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Novelty helps Russian River campground compete

Sara Jane Callister shows off the new honeymoon trailer for rent at Casini Ranch Family Campground in Duncans Mills. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

STEPHEN D. GROSS , TOWNS CORRESPONDENT

Casini Ranch has been a Russian River landmark since George Casini started his family-oriented campground in Duncans Mills in 1965, but this year it has added a few upgrades, perhaps in response to a flurry of interest in the Guerneville area. With upscale weddings at Dawn Ranch Lodge, new owners at Johnson’s Beach and prime-time exposure on HBO’s “Looking” series, Russian River resorts are coming into their own.

Casini’s has introduced a few new features of its own: a gold mining sluice box, rental trailers and even a honeymoon trailer have joined the cabins, RV and tent sites on the property’s 110 acres.

Alan Ginos, manager for the past two years, is behind the changes. The gold mining sluice box is designed to help families experience panning for gold the old-fashioned way along the campground’s mile of river beachfront.

The Moscow Barn is used as a recreation hall, and the Moscow General Store stocks conveniences. It also sells bags of sand in which a variety of treasures are hidden, from shark’s teeth to gems, fossils, minerals and a few surprises. It’s an educational experience for the children, Ginos said.

“Kids spend hours looking at the chart we include to help them identify the minerals and other treasures,” he said. “Learning the names of what they’ve found gets them genuinely excited.”

Ginos was happy to learn that his instincts were on target. A school librarian in Guerneville informed him that yes, the books young students most often borrow these days are about minerals and fossils.

On Presidents’ Day weekend, Casini’s introduced rental trailers for families who don’t have their own. There’s even a “honeymoon trailer,” a 1976 Airstream that has been renovated and “tricked out,” its trademark silvery skin painted over with color . The campground staff will move it to a couple’s choice spot on the campground if so desired.

The campground also offers free indoor movies, karaoke nights, as well as the more usual hayrides, fishing, water sports, hiking, beach bonfires, ice cream socials, arcade games, and ping pong and pool tables.

The story of the Casini family’s ownership traces back to the days of the Russian settlement known as Fort Ross in 1812. The Russians had hunted otter and used the land around what is now Casini Ranch’s campground to harvest lumber and grow crops. But when the Mexican-American War ended in the late 1840s, the land on the south side of the Russian River became part of the Rancho Bodega Mexican Land Grant that was given to Esteban Smith in April 1846.

The north side of the Russian River became Duncans Mills Ranchero, part of the Rancho Muniz Mexican Land Grant given to Manuel Torres in 1845 by Governor Pio Pico.

In 1881, Bartolomeo and Anastasia Casini settled in the area, and their family eventually bought property from the La Franchi family. Records show that the La Franchi family employed a dairy manager named Paul Anthony Casini between 1928 and 1932. He gradually accumulated shares of the dairy until he owned it.

Over the next 33 years, people visiting the area asked Paul Anthony and his son, George, for permission to use their property for dipping into the river. The land was a natural for recreation. Cooled by the sea and forest, it also had the natural amenities of a beach and flat meadowland.

Now it has both natural and man-made amenities to lure tourists looking for serenity, recreation and educational opportunities on their vacations.

Casini Ranch Family Campground is located at 22855 Moscow Road in Duncans Mills, 865-2255, casiniranch.com. Rates range from $47-$185.