Camp Contentment



Perched on an Adirondack chair painted with the initials FLC, Julie Zoller seems rested, relaxed, almost philosophical. Looking out past the leafy green hundred-year oaks that dot the shoreline, the homeowner and real estate agent surveys the expanse of wind-rippled, sky-reflecting water that stretches more than the length of her sun-drenched backyard.

“At some point, everyone needs a little piece of this,” she smiles.

The “this” to which Julie refers is none other than her own home and event destination, a 16-acre sanctuary called Fire Lake Camp that some say amounts to a pure slice of firefly-lit heaven. Despite its fiery name, visitors from all over the metro say the tranquility, serenity, and good old-fashioned fun they discover among its lavender-scented fields is a gift worth sharing. Guests who’ve gathered to indulge in al fresco farm dinners under flaming maples, kayak at dusk off an illuminated dock, or swap stories around a starlit campfire will tell you: high blood pressure doesn’t seem to exist—almost can’t exist—at Fire Lake Camp.

And yet, the spot that is coming to mean so much to so many nearly wasn’t at all. When the Zollers began the hunt for an empty-nester house several years ago, city life was their goal.

“We were actually searching for a patio home,” laughs Julie, who agreed with husband Bob on a plan to downsize.

The couple’s former home—a marvel in itself because it had once been the Wellsville Train Depot—sat on 80 wooded acres.

“That location was a stretch for a city boy who didn’t hunt and grew up 20 minutes from New York City,” says Julie of Bob.

But the search for a suitable maintenance-free abode close to the city took a surprising turn when friends who did love to hunt approached the Zollers with a proposition: why not trade houses?

The friends lived in a house on a lake with a barn, surrounded by 16 acres of fields.

After considering the offer, the Zollers told their friends “no.”

“We told them we couldn’t do it. It just didn’t seem like a good fit for us,” admits Julie, who nevertheless agreed to walk their friends’ property several times.

Then, during one of their forays on the land, Julie and Bob found themselves sitting on the lake’s placid dock alone. Nearby sat a kayak, reminding Robert of long ago days spent working at his parents’ boat dealership on the Hudson River.

“It was there we began to dream,” recalls Julie. “It was there we first thought, maybe we can do this.”

Two years later, “can do” seems the operational mantra behind the beguiling rustic retreat that greets visitors today. Fields of asparagus, 800 lavender plants, sprawling flower gardens, a bee colony, a home and barn adorned with Julie’s repurposed antiques, and even a turkey named Chuck enchant all who travel down the property’s pin-oak-lined drive.

“It feels like summer camp,” says Bob, who—along with a son who discovered the flammable gas bubbles bubbling up from the property’s lake—created the farm’s moniker.

For the Zollers, the decision to share the old-fashioned joys of Fire Lake Camp with others seemed to evolve naturally after friends requested use of the farm’s serene cheer for their own events.

“This place is my tranquility,” admits Julie, “but it’s also a place where others can find tranquility too.”

Much like the bubbles that spring from the lake itself, Fire Lake’s tranquil surface is made possible by a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity, all fueled by the Zollers’ know-how and elbow grease. Because Julie and Bob are both real estate agents with Keller Williams, they’ve employed the property to its full advantage; in addition, Bob’s finance background keeps the business operation humming.

Yet much of the camp’s creative spark is fueled by Julie, who’s more than once been called the Martha Stewart of Miami County. For the woman who loves to cook, entertain, garden, and design do-it-yourself interiors (she’s also the former owner of Veranda home store), Fire Lake Camp is more than a home; it’s a calling.

“She’s very creative,” says Bob, who’s been known to express initial skepticism over his wife’s ideas before ultimately claiming the best as his own. “But sometimes I have to say ‘stop,’” he admits, “and ask, how about we work on just one idea instead of 12?”

Still, the fruits of the couple’s labors are evident everywhere you look. Julie’s love for repurposing materials plays a key role in creating the camp’s rustic charm.
Case in point is the event barn, where rafters strung with twinkling lights and antique pendants cast a glow on the antique treasures beneath. One-hundred-year-old farm tables salvaged from the Ursuline Convent near Paola share space with an equally aged bead board counter from the old Russell Feed Store that now functions as a buffet server.

“I love old things, and I love using them in new ways,” says Julie.

