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Happy Trails to Colony Country Park

Owners of NL campground look forward to next new thing
The flower beds maintained by Ellen Colony at her family’s campground– 18 at one point– were one of the features that made Colony Country RV Park stand out from the rest as one of the better-maintained facilities available to campers. The campground has been sold to a developer with plans to build a senior housing facility there. (photo courtesy of Beth Saxton)

NORTH LIBERTY– Colony Country RV Park has closed its gates for good, and even though the campground was in operation for 25 years, becoming a part of many family traditions and lifelong friendships, the Colony family does not really view it as the end of an era.
Edgar Colony designed, built and operated the RV park, with help from his wife Ellen, daughter Beth Saxton, and many family members and friends over the years. Edgar passed away in July 2010, but Ellen and Beth continued to welcome guests at the park each season until this spring. Recently, the family sold the campground’s 8.6 acres to JTB, LLC, a development company of local partners who plan to build a senior housing facility on the property.
“We are excited about the land being used for assisted living and dependent living memory care. What a wonderful gift for North Liberty, and what a needed facility,” said Beth.
The Colony family farm was one of the earliest in Madison Township, dating back to pre-1846, when some of the first parcels were put together and later sold by Edgar Colony’s great uncle, Herman Lee Colony. Beth has read the property’s abstract and knows much of its history.
“Some of the parcels were homesteads, because here and there on the property there were wells and windmills,” said Beth. At least one log cabin was built in the farm’s early history.
Ellen and Edgar were married in 1950, and in addition to farming, Edgar enjoyed several careers during their 50 years together. He worked as a real estate agent for a time, but two stints as an over-the-road trucker gave him the opportunity to experience two of the things he loved best: traveling and meeting new people.
“For him part of the fun of trucking was going around the country,” said Beth.
“He got into the back door of all of these companies, and if they were loading or unloading his semi, he’d walk around and talk to people,” Ellen added.
By then, Edgar and Ellen had also spent significant time traveling the country in their own RV as well, which gave them insight into desirable qualities of RV parks.
“At that point, Dad wanted a way that he could travel and still be home at night,” said Beth. Putting his passion for traveling, meeting new people and RV-ing together with his ability to embrace the progress of new development gave Edgar a new idea.
“Edgar announced he was going to build a campground,” Ellen laughed.
Therefore, in 1988, Edgar designed a park to include ample space between campsites, and an office building with restrooms, laundry facilities and showers. Ellen was in charge of the extensive flowerbeds that adorned the park, as Edgar insisted the park be pretty as well as functional. He enlisted the help of family members to construct it, incorporating salvage from another farm building that had collapsed in a snowstorm.
“I remember having to come up here and strip the wood off the old barn and carrying down to Grandpa,” said Edgar’s grandson, Patrick Stangl. Family members took turns hauling stones from the farm to the campground in wheelbarrows to build a retaining wall.
Edgar also was sure to create plenty of shade for the campsites.
“He did a good job of diversifying the trees so there wasn’t one species that was overwhelming,” said Beth. In the recent Emerald Ash Borer infestation, only a few of the campground’s trees were impacted, substantiating Edgar’s foresight in diversification.
In July 1989, Colony Country Campground welcomed its first group of campers.
“That summer, on July 4, Edgar insisted we treat the campers we had… maybe six at that time. And we were thrilled to have that many,” said Ellen. “I had to load chairs and food and take it down to the campers. It was 104 degrees, but we treated them to lunch.”
“It has been tradition for those people to come back on the fourth,” said Patrick.
In fact, they returned for a number of years, Beth said, first coming in tents, and as their families grew, coming back in campers with toddlers and eventually teens.
It’s just one example of how the campground– later renamed to Colony Country RV Park, to indicate a move away from offering tent sites– became part of many family traditions.
Certain groups of campers would come regularly in the fall to attend football games or visit children who were attending the University of Iowa. Occasionally, people would stay at the park while a family member was undergoing prolonged treatment at the University hospitals. Others would always stop at Colony’s on their annual cross-country treks.
