As long as people have been visiting the Homer Spit, they have camped outdoors. Archaeologists have found shell middens at Green Timbers, the former forest on the Spit destroyed by the 1964 earthquake when the Spit sank 5.9 feet. In 1896, 800 miners on their way to the gold fields of Hope and Sunrise camped on the Spit. In the July 8, 1964, Homer News, Dr. John Fenger, a city council member, found some campers at Green Timbers and had to warn them of an upcoming 20-foot tide.
For much of the Spit’s more recent history, when you’re talking camping, you’re talking the Homer Spit Campground. This season, the campground run by Peggy and John Chapple III and their family celebrates its 40th year of ownership by the family and its 43th year as a campground.
In 1971, Tony Neal leased city land at the end of the Spit and hired Mike and Diane McBride to build and run the campground. John and Nancy Kosch ran the campground after the McBrides, and Neal sold it to the Chapples in the winter of 1973.
The Chapples, now both 66, came to Alaska from New York in June 1970 with their first child, Stephanie, age 1. They towed a pop-up tent trailer behind a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. They intended to go to Fairbanks, but in Delta Junction met a longhaired guy with a guitar who said, “Go to Homer, man, and get a job in the cannery.”
The Chapples looked at a map and turned south. They came over Baycrest Hill with $300. The first place they stayed was at the Homer Spit Campground. A few years later, they owned the business.
“It was a big open sandpit at the time,” Peggy Chapple said of the area.
Diane McBride remembered a gravel road that would flood on the high tide. At first the campground had 35 spaces. It now has 122. In 1974, a beach site cost $3 a night and a site with power cost $5. Today, a beach site is $30 and a site with power is $45. Showers for campers were and still are $1. When Pier One Theatre was at the end of the Spit, the Chapples would let the actors and actresses take showers for free.
For a while, the Chapples not only ran their campground, they collected fees for the city campground at Karen Hornaday Park and other city campgrounds on the Spit. A 1970 ordinance regulated camping, and a 1973 ordinance let the city collect fees. One city official didn’t think camp fees would pay the cost of toilet paper at restrooms. Chapple said he made the city an offer: let them collect camp fees and they’d pay for more than toilet paper.
“We just slayed them,” Chapple said of revenues collected.
Over time, John Chapple’s three sisters and his parents began coming up to Homer and helping out. In the past 40 years, about 22 members of the Chapple extended family have worked at the campground. Katie Pitzman, 19, the Chapple’s first grandchild, now works at the campground.
For 12 years, the family lived on the Spit year-round. Stephanie, the oldest, could check in visitors and count back change at age 9. She also helped collect camping fees. John Chapple IV, or J.C., also worked there.
“I feel fortunate to have grown up in such a fun, unique location,” Stephanie Pitzman said. “It was an ideal job, and I loved sharing Homer with visitors.”
While generations have worked at the Homer Spit Campground, generations also have visited. The Chapples have seen campers they knew as children now returning with their children. They all have stories.
“As the campground turns,” Peggy Chapple calls the tales of the Homer Spit Campground.
Many visitors come from Anchorage and elsewhere in Alaska. The singer Johnny Mathis camped there once. Former Gov. Sarah Palin visited a few years ago when she filmed an episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” Dozens of people who are now Homer residents spent their first night here camped out at the Spit Campground.
Probably the most famous camper was the late Jean Keene, Homer’s Eagle Lady, who started out camping as a caretaker in the winter of 1978 and became a full-time resident, feeding eagles every winter until she died in 2009.
Other campgrounds have become fancier, but the Homer Spit Campground sticks to the basics: picnic tables, showers, water and power, the beach and the best view of any campground in the world. Its only modern concession is Wi-Fi, but reservations are still made old school, in a big book, by phone or email.
“We’re a family, close-knit, happy-go-lucky campground,” Peggy Chapple said.
Over the decades, the Chapples have renewed leases with the city, most recently in 2012 when they signed a 20-year lease, long enough for the next generation to take over.
“We’re going to be 84,” Peggy Chapple said of when the lease expires. “I’m not going to be here when I’m 84. I’m going to be someplace warm.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homer Spit Campground
4535 Homer Spit Road
1971: Tony Neal leases city land for the Homer Spit Campground. Neal hires Diane and Mike McBride to build and run the campground. They operate it for the summers of 1971 and 1972.
1973: Purchased from Tony Neal by John Chapple III and Peggy Chapple
1974: First season run by the Chapple family
Spaces in 1974: 30
Spaces in 2014: 122
Prices, 1974: $3, beach campsite; $5 electric hookup; $1 showers