Becoming campground owners was never part of the plan.
Leonard and Yolanda Young were not, by their own account, especially “outdoorsy” people. Neither grew up camping at G & R Campground in Houston (pronounced “House-ton”), Delaware, or any other campground. Leonard is the founder of DelawareBlack.com and the National Black Guide. Yolanda is the founder of Business Babes, an online business that helps women use PLR to build digital products, and the federal procurement consulting firm Walker Young LLC.
As parents of four children, the Newark couple are always looking for ways to establish generational wealth for their family, so they started investing in real estate not long after they married in 2019.
“Right after the pandemic, we bought two mobile home parks in Alabama,” Leonard told Technical.ly. “And you know, we went back and forth, helping start developing them.”
They posted about the progress on social media. That led to someone asking if they were aware that a campground in Kent County was possibly going to be sold by its owner, a man named Norman Dempster, who had run it since he’d purchased it in 1997.
“It’s the oldest Black-owned campground in the US,” Yolanda said. “Prior to that, it was an officers’ club for Black officers [and other Black veterans] coming home from World War I and World War II.”
The Youngs were intrigued. Earlier this year, they took a drive to check it out and started negotiating the purchase right away.
“Once we came down to take a look at it, we were just amazed — 32 acres over 200 sites,” Leonard said.
They didn’t know that Dempster had been hoping for a Black buyer interested in keeping its Black history alive. It worked out — the Youngs are excited to learn everything they can about its history and preserve what they can.
They’re also interested in helping to make camping more diverse and updating camp operations with tech.
Hidden Delaware history
The campground’s history is evident in its name: The G&R stands for Gun and Rod, after the Gun and Rod Club for Black veterans, the Black version of the ubiquitous rod and gun clubs.
“Most rod and gun clubs are private clubs,” Yolanda said. “But back then, of course, they were segregated. And so our name is reversed. That really designates the difference between knowing that this was a Black club versus a white private club. … [Calling it Gun and Rod] is actually very purposeful, and so that’s a part of the history.”
The Gun & Rod Club had been there for decades. Dempster, before he bought the campground, once ran the club. As he explained in an April episode of “Newz and Trendz with Dave and Len,” a podcast Leonard Young cohosts, he decided to build the campground for his mother.
“My mother was very religious, always going to church retreats,” Dempster said during the podcast episode. “But the church retreats was only in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. Nothing here in the state of Delaware. So I said, as a young man, if I’m able, I’m gonna buy a piece of property to have a campground where my mother could have her church retreat in Delaware.”
There were challenges, Dempster said. “A whole lot of problems. I had to build that campground like you’re putting together a puzzle. I had to do it piece by piece. The banks and financial institutions would not loan me the necessary money to do what I wanted to do.”
Once the camp was built, there were more issues. Camping wasn’t a popular Black pastime, and white locals kept their distance at first, even though they were welcome to camp there. It was two and a half years before it had its first white camper, a man from Milford.
“And then from there it took off,” Dempster said.
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A campground for everyone
The Youngs know firsthand that Black campers and RVers aren’t always embraced.
“It was 2019, we had planned to go to HersheyPark and used one of the RV booking sites to book an RV,” Yolanda said. “We had already paid in full and literally two days before our trip, I’m confirming everything with the woman — and again, we were fully paid — she declined and refunded our money, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is weird.’ I booked it under my husband’s name. My name is a little bit more ‘ethnic,’ and so, you know, just interacting with her, it really felt like a slap in the face, like she didn’t want to rent her RV to us because they found out we were Black.”
Refusing to allow the cancellation to ruin their plans, the Youngs bought an RV the same day. “It’s so crazy that here we are three years later, owning an RV park and we probably went camping a handful of times. We were more hotel, bed and breakfast than tent.”
They’re learning that they’re not alone, and that there are more Black campers — and future Black campers — than they knew.
“Surprisingly, there are a lot of Black camper groups and Black RV groups, and there’s a lot of groups that frequent this camp and have been doing it for years,” Leonard said. “And with some of the social media promotion, I’ve been seeing a lot of comments where people will say things like, ‘oh, OK, it’s Black owned, now I feel like this is a safe place I can start going camping,’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to go camping but I’ve kind of been scared to start so maybe I can start here,’ so I think, just provide a level of security and affirmness for Black campers who may not typically be in that space to have a safe space to get started.”
Yolanda said the campers they meet tell them a little bit more about the history of the campground, including stories about it having once been a training and practice space for a Negro League baseball team.
The Youngs are hands-on, dividing time between Newark and one of the cabins on the property — in addition to space for RVs and tent camping, there are several cabins that can be booked — while still running their other businesses and properties. Now that they own G&R Campground, they’ve made a few changes that have given them more breathing room, including an upgrade from Dempster’s old-school manual way of running the business to a more technology-based setup.
“Prior to us being here, everything was manual,” Yolanda said. “All reservations had to be taken over the phone. So we have implemented an online booking system. That has definitely helped reduce a lot of the manpower and calls that have been coming in. We have also implemented contactless check-in. We’re at the point where we don’t necessarily have to be here every day.”
The Youngs’ challenges have been a bit different from Dempster’s. G&R is already a popular campground and venue space, but bucolic Houston internet speed can be an issue (something the state is working on).
“I think the hardest thing is when you’re in rural areas, not having great internet and cell phone service,” Yolanda said. “That’s been the biggest hurdle for us. And that’s something that’s a current challenge that we’re facing. It’s just such a huge cost in terms of infrastructure.”
Juggling the campground, other businesses and kids means lots of reliance on their smartphones to get through the day.
“We’re on our phones a lot,” she said. “So there’s upgrading phones, upgrading phone plans, and being just really, really sticklers with our time and the amount of time that we’re able to dedicate to our other businesses.”
As far as the location’s rich history goes, it’s almost entirely oral history, with very little recorded or published about it, other than the “Newz and Trendz with Dave and Len” podcast episode. Once things settle down a bit, the Youngs plan to sit down with Dempster again, as well as some other people in the area who can add more to the story, specifically with the Negro League part of its history, which they hope to officially add to Delaware’s Black history in some capacity before the memories fade away forever.
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