The gypsy life in Eastern Oregon

Written by ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald August 05, 2009 02:46 pm
Frank Streng and his wife, Phyllis, spend summers at Phillips Lake and winters in Arizona

Leading a kind of gypsy life, Frank Streng, 82, sells bait, snacks and cold pop at the Snack Shack at Phillips Reservoir during the summer months. When time allows, he builds boats, mainly tugboats, from cardboard he scrounges. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins)
At 82, Frank Streng is living what he calls a gypsy’s life in his fifth-wheel trailer, spending his summers at the Union Creek Campground at Phillips Reservoir southwest of Baker City and his winters at a campground in Parker, Ariz.

“I’m a gypsy. We work here during the summer and head south to Arizona for the winter,” said Streng, who credits the U.S. Forest Service and the AuDi campground management company based in Colorado for making the nomadic lifestyle possible for him and his wife of 58 years, Phyllis.

During summers at the Union Creek Campground, from around May 1 through Oct. 1, Streng staffs the Snack Shack and works as a campground host. Taking on those duties allows the Strengs to park their fifth-wheel in the campground rent free and pay nothing for electricity, water or sewer hookup.

Besides those benefits, he earns $500 a month for working at the Snack Shack and helping out as a camp host.

“I’ve been doing this for four years,” Streng said. “It’s a good deal for senior citizens. It’s a way for them to make some money, but it’s not hard work.”

Phyllis also brings in some extra money when she works a shift in the information/ticket booth at the campground.

Streng said he is part of the 50 percent of American private-sector workers who worked all their lives but don’t receive any retirement pension, other than Social Security.

With their life savings dwindling away, the Strengs went looking for a way to cut living expenses and make some extra money to supplement their monthly Social Security checks.

After discovering the advantages of working as campground hosts at National Forest campgrounds, the Strengs sold their home near Madras and purchased a 34-foot fifth-wheel trailer, where they now live year-round. They spend five months during the spring and summer at Union Creek Campground and seven months in the fall, winter and early spring at a campground in Arizona.    

Among locals and tourists who visit the Snack Shack at Phillips Reservoir, Streng is earning a reputation as a recycler extraordinaire and model-boat builder.

“People bring me cardboard cereal boxes, cracker boxes, pop and beer cases. I use the thin, smooth cardboard. I cut it into strips to build model boats,” Streng said.

During his spare time when not on duty or waiting on customers, Streng builds models of all kinds of boats, from speedboats and sailboats to oil tankers and military ships, but tugboats are his favorites.

“I like the tugboats because you can add all sorts of things, like propane tanks, hoists, lifeboats, flags and stuff,” Streng said. “I make the life preservers out of O-rings. Just about everything else is made out of cardboard.”

Some of the ships he builds are models of real trawlers and other fishing boats he worked aboard in his younger days.

Others are patterned after photographs. In most cases, he’s done his research and has some stories to tell about each model boat he builds.

“This sailboat with the black sails was used to run slaves, guns and whiskey out of New York in the early 1800s,” Streng said. “The black sails were so you couldn’t see it coming in and going out at night.” 

“We’re getting people out here from Baker and all over to see these boats,” Streng said. “We’re talking to a couple of shops in Baker City about selling them.”

When the boats are built and painted in detail, Streng displays them on shelves in the Snack Shack above all the goodies and camping supplies, but he doesn’t sell them at the shack.

To purchase one of the boats he sells for around $100 each, people have to look him up when he’s off duty, Streng said.

Streng said at 82 he is the oldest of the camp hosts at Union Creek Campground. The others are in their 70s.

AuDi also manages several other Forest Service campgrounds in Northeastern Oregon, including the Anthony Lakes campground, where the hosts are also in their 70s, Streng said.