Driftless Home & Garden: Building a dream off Scenic Byway A26

By Kate Klimesh,

Colton and Tessa Willie, in the kitchen of their new home constructed on a well-planned lookout over the Upper Iowa Resort, which they purchased and have operated for the past two years near Dorchester.

Tessa and Colton Willie thought they had their dream home by Cresco. They had just finished renovating it to be exactly how they wanted for themselves and their two children, Raylan (9) and Harlan (6). Then an opportunity came along they simply couldn’t pass up. 

Tessa explained, “Colton’s always wanted to build his own campground, even when he owned and ran his tree care service, he still wanted to someday build a campground.” 

The couple heard that the Upper Iowa Resort, a 29-acre resort located between Dorchester and Waukon, was up for sale two years ago and struck while the iron was hot. “We had discussed the idea of building a campground with our banker, who was also the realtor for this place (the Upper Iowa Resort). Otherwise, we probably never would have known about it.” 

The family spent some time at the campground and fell in love. They’ve operated the campground and made several major improvements over the past two years, including a new bath house, modernized office and adding seasonal sites and a shed for campground equipment, like their tractor. Colton also sold his tree care business to focus his energies on the campground and resort.

A hitch in the plans

“Living near Cresco, we had to live in a camper at the resort each summer because we needed to be here when the campers were here,” Tessa recollected. “The boys loved being here in the summer, riding bikes all around the grounds and playing with other kids their age camping at the resort.” 

After two summers of living in a camper on-site all summer, the family made the decision to build a new home at the campground. “The campground checked all the boxes for what we were hoping for, so we decided to build our home here.” 

In May 2022, their Cresco home was officially sold and they moved into a camper at the campground. But this time, there was a different kind of anticipation. Only one more
summer, fall and part of a winter in the camper while work was done at the campground. “We did move into one of the cabins once it got really cold,” Tessa added. 

Starting the dream again

How do you build a new home when everything you want is at the wrong location? Start with what you know. 

The family knew they didn’t want anything “super huge, so started at 2,000 sq. ft. for the house, with two bedrooms and a master bedroom and two baths.” 

They met with a local designer who helped bring their ideas to life. Colton wanted to ensure he kept his shop the same as he had in Cresco, with high ceilings, lots of space and the amenities he needed to pursue his passion in classic car repair and restoration (currently spending quality time with a 1969 Nova), with room for a car lift in the future.

Tessa added, “There were many nights lying awake in bed thinking about the design and what we wanted in the house. You only get to build it once.”

With the design finalized, and many unique features to make life easier, the couple focused on hiring out all the work that needed to be done, including creating the ground on which the house would sit, ringed by a high retaining wall, overlooking the campground. “We wanted to stay on one level, with the attached garage and shop.”

The high vantage point ensured the family would have privacy from the campground while still being on-site and able to attend to campers at any time. The challenge was that a good portion of the ground the home is built on had to be moved in to fit the house and its foundations in that location. The retaining wall was more for structural integrity of the site than appearances. And a wall that large was no small feat.

As site work began, workers needed to create the home’s building location by using extra soil and sand from creating the road to build up the site for the home to be built upon. They began the foundation cement work in the summer of 2022 with Hubka Construction of Decorah, being careful to ensure the integrity of the retaining wall laid by Pinter’s Gardens and Pumpkins near Ridgeway, as the foundation was poured. 

Construction with the crew from Beisker Builders of Waukon began in August.  

The Willie family acted as their own general contractors and ensured any materials needed were ordered early enough that they didn’t experience any delays from supply shortages. The family used Ridgeway Lumber for most of their materials. 

Tessa kept things simple, using the same countertops from Johanningmeier Stone throughout the house in kitchen and bathrooms alike. She also kept the same wood cabinets, doors and trim as a common theme throughout the home. Colton even found an old barn beam to use as the kitchen island light to tie together the rustic charm of the space.

“It was great working with Shelly, and we could see how all the pieces fit before the final draft. If I had to do it over again, the only thing I’d do differently is make the island in the kitchen longer, so four chairs could fit at it at once.”

The site and design complete, the family continued to operate the Upper Iowa Resort as their home was being built. 

The road to the home was created as they worked, yet with the beautiful trees surrounding the site and the newness of the road, they could not get a semi up to the site. The crew at Beisker Builders got creative and used a skid loader to make multiple trips to and from the site. The boom crane from Kelly Concrete allowed them to set some of the trusses, but many others they had to set by hand due to the site’s limitations and elevation.  

Seth Beisker, an experienced bridge builder turned construction company five years ago added, “Someone gives us a home design print, and we build it. This home design, the trusses came in two pieces to span the whole width of the home, with lots of graduated sizes going to the valley where the vault meets the garage.”

The Willie family has been living in their home since February of this year and are truly loving every minute of their customized space. From the terrazzo flooring with in-floor heat installed with the plumbing by Becker Hardware of Ossian which is easy to maintain with the abundance of natural elements surrounding them, to the nooks, shelves and special touches – like the boys’ shared bathroom between their bedrooms – that help the family enjoy their new, and permanent, dream home overlooking the beautiful Upper Iowa River, sand bottom pond and Upper Iowa Resort – a dream within a dream. 

Future plans include a patio off the living room. As for landscaping, well, they will tackle that once the weather is ready to cooperate.

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