swimming pools and recreation room. You can see plans for this from an insert in the Stanwood Camano Newspaper.
Their plans fell through, and the Basts, who had built their retirement home on the hill above Camp Grande, had to start the selling process again. During this period they closed the camp down. By this time Andrena had graduated from Stanwood High School (1964), gone to college, and gotten married (1968).
Andrena told me that after her parents sold Camp Grande people bought share in it, four shares per cabin. The four cabin shareholders worked out how they would split up the time.
Many years later Andrena told me that she came back to visit her childhood home at Camp Grande. The cabins were still there, though many people had remodeled them, enlarging their porches. The old boat house was still there, though boats are no longer launched from it now. The rocks are still there that she played on as a girl. So much had changed; so much remained the same. Andrena who now lives with her husband on Whidbey Island said that she thinks the beaches of Camano are much better than Whidbey; that she still hasn’t found a beach like her beach at Camp Grande on Camano.
Stay tuned for Beaches of Camano: Camp Grande (II) which will feature photographs taken in 2016 by Julian Dorsey.