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The Escapees Parks System: 1991-1998

Escapees RV Club was founded in 1978. In the four decades since, so much has happened to move the club forward and grow both the membership and the services and benefits that members enjoy. With so many of our founding members now off the road and enjoying a quieter life, we want to ensure their stories and legacy are shared with newer club members. If it weren’t for our founding Escapees, including our Rainbow Builders, this club would be an entirely different organization, if we even existed at all.

In this updated excerpt from History of the Escapees Club, Part IV in a series on Escapees’ history, Kay Peterson, co-founder of Escapees RV Club, shares more about how our Escapees RV parks came to be. (If you want to read prior installments first, here are Parts I, II, and III.)  

 

 

The Rainbow Builders

Is the term “Rainbow Builders” new to you? This group, formed in the early 1990s, consisted of many skilled and talented Escapees members who volunteered their construction expertise to help build several of our Rainbow Parks. While this group no longer exists, the time and effort of this generous volunteer construction crew are very much appreciated today.

Rainbow Plantation in Summerdale, Alabama

The manager's office at Rainbow Plantation was built in 1991.

Gulf Posse Chapter 26 in Alabama had already asked for a Rainbow Park instead of an SKP Co-Op. It seemed the majority of their interested chapter members preferred larger lots with more freedom in selecting homes. Some also liked having deeded property so they would be able to later sell it for the market price. This allowed land values in all three of the Rainbow Parks to inflate, raising the property taxes for everyone with a home base at the park. For those reasons as well as more and more regulatory hurdles we decided to concentrate on purchasing existing RV parks rather than building them from raw land once the homebase parks already on the radar were built.

Like many of the parks before, Rainbow Plantation was not built on the first piece of property we found. We opened escrow on a property in Magnolia Springs on the lower Alabama peninsula in the spring of 1990 but had to abandon it when we could not get the required easement access. Shortly afterwards, Bud Carr, then-president of the Rainbow Parks, found the 121-acre property where the park sits today. We closed escrow in February 1991 and immediately went to work developing the park.

The first project was to drill a water well for the use of construction workers. The city of Fairhope agreed to extend their water service to the project, but it would not be completed until the following year. This meant that lot owners would have the option of using city water or drilling their own well. In the meantime, the construction well served visitors and lot owners as a means of filling their water tanks.

Lot owners were responsible for installing their own septic system. The group voted to pay the additional cost of $300 per lot to have an underground electrical system instead of overhead wiring. These two things brought the original cost of a lot to $6,500, but they also had to pay a fee for five years for water usage.

While many of the volunteer construction crew, the Rainbow Builders, were busy working on road, ditches, and installation of services, other volunteers were planting a few hundred trees in the green areas.

The clubhouse at Rainbow Plantation is the site of many festivities and activities.

In spite of the fact that it was the rainiest spring and summer locals could recall, in spite of the summer heat, and in spite of the many delays while officials debated what permits we needed, work progressed well throughout 1991. Roads were a big problem because there were several miles of them, and the county requirements were very stringent on testing each phase of the road building. As Leon Culbertson, project supervisor, said, “It sure took a lot of dirt and a lot of packing!”

During the hot summer, a few dedicated Rainbow Builders remained to help Leon. By fall, the roads were finished, telephone and electric service were provided to all lots, and the sites in the campground area were in the final stages of completion. The final permit hearing was on October 2, but it took a little longer to get all the sewer permits. Lot draw took place on October 14, 1991 and was over within the hour. A celebration followed, then people began moving onto their lots. Most stayed to build their desired structures and landscape.

Leon and Anna Culbertson were there just over a year, working with the Rainbow Builders. They were ready to go back to Texas to see their family. George Forsythe agreed to take Leon’s place in supervision of the clubhouse construction, which took a good part of 1992. Today, it is a beautiful brick-sided building. The clubhouse stands as a symbol of the talent of Escapees volunteers.

In 1994, we planned an extension of the Plantation that would allow more Escapees to have a home base at this park. This proposal didn’t pass, so we decided to invest the money in a new park in a different location. We purchased property in Arizona, where construction started in January 1993.

North Ranch in Congress, Arizona

You could argue that the third and last of the Rainbow Retreats actually began in 1990 as the Verde Valley SKP Co-Op. Some of their board members were ready to buy a property that was selling at a bargain rate without checking carefully to see if it would meet the various standards required for an RV park. We arrived in time to stop what could have been a disaster, and then we joined them in the search for better property.

During the months that followed, real estate agents continued to look for property around the Verde Valley area, but Bud also expanded his search to other parts of Arizona. He found an existing campground just north of Wickenburg that had vacant land for sale behind it. It was in a beautiful setting. Bud hired an engineer to meet with the planning and zoning commission to start the tests and get the paperwork moving. The commission had a lot of requirements, some that we were unaware of until later, but it looked like a doable park. It was first announced in the September/October 1992 newsletter with an estimated cost of $8,000 per lot. Two types of lots were planned for that price: small lots would include hookups, pad, and a shed, while the ¼ acre lots—although more acreage for the same price—would be unimproved.

