Ryan Crismore can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train. It’s an oncoming 1964 Malibu station wagon.
The ’64 Malibu, after all, is where all this campground business began for Crismore and his wife of 35 years, Ann Marie. And it’s not like what happens from Friday through next Sunday will be the end of it.
It will, instead, be the beginning, according to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette.
The Crismores will throw an official grand opening that weekend for their 80-site Bluffton/Fort Wayne South Kampgrounds of America (KOA) campground, a wooded 30-acre spread on the western edge of Bluffton that includes full hookups, a kitchen/pavilion, an in-ground pool and playground, restrooms, showers, a general store and laundry. It’s the culmination of a dream that first took form after Ryan retired from the Bluffton Fire Department in 2001 after 26 years, but whose inspiration goes back 30-some years beyond that.
To a ’64 Malibu station wagon. And a homemade tent-top camper. And family vacations around open cookfires that stick with, and inspire, Crismore to this day.
“I have five brothers and sisters, and every summer piled into a ’64 Malibu station wagon with our hand-built camper, and away we went,” he says. “We were the ‘Griswolds’ before the ‘Griswolds’ were in vogue.”
That legacy only got stronger in 1975, when Ryan married Ann Marie, who grew up in a large camping family herself. One of their first purchases, Ryan remembers, was a tent. When their girls got older, they upgraded to a travel trailer. And the seeds of their future enterprise blossomed.
“It’s been my desire for a very, very long time to provide leisure time through camping,” Crismore says.
It wasn’t until 2007, however, that the desire became concrete reality.
The impetus was the sale of a large mobile home facility the Crismores had been managing for 30 years. Rather than seek out a new owner, they opted to bet their money, and their future, on a campground.
The key was to link up with KOA — “We decided to franchise with KOA very early in the decision-making process,” Crismore says) — and secure financing, which First Merchants of Decatur provided.
The Crismores, who’ve done much of the infrastructure construction themselves, broke ground on the project in September 2007, and it’s been almost three years of hard work and challenges since.
There was the time when they hit solid limestone trying to lay the sewage lines, and had to jackhammer it out to get the lines in place.
There was the sopping year of 2008 — “Absolutely a horrendous year,” Crismore says — when equipment kept getting stuck and breaking. And there were the five camping cabins the Crismores had to build to satisfy KOA’s requirements, and which added an extra $70,000 to the project.
Then came May 2009, and the payoff. That’s when the Crismores began opening the still-uncompleted facility to visitors, and the visitors came. By the end of the season they’d welcomed just short of 1,500 campers, almost 500 more than projected.
“When you get good news like that, it makes all the bad days melt away,” Crismore says.
Even better days may lie ahead. The Crismores have been getting phone calls from prospective campers since the middle of February, and they’ve gotten their share of snowbirds heading back north and even international visitors in rented RVs.
“Very gratifying,” Crismore says of the latter. “I’m surprised that the people passing through stop at places such as ours to see our country.”