Julie also uses new things in new ways too, like the softly pooling curtains she created to give the space a glowing, ethereal look.

“They’re made from painters’ drop cloths that I bought at Home Depot,” laughs Zollers, who stenciled an exquisite pattern into each flowing yard using gold spray paint. Who knew?

Outside more unexpected and local treasures abound, like a lakeside fishing hut fashioned from an outhouse—“we found it abandoned along Highway 68,” says Bob—and a playhouse the couple constructed for their three young granddaughters using discarded hedge tree limbs. Bricks taken from a nearby dilapidated barn double as pavers for garden beds blooming with pesticide-free cabbage, broccoli, spinach, carrots, zucchini and onions.

Just past the apple-green chicken coop and closer to the couple’s home sits another one of Julie’s passions: her gardens.

“I love to cottage garden,” says Julie, who’s particularly fond of the potager garden she’s created just outside her front door. She points to the tomatoes, rhubarbs, peppers and oregano growing artfully among the boxwoods and perennial blooms. “You can get what you need for dinner—both for your recipes and for your table—all in one grab,” she explains.

Equally beautiful and functional is the inside of the Zollers’ home, where an open barn-style floor plan affords a sweeping view of the lake. Salvaged garden fencing provides a sturdy yet stunning loft railing, and English antiques mix comfortably with newer pieces, like the iron kitchen chandelier designed by Julie herself.

“I asked Country Corral in Paola to make it for me and they agreed,” says the ever-creative decorator. “They usually manufacture cattle pens,” she adds.

Hanging on a nearby wall is a reminder of their former home, a sign from the Wellsville Train Depot; it points visitors toward the screened-in porch that’s become a family favorite.
“We practically lived here when we first moved in,” explains Julie, who raised the room’s relaxation quotient by installing gently flowing curtains and persuading Bob to build a bed suspended by rope from the porch’s exposed rafters.

Much like the porch the Zollers created, so much of Fire Lake Camp’s magic lies in the farmstead’s remarkable ability to put its event-goers and guests at ease. What makes the place so relaxing isn’t entirely clear. Is it the glow of fireflies around a slow food table? The milk and cookie bar enjoyed under the maple tree? The glimpse of the blue heron on the opposing shore?

Whatever the cause, the effect is joyous for all.

“I love hosting rehearsal dinners when folks have pre-wedding jitters,” says Julie. “It’s so fun to see guests relax and let their guard down, they really have a good time.”

Bob agrees wholeheartedly, recalling a recent event held in honor of a guest’s 60th birthday.

all photos by William & Jill DiMartino

“Someone had invited all her friends and family, and everyone ended up gathered around the fire at the end of the night, telling stories about her life,” he recounts. “It was so special, we didn’t want to interrupt them—I think we ended up leaving them alone and going to bed,” he smiles.

But these days, the Zollers probably aren’t getting a lot of sleep. Between harvesting lavender and honey, teaching gardening classes, posting tips on the Fire Lake Camp blog, and hosting myriad events like the Slow Food Supper with chef Jasper Mirabile on June 16, there’s little time for rest.

Some might think it enough to make the Zollers want to quit their full-time real estate jobs.

Fire Lake Finds

Take a jaunt out south to find tucked-away treasures at some of Julie Zoller’s favorite locally-owned spots.

Red Cedar Gardens
7895 West 183rd St., Stilwell, Kan.
(913) 897-2286
Garden boutique and nursery. English garden open to the public, plus seasonal gardening/décor classes.

The Eclectic Company
16101 Switzer, Overland Park, Kan.
(913) 897-4067
Antique and architectural salvage business on a 1910 farmstead, owned by Pat and John Blanchat.

The Front Porch Antiques Mall
534 N. Main, Ottawa, Kan.
(785) 242-6355
Antique treasures offered at reasonable prices by owner Sharron Spence.

Country Corral
310 S. Petroleus, Paola, Kan.
(913) 294-2242
Metal fabricators for cattle pens, bale holders, and according to Julie, unique home items upon request.

“Definitely not,” insists Julie, who plucks a wine glass left over from last night’s farm dinner out of an antique life preserver adorning the dock. “I’ve found my passion to live in, and now I want to help others do the same.”

To schedule an event or learn more, visit firelakecamp.com.