There was an advantage to this park that we had not enjoyed before. Because the property included a 109-space campground and a small clubhouse with a laundry and an office, both construction workers and visiting Escapees members had a place to stay.

The Rainbow Builders dug thousands of feet of trench in order to install 15,000 feet of utility lines for the park.

By the fall of 1993, the entire property was fenced in, rough grading for retention ditch drainage channels was complete, and some of the Rainbow Builders were working on road drains and culverts. A survey crew set stakes for roads and sewers, and Art Love designed the lots. Due to regulations we hadn’t anticipated, the price to someone registering for a lot after October 1993 increased to $9000.

A group of volunteers took charge of preserving the 300-year-old saguaro that was already on the property. It had an inhabited owl’s nest inside of it. Early volunteers watched the chicks hatch, grow up, and take off to start their own families. A great effort was made to protect the saguaro that Wyn Gibb had named Methuselah. Since it could not be moved, they built a cactus garden around it and then put up a wood rail fence to further protect it.

By the end of 1993, 200,000 cubic yards of dirt had been moved, which is like moving a pile of dirt 300 feet wide, over half a mile long, and six feet tall! This was completed with one scraper, one grader, one bulldozer, two backhoes, and three determined men. In 1994, Rainbow Builders spent many hours constructing sheds for small lots while another crew rough-graded lots and cut in roads to their final grades.

Even as the red tape went on, some seasoned Rainbow Builders remained on through the summer to lay conduit from sheds to pedestals and to shape the roads. By the end of 1994, we received permits for the sewer collection and water distribution lines. By now, the Rainbow Builders had all the pedestals and water lines installed on the small lots.

Many Rainbow Builders returned in the fall and work resumed except during the Christmas holidays when everyone took some time off to rest and to visit friends. By January 1995, they were back at work, digging enough holes and trenches to make an army of gophers jealous. By mid-January, more than 60 tanks were set and more than 2 miles of sewer ditches were dug, pipe installed, and the trenches filled and packed. Throughout most of 1995, the work continued with a few hardy souls staying on through the summer to help Leon. That handful of Rainbow Builders made unbelievable progress, and by October 1995, they were laying concrete curbing and preparing the road base for asphalt.

Selection of small lots took place on October 23, and the selection of large lots happened a week later. The selection dates were staggered to help reduce crowding of the park at a time when there was a high volume of visitors. Once the lot owners were able to get on their lots, all the campground sites were available to traveling Escapees, eliminating the crowding. Construction was basically finished, but there were still permits to be obtained, all of which required more paperwork, more red tape, and more waiting. It seemed to both the lot owners and to us that the paperwork would never end. We could not give the owners their deeds until all the permits were in hand. However, Bud and the Arizona attorney worked out a lease program to see us through the interim period. The cost of the lease was one dollar for a storage lease or a nominal fee for a lot with utilities. Most people took advantage of the offer and went ahead with whatever construction they had planned while we all waited for the final piece of paper that allowed members to register the deeds we had already signed.

Meeting the Needs of Traveling Escapees

We tried two types of parks, SKP Co-Ops and retreat parks, and neither completely served the needs of Escapees members. Both worked well as home-base parks for a limited number of Escapees, but a survey of the membership showed that less than 15 percent of our members wanted to buy into any type of park. Many said they had just escaped from property ownership and responsibility, and now they only wanted to travel. However, survey results showed they did want to find inexpensive parks to use, and they wanted to continue staying places where they were most likely to run into their Escapees friends.

 

We had to find another way to meet the membership’s needs. One reason the club has continued to grow in enthusiastic members is that we have always remained flexible. When a service is needed, we try to provide it; when something doesn’t work, we try a new approach.

The unique SKP Co-Op was not working quite as we had hoped, as many co-op members were staying or holding their sites long-term, leaving few available for traveling Escapees. The Rainbow Retreat plan, with deeded lots and a separate campground for traveling members, worked but took years to build. Most members wanted something now. We began looking at smaller parks that were currently operable.

Once before, in 1986 when we needed money to buy more land at Rainbow’s End, we sold lifetime memberships for a limited period. Now we decided to sell a total of 1,000 memberships for $600 each. The money we gained from these sales was used for the down payment on four parks over the next two years.

Dream Catcher: Deming, New Mexico

This crew installed the sidewalks through Dream Catcher! (L to R) Jim Rowe SKP#33505, Don Damaker SKP#26556, Walt Gibb SKP#8934, Frank McKee SKP#39299, Bob Tacheny SKP#11601, Jack Stapleton SKP#15188, and Glen Stwalley SKP#13422.

This was the first park purchased with lifetime membership sales. It was a small 50 site park, but we have since added spaces. The park was in operation when we purchased it in the summer of 1996. It had a small office with a store area that we used for social hour and playing games. There were clean showers and rest rooms, and a small laundry.

