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Hi-Line Living: Hansen Family Campground

A Labor of Love

 

September 9, 2016

Teresa Getten

For 12 years, Paul and Mandy Hansen persistently worked to resurrect their campground property. The campground was a longtime goal, a dream that had turned into a problem shortly after it had become reality.

In 2000, the Hansens bought the former Milk River RV Park off U.S. Highway 2 between Chinook and Havre. They uprooted and relocated their lives, two young boys included, from California to north-central Montana.

But the business began to financially bleed them, and they had to put their dream back on hold and shut the operation down two years later.

"We didn't really know what we were getting into. And it's typical of buying anything. You buy it, and you listen to what they tell you," Paul said, adding that the expenses turned out to be more than the profits.

Though neither wanted to spend much time talking about it, Paul indicated with a nod that he and Mandy were told, before buying the business, that profit numbers were higher than they turned out to be.

The campground was old and needed lots of repairs, lots of wiring work, Paul said.

"You don't have equipment to dig up lines and repair lines," Paul said, referring to the issues the campground encountered in the early days. "When it was wired in '77, it was done with very small wiring. Everything was undersized. Well, age-wise, it finally took its toll. To repair that, every time you called out an electrician, you're dropping thousands of dollars and you got power bills that are $12-to-1,500 a month. So it doesn't take long to eat you alive."

Mandy is originally from England and speaks like she just landed on U.S. soil yesterday, but actually she's been here for decades.

She and Paul met in Santa Rosa, California, in 1980, in high school.

Paul spent almost two decades working as a parts representative for an international dealership, and Mandy was a teacher.

The Hansens were on a camping trip when then they were hit with the Montana-charm bug.

"We came out to Hamilton, Montana, for a holiday, and we loved it. It was like stepping back in time. People still said please and thank you, they held the door for you - people were so polite. And you felt very safe," Mandy said. "And so we said, 'We would love to live here.' We loved the campground that we were staying at. We knew we wanted to get in the field."

They spent years planning for a campground. And in 1998, they found an advertisement for the Milk River RV Park near the county line between Havre and Chinook.

"So we came out here to look at it, and, of course it was closed down, because it was March," Mandy said. "And that's when we realized, 'Uh-oh, it's not open all-year. So we looked at each other and said, 'But that's OK.' We wanted a better life for our kids. We loved the people here in Havre. Again, it was the same experience of stepping back in time."

The Hansens left California and moved to north-central Montana. They didn't know anyone in Havre, but they were hopeful. They were hopeful about the community, and they were hopeful about the campground - which looked nothing like it does today.

"It was all boarded up, but we just liked it - it just felt right," Mandy said.

"There was nothing here," Paul added. "That building was here" - he pointed to the main house facing the road - "and it was just an A-frame. There was one out building and an in-ground pool. And there was one tree - there was a Russian olive tree, and that was it. There was no fences."

Paul said there was a pedestal for 100 camper slots, a log cabin for rent and an old rail fence on the front - "and that was it."

But after two years of being consumed by repair costs, the Hansens put the campground on hold in 2002. In the meantime, Paul worked as a tractor parts representative and Mandy was teaching.

But they didn't let the dream wither and die. They didn't sell the land. They said they didn't even think seriously about selling the land.

"We're not quitters, really," Mandy said. "We could've ran away so many times, but we didn't. In our heart of heart, we loved it here. We knew this is where we wanted to be. Our kids were established in the school. And we didn't want to give up."

"It was our goal to do it," Paul added. "When we did it, it was 100 percent forward. We basically cashed out of California. I mean, you leave California, you can't afford to buy yourself back in."

The dream never died.

"When our friends were going out to dinner and people were buying new cars, and they go on cruises, Paul and I didn't," Mandy said. "We had literally just stuffed every penny away."

There was more than money being put away. Sweat equity was being invested.

The wiring issues were being repaired. Paul said that, these days, campers are bigger and require more power. So bigger-gauge wiring was installed. The A-frame building had been turned into a house. A barn, a shop, and a small cabin office were built. The in-ground pool was done away with because it was another liability and money pit. Trees, many cottonwoods, were added throughout the campground. Picnic tables were put in, and a dog run was put up for people who travel with their pets.

Mandy bragged that Paul has done most of the work, while Paul modestly continued talking about the upgrades.

During the interview, on the porch of the campground office, a rooster was crowing in the background, a reminder of other additions on the Hansen family property.

The family has a petting farm, complete with a small pond that was dug after their sons, Eric and Jonathan, got pet ducks. Other pets included in the hodgepodge of rescue animals is a Canadian goose, peacocks, chickens, goats and even donkeys.

The three donkeys were hanging out in the back of the 20-acre lot, by the hills. Mandy said the three donkeys were a surprise to Paul.

"So, I said to Paul: 'Hey, Paul. I rescued three donkeys," she said. "He says, 'You did?' I said, 'Yeah. Oh, and by the way, I paid $600 dollars.' He says, 'You did what? You don't pay for rescued animals.' Well, I did - I paid money for them.

"And Paul is so supportive that he let me do it. They've been with us through thick and thin," Mandy said of the donkeys.

"Should have let somebody eat them," Paul said, smiling.

"He doesn't mean that," Mandy said.

The Hansens reopened the campground as the Hansen Family Campground & Storage LLC in 2014, and things are different from 12 years ago. On Saturday, 20 of 21 available slots were being occupied by the Airstream rally, Hands Across the Border.

"It's doing well," Paul said about the business. "It's starting to wake up. Granted, the first five years are touch-and-go and you'd like to see it busier, but it's doing alright. It's promising already."

The Hansens praised both Chinook and Havre communities, first for all the people who helped them get the campground running again - friends and church members - and then officials and residents who are constantly sending customers over. Campers have told them they've been referred by everyone from people they ran into in grocery stores and gas stations, to employees at the Chambers of Commerce and the Wildlife Museum.

"We have our own cheerleaders here. So thanks to the community for doing that for us," Mandy said.

Some of Saturday's campers' eyes lit up when mentioning how involved the Hansens had been in ensuring they experienced everything there is in the area. They were told about the Wahkpa Chu'gn Buffalo Jump, H. Earl Clack Memorial Museum, Havre Beneath the Streets and Fort Assinniboine, among other attractions. And they went and saw it all.

The secret, the Hansens agreed, is simple.

"We treat people how we want to be treated," Mandy said.

"And you can't go wrong with that," Paul said.

"We've done some traveling around and, usually, typically, at a campground, when you drive in, you go in and you find their office - hopefully, they got it clearly marked - and you go in and you go register. They give you a paper, you sign it, they take your money, they tell you, 'Yup, you're in space such and such. Have a good day.' And that's the end of it. You go stumble around in the park until you find a spot, and hopefully, find the bathroom, shower, whatnot. If you need anything, good luck, cause you'll probably never see them again," Paul said.

But the Hansens said they strive for a better connection with guests and the community.

Teresa Getten

"We wanna keep them in the community. But not just for us. Our community helps us so much that we want our community to benefit from the people that stay here, too. Because we are so proud of where we live that we want other people to share," Mandy said.

There's more to come, Mandy said, widening her grin.

Paul and Mandy are not content to sit back and stop making plans.

They plan in the future to host events like reunions and weddings on the grounds in the hangar-sized barn. They also have more additions in-store for the campground to make it even better - things like bathrooms to replace the trailer that now serves as one. And they agree things will probably be added they haven't thought of yet.

Paul now works full-time on the property. And it just so happens, that when the campground needs Mandy most, summer time, is when she is on break from teaching. Things are working out.

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