“People loved it because it was a wide-open, country campground. Some of the campers loved that it was small.” Patrick said. With just 38 sites, “It’s quiet,” he added. A July 2012 customer from Ohio posted this comment on the campground’s Facebook page: “We’ll be back. I have worked and been to many campgrounds but yours is the best in eight years of being on the road. Uou should be proud it doesn’t have to be big to be the best. Thanks.”
Edgar purchased a new map of the United States each year and provided push-pins for people to mark their places of origin. Interestingly, said Beth, there were a number of international campers every year as well.
Campers returned because of the personal treatment they received at the park.
“It was important for Edger to help whoever needed it,” said Ellen. “If an auto place or another campground had what they needed, he would make the contact for them, as Beth continued to do. If they needed something for the camper, Edgar and Beth wouldn’t just say, ‘here’s the number.’ He or she would call for them.”
The connections often forged friendships between the Colonys and their campers that have endured.
“It not only meant we became friends with our campers, but in the winter, we would travel to visit them in the southwest United States,” said Ellen. “We made very serious friends throughout that time.”
Operating a campground requires a lot from its owners; from offering the best customer service to having a good understanding of the campsites appropriate for each different type or size of camper, from conducting the financial side of business ownership to performing regular maintenance– cleaning bathrooms, mowing, repairing damaged water hookups or fixing broken screen doors, for example– it consumes a lot of time and takes a strong commitment.
Edger would open the office around 7:30 each morning, because he thought it essential that someone be around to give information, directions and recommendations when campers requested it. Most days, he would go home for lunch, and Ellen would deliver dinner to Edgar at the office each evening around 5 p.m. Edgar would man the campground office until 8 or 9 o’clock at night.
“We’ve also been very lucky to have a host couple who stayed with us to help with maintenance kinds of things,” said Beth. “Many of them were people who stayed with us for a number of years first, and then became our host campers because they knew the level of operation we were comfortable with.”
That level of operation is confirmed by this comment from a May 2012 camper, who also commented on the campground Facebook page.
“We’re on our way to Boston from Grants Pass, Oregon  and we’ve been in a lot of campgrounds; yours is most beautiful and your shower rooms are, well, let’s say everyone else should take lessons”
To stay abreast of camping and RV-ing trends, Edgar joined the Iowa Association of Recreational Vehicle Parks and Campgrounds.
“It helped him stay current on things, and get a chance to talk with other campground owners and share ideas,” said Ellen. Gradually, changes like making space for ever-bigger campers that tow additional vehicles, installing more powerful electric services to accommodate campers with air conditioners, large screen TVs and washer/dryer units, or supplying users with Wi-Fi, became standard.
As things change in the industry, one thing remains the same, said Beth. The people are, by and large, wonderful.
“Campers are a notch above. They are independent souls and are kind of used to figuring things out. When little things go wrong, they take it all in stride,” said Beth. “We would get folks who said this was their first camping experience, and they would say, ‘let us know if we are doing something that doesn’t make sense.’ My advice to them was, ‘if in doubt, go outside your camper, open something, and then just stand there and stare at it. Someone will come right over, with all kinds of advice.’”
“There’s a lot of camaraderie that you don’t get when you do the hotel thing,” Ellen agreed.
Now, the Colonys foresee that new friendships will be made as residential development, including the new senior housing facility, takes place on the former farmstead. It’s foresight born of Edgar’s willingness to welcome change.
“He didn’t expect it to continue as a campground forever. He expected change to happen, which is pretty extraordinary for an old farmer,” said Beth. “We were extremely lucky that his vision was always looking forward. I certainly know about families who work in a business together where the patriarch says ‘this is the way things are and they will never change.’ That was not our situation. He was always interested in the next new thing.”
Ellen concurred.
“He saw that this rolling land between here and the campground had never been plowed, and it should have nice houses on it,” Ellen said. As for JTB and their plans, she is confident they will do a good job for the community.
“They’ve been very extensive work in researching a company to run it. They’ve been very careful,” she said.
She is so comfortable with the planned facility that she might even consider moving there someday, Beth noted.
“We tell folks that when mom is ready to move, the idea that she could choose to move somewhere that used to be her own property, near the creek she used to go to, is pretty special.”