In the past half-century, the Baker family has seen many changes in Ocean County’s business community.
Here in New Jersey and in communities across the country, independently owned and operated restaurants, hardware stores, clothing stores, pharmacies and other businesses have increasingly been either forced out of business, acquired or replaced by corporate chains.
But not Baker’s Acres. The 45-year-old pine- and laurel-covered campground in Little Egg Harbor is still family-owned and -operated and, thanks to the Baker family’s old-fashioned hospitality and constant reinvestment in improvements, they’ve managed to build a loyal following of campers from Philadelphia to New York City and throughout the Northeast who come back every summer to see what’s new.
“I’ve been going there for over 40 years,” said Bill Mihala of Bethlehem, Penn., adding that he frequently takes his wife, children and grandchildren to the campground.
Baker’s Acres is owned and operated by second- and third-generation members of the Baker family, including Jack and Maureen Baker, and their adult children, Monica, Johnny and Jason, who continue to update the campground with modern creature comforts.
In the past two years, in fact, the Baker family has invested roughly $80,000 to add cable TV and Wi-Fi services for their guests, along with upgraded water and electricity connections, including new connections for tent sites where people did without such amenities in years past.
“If families can’t have the amenities they have at home, they often don’t want to come,” said campground co-owner Maureen Baker, noting that the needs of today’s campers are vastly different than those of campers from 30 or 40 years ago, who thrived on a rustic camping experience.
And while some of Baker’s Acres’ newest amenities may seem out of step with an old-fashioned “camping” experience, the Bakers have found that it is precisely these kinds of improvements that keep people coming back year after year. “We have a lot of business that comes by word of mouth from our campers,” Maureen Baker said, “And a lot of our guests like to see what’s new and different each year.”
“We get more and more trailers every year,” Jason Baker said. “They get bigger and they draw more electric. Fifth wheels are kind of exploding.”
Monica Baker-Frazer said she and other family members constantly communicate with their guests to find out what the campground should do next in terms of improvements. “We have surveys, emails and questionnaires, but most importantly we talk face-to-face with them all of the time. We appreciate their feedback, ideas and criticisms, whatever they have to offer. We also encourage our employees to get to know our campers on a more personal level,” she said.
Baker’s Acres also provides a growing array of activities to keep its guests entertained, including arts and crafts classes, pajama parties, ice cream socials, treasure hunts, hayrides for adults and kids and crab races with live crabs. The campground has also developed a busy calendar of special events, which take place throughout the summer.
Father’s Day weekend activities included a Father’s Day breakfast, a Father’s Day themed movie, “Daddy-lympic” Games, with prizes for the fastest diaper change and the fastest runner with a beer, as well the campground’s third annual “Chowda Head Cookoff and Clambake.” Recent special event weekends includes a Las Vegas themed weekend that included a magician, a Chinese auction and a casino in which families can use tickets and tokens to compete for various prizes. Dixieland jazz concerts, carnival games, a pig roast, a spaghetti dinner and Karaoke weekend are also planned later this summer.
Baker’s Acres also offers three cabins and two park model cottages for families who don’t have their own RV or to accommodate family reunions.
All of this, of course, is a far cry from the rustic campground that John “Reds” and Anne Baker created when they bought 43 acres of undeveloped land in 1965 with the idea of creating a family campground.
In those days, John worked a day job at a Bass River State Forest campground and fire tower, while Anne worked for a clothing retailer. The husband and wife team lived on site with their children in a house they built themselves. They often worked together with chainsaws, cutting campsites in the dense pine- and laurel-covered land.
“My dad would come home from working all day at Bass River and then start working on the campground,” Jack Baker recalled, adding, “Many times, he would pull his truck around and shine his headlights into the forest so he could work building campsites late into the night.”
John “Reds” Baker also worked as a volunteer firefighter, and developed close friendships with several of the other volunteers. “They helped him dig his own well. They also built a bathhouse and a septic system. We didn’t have much money. So we’d get our friends and family together and work as a team,” Jack Baker said.
But in 1977, just 12 years after founding Baker’s Acres, John “Reds” Baker and three other volunteer firefighters lost their lives while battling a forest fire. His death was a tremendous loss for the Baker family, but it had the effect of making the other Baker family members even more committed to the campground and to each other.
“When my Dad died, we came together and worked together to fill his shoes,” Jack Baker said, adding that the memories of his father and raising his children on the campground make it impossible to even consider selling the business to a corporate chain or anyone else.
“Every piece of this campground has a memory. We’ve had many offers to sell, but I couldn’t possibly part with it because there is so much sentimental value here.”
That sentimental value is shared by Jack’s children, Monica, Johnny and Jason, who grew up learning that families should work as a team.
“I remember one day when we were fighting my Dad gave us each a stick and asked us to break them, which we did easily,” Monica Baker-Frazer recalled. “Then he bundled three sticks together and asked us to try breaking them again. We couldn’t. And that was his point. If we stuck together, we would be much stronger. It seems kind of clichÃ© now. But it’s true.”
Even to this day, with the work the family has invested, the campground is a part of them. Consequently, even younger generation could not imagine selling the business.
“I don’t think (selling) was ever an option in our minds,” Monica Baker-Frazer said. “The campground is kind of a living thing. We love it. So, to get rid of its heritage would be painful for us to do. It’s not something we can sell off to the highest bidder. The campground itself is part of our family. And the majority of people who stay with us are family to us. And we want to give them the best experience we can.”
Jack Baker has a similar perspective. “The most rewarding thing for us,” he said, “is when we see longtime campers coming back with their kids and grandkids.”
His son, Johnny Baker, agrees. “Growing up here, I’ve had more friends in the campground than in any of my years in school,” he said, adding, “It’s a great feeling when you see a 2-year-old camper, and see them again at 13.”
For more information about Baker’s Acres Campground, visit its website at www.bakersacres.com.