New Wheels West owner has roots in Black Hills

Ron Burtz
“Any time I come up here, I don’t want to leave,” said Kevin Hartman of Kansas City, Mo., who has been making trips to visit his many Black Hills relatives his entire life. That’s a big part of the reason the 36-year-old has come back to the Hills to stay as the new owner of Wheels West RV Park and Campground east of Custer. 
Hartman is the son of Jim Hartman, the youngest brother of Ted Hartman of Custer. He has lived in the Kansas City area for the past 18 years where he has run excavation equipment for his dad. 
Hartman said he had looked into starting some kind of tourism-related business somewhere in this region, looking as far west as Montana. Then last Labor Day he was visiting in Custer and went to breakfast with three of his cousins and other friends to Wheels West Camp-ground’s 7th Cavalry Cafe, which at that time was owned by Andy and Kathi Jenson who bought it in 1999. 
At breakfast he learned the campground was on the market and that Kathi was his waitress. After a short conversation with her that morning, Hartman returned later in the month for a more thorough look and eventually made an offer. 
Closing the sale Feb. 13, Hartman moved to Custer and took possession of the 4.4-acre property March 1. 
One of his first projects was to build a new 1,800-square-foot pavilion just east of the cafe which is right where he envisioned putting it from the very beginning. 
He enlisted his contractor cousins Tod and Mark Hartman to build the ponderosa pine beam structure and envisions having various events there starting with the Custer High School 2020 Prom June 19. 
Hartman said he wanted to do something special for the students who lost out on their traditional graduation exercises and spring sports because of the coronavirus shutdowns, so when the opportunity arose to host the event at his new pavilion he was eager to do it. 
The arrangement turned out to be a mutual benefit to both Hartman and the students and parents planning the belated high school prom. 
Hartman said he originally planned to plant grass seed in the area surrounding the pavilion, but decided he needed to have something more traffic- and photo-ready for the prom. That meant laying several pallets of sod and for that he needed help. 
So, in return for getting to use the pavilion, the prom parents and students came out to the campground three times to help lay sod. 
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” said Hartman, adding that Mark Hartman bought pizza for the group one night and grilled burgers for everyone in the cafe’s kitchen another time. 
When complete, the pavilion will have power outlets at all four corners and will be lighted with strings of bistro lights. This fall he hopes to install a big outdoor fireplace to extend the use of the space later in the season. He hopes the pavilion will be used for weddings, gatherings of outdoor enthusiasts and a place for families to connect. Another idea is to sponsor live music there on the weekends and he is planning a big July 4 party which he said will be open to anybody. 
Inside the building, which serves as campground headquarters and cafe, Hartman has been busy as well. He tore out old carpet to reveal beautiful hardwood floors which he sanded down and stained. 
The cafe has seating for more than 40 and Hartman is looking forward to opening the doors once he locates a restaurant manager and cooks. 
“I want to make sure that anybody who goes through those doors has an awesome experience,” said Hartman, adding that he plans to focus on providing great customer service and “awesome food.”
Hartman has also been working hard in the building next door which he refers to as “The Bunkhouse.” The building has six individual units, each with its own bathroom, and Hartman said it needed freshening up. 
This fall he would like to add two self-contained cabins and hopes to build several more such units over the next several years so families can have their own space. 
In addition to the rental units, the campground boasts 17 full-hookup camper spots, four spots with just water and power and 12 tent sites. There is also a shower house. 
The campground and cafe get their names from the fact that they are located near one of the campsites of the 1874 expedition led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer in which gold was first discovered along French Creek. In fact, the very spot where that discovery was made is only a few hundred yards away. 
A circle of old wagons sits on the property as a reminder of that history and Hartman said, while working around the property, he has found both a horse shoe and a mule shoe which appear to be quite old. 
So far Hartman has been doing most of the remodeling and repair work himself with help from his local relatives from several generations, but he also has another helper.
He said on the day he first looked at the property he was matched in an online dating service with a young woman from Colorado who is now his girlfriend. 
Maggie Robel manages the bunkhouse rentals and social media accounts for the campground and cafe and Hartman said he expects they will be married within the year. 
The company’s website can be found at 
Hartman is happy with the changes that have come to his life over the last year, concluding, “I miss running equipment, but this opportunity presented itself and I would so much rather be doing this.” 

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