When we expanded the park in 1997, we increased the space between sites to give guests more elbow room. Now there are 93 full hook-up campsites plus 25 extended-stay lots that may be leased monthly, annually, or for a period of up to five years.

Escapees Tra-Park: Pecos, Texas

Tra-Park started as a military base, evolved to a mobile home park for oil field workers, and now, under Escapees' care, is a combination of RV park for traveling guests and mobile home park for the remaining oil field workers. RV sites have full hook-ups along with shaded patios to escape the West Texas sun.

In late January 1997, we acquired a small existing park in Pecos, 309 miles east of Deming and something over 100 miles south of The Ranch SKP Co-Op in New Mexico. According to its history, the park started as a military base, then became a mobile home park for oil workers. When we purchased it, it was a combination mobile home and RV park. It is serviced by city water and sewer connections, power drops for electricity, and some sites had patios and covers.

With this infrastructure already in place, expansion was significantly easier and faster. The biggest challenge was rewiring and installing underground electricity. There was an office building, restrooms, and a laundry already in operation, ready to welcome guests.

Turkey Creek RV Village: Branson, Missouri

Much of Turkey Creek RV Village enjoys shady trees, including the office and clubhouse pictured here.

We were delighted when this park, which we looked into two years earlier, came back on the market with a reduced purchase price we felt we could afford. We purchased this park in Branson at the end of December 1997. To be exact, the park is in Hollister, across the bridge from Branson. The park is within a mile of SR 76, which is also known as the Branson “strip.” It is a wonderful destination park for travelers whether they want to enjoy the bright lights of the famous Brandon shows, fish for trout or bass at one of the nearby lakes or shop one of the several outlet malls.

The park surroundings are peaceful, and just a few miles away are all sorts of entertainment such as the remarkable Silver Dollar City. There is a small office and laundry as well as rest rooms and showers. In the time since this park was acquired, the office building has been expanded to include a clubhouse, a dog park has been created, and 50-amp sites have been added. All in all, it is another popular place for Escapees to stop as they travel.

Raccoon Valley: Knoxville, Tennessee

A small stream meanders through Raccoon Valley, providing a haven for wildlife and a relaxing atmosphere for RVers.

We purchased this park on February 12, 1998, making it the seventh Rainbow Park and the eighteenth park in the Escapees Parks system. Raccoon Valley park is about nine miles north of Knoxville. We changed the name from KOA Knoxville North Kampground to Escapees Raccoon Valley.

The park is nestled beneath a hill, or as they say in that neck of the woods, “it’s in a holler.” The office building also houses the laundry and restrooms and has enough space for social hour and other activities. The 76 sites are mostly full hook-ups, but a few are electric and water only. Some sites have cable TV and phone service, and 53 are pull-through sites. As with many of the older Eastern parks, most of the sites have 30 amp electric (a few only have 20-amp service). We planned to upgrade these later.

What was once an underground pool has been converted into a pavilion and additional shower facilities have been added. There are two spring-fed creeks on the property; one goes through the campground and the other runs along the back of the campground between the developed portion and a nature trail area.

Raccoon Valley offers an atmosphere for both those who like to be entertained by the events and attractions in nearby Knoxville, or to entertain themselves around the campground.

Eleven days after their arrival, managers Bill and Janet Walcott #18671 welcomed the first Escapees members to the new park. When Chuck and Beverly Clark saw how much needed to be done to bring the park up to Escapees standards, they volunteered to help and worked one full day painting, doing major cleanup and scrubbing the restrooms. But then isn’t that what being an Escapee is all about?

Financing the RV Parks

The park in Knoxville brought the club-owned or operated parks to a total of seven, three with home bases plus a separate campground for traveling members, and four that could be termed stopover parks. 

To finance them, we sold 1,000 lifetime memberships. With the approximately $600,000 we raised, we were able to put down payments on the four parks discussed above and expanded Dream Catcher to a total of 93 spaces, including 25 extended-stay sites. Although $600,000 is a lot of money, when it comes to buying or developing RV parks, it’s a drop in the bucket.

[Fun fact: $600,000 in 1995 is the equivalent of just over $1,000,000 in 2020!]

At the time, we decided that until these parks have demonstrated their ability to pay their own way and make their mortgage payments, we would hold off on buying more parks. We have tried hard to keep these parks affordable to all, keeping accessibility in mind as we’ve needed to increase rates over the years to keep up with the cost of business.

While a lot has changed since 1995, we have continually remained focused on serving Escapees members, and all RVers, through educating about RVs and the RV lifestyle, encouraging community among RVers, providing services and other benefits to our members, and advocating on behalf of all RVers. Though we haven’t constructed additional parks in that time, we have worked to improve our seven Escapees RV Parks, support the SKP Co-op parks, and fought diligently to preserve RVers’ rights and ability to enjoy this unconventional approach to life and travel. We look forward to bringing you more opportunities for enjoyment in the coming year!

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