SARASOTA COUNTY — A smile spread across Dick Hysell’s face as an old friend stepped through the doorway.
Then it happened again.
And again. And yet again.
Hysell, his wife Laura, and the two other couples who started Sun-n-Fun, Marvin and Marilyn Keyser and Duane and Evelyn Werstler, greeted old friends and acquaintances who stopped by the RV park for its special 50th anniversary celebration Aug. 14.
The couples sold the facility in 1978 and hadn’t seen many of the their old friends and acquaintances since.
“It just makes you feel so good that something you started (is such a success),” Laura Hysell said.
The idea for Sun-n-Fun came to the couples in May 1959. Dick Hysell and Marvin Keyser had long worked on the family farm, growing vegetables in their native Ohio in the summers and Florida in the winters.
“I thought farming wasn’t what we wanted for our future,” Dick Hysell said, adding they wanted to live in Florida year-round. “We had to come up with something else. We decided to build a swimming pool that was like a recreational park (we had in Ohio).”
The men solicited the support of a third partner — Duane Werstler — and sprung into action, purchasing 10 acres off Fruitville Road.
Four months later, they petitioned Sarasota County for the park without much success. They made necessary changes and in December 1960 received approval to move forward.
“Everybody in town said we were crazy,” Laura Hysell said, chuckling.
Despite the lack of encouragement, the three families broke ground on the pool in February 1961. But they faced difficulty selling memberships to the pool, and the men had to find other jobs to pay the bills. By August, the couples resumed construction. A month later, they opened Sun-n-Fun on Sept. 17.
However, the excitement was short-lived.
“That failed,” Dick Hysell said of the pool. “People didn’t swim year-round. So, we added miniature golf (in 1963). That didn’t work either.”
“It worked, it just wasn’t enough people,” Marvin Keyser added. “We didn’t know when to quit.”
The couples attempted to sell the property in 1963 but didn’t get any offers.
Then, their luck changed. A flood in Myakka River State Park in 1966 forced campers out, but they had no place to go.
“We were sitting here (with all this land),” Dick Hysell said. “We thought we should do something. We started building a campground. We started with 32 sites.”
They added more every year after that until they reached 1,027 sites within three years.
“It kept filling up,” Marvin Keyser said. “We found out they wanted to make reservations for the next year.”
The families took turns staying at the campgrounds on weekends to oversee activities, which they made sure were fun and plentiful. There was shuffleboard, plenty of fishing with a lake stocked with bass and catfish, planned trips to Disney and horse races, bingo, choir practices, variety shows and anything else one could think of, Dick Hysell said.
“We tried to make the campground so much fun they wouldn’t go anywhere else,” Dick Hysell said.
Marilyn Keyser agreed: “(The campers) would say they were so busy they couldn’t keep their houses clean.”
For the founding couples, the memories are as fresh as if they happened yesterday — the camper who would hold up “Boo” and “Applause” signs for the jokes Dick Hysell told during bingo, a circus man who could stand on his finger, Mike Swain’s attempt to skydive into the pool, and a donkey named Jellybean — just to name a few.
“It just shows you that dreams come true to see what it is today,” Laura Hysell said.
For more photos of the anniversary party, click here.
Contact Pam McTeer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 1959 — Dick Hysell and Marvin Keyser talk of building a pool or community recreation center. They purchase 10 acres off Fruitville Road. Duane Werstler joins the partners.
Fall/Winter 1960 — The men petition for a recreational park in Sarasota. The county commission dislikes the idea but eventually gives its approval.
February 1961 — Groundbreaking ceremony signalizes the start of construction. Lynn Davis, the second runner-up in the Miss Sarasota contest, turns the first shovel of dirt.
June 1961 — Owners run out of money to complete pool and take other jobs to help cover the bills.
August 1961 — Construction resumes.
Sept. 17, 1961 — Sun-n-Fun celebrates its grand opening.
June 1963 — Sun-n-Fun adds the restaurant.
1964 — Sun-n-Fun opens the miniature golf course.
1965 — Sun-n-Fun adds 50 sites for camping.
1970 — Sun-n-Fun buys more land and adds the Lake camping area, increasing to 520 campsites on 56 acres.
1971 — Camp Chapel, a non-denominational Christian church service, begins.
1973 — Camp expands to 86 acres and 1,027 sites.
July 1978 — Founders receive offer to purchase the campgrounds and sell the facility to Don Winter of Bradenton.
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