Wagon Wheel memories to be shared at special Rockton event


Swimming pool, Wagon Wheel Resort, Rockton, IL

Rockton Township Historical Society (RTHS) invites the public to remember the Wagon Wheel, one of Rockton's best-known landmarks, on Monday evening, March 28, 2022. RTHS President Marilyn Mohring's presentation begins at 7:00 p.m. at the RTHS Carriage House Museum, 529 Green St, Rockton, IL. Admission is free.

Walt Williamson started the Wagon Wheel in 1936 as a gas station and a hamburger stand. Eventually the resort sprawled across 314 acres, with an air strip, golf course, swimming pools, ice skating rinks, restaurants, a private club, hotel, bowling alley, seven specialty shops, miniature train, a 35 acre lake, two-run ski hill, dinner theater and tennis building.

Over time, many famous celebrities such as Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan walked through the resort's doors, as well as Shirley Temple, Gene Autry, and many others. Waitresses had to pass inspection before going to work. Entertainment was frequent as well known and local musicians performed. Some of them were the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Andrews Sisters.

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The resort included Creston Trains, railroads in miniature, which were built in 1965 by Elmer Tolstead. 

The Happy Train provided eight thousand rides around the resort. David Wilson was credited for working on the railroads. It took seven to nine minutes to make a circuit, The incline, trestle, and locomotives were built to scale. Years later the tracks were removed.

Detailed stained glass church windows for the Church by the Side of the Road came from the Chapel at St. Anthony Hospital in Rockford. The Calgary Church and the Rice Chapel each have the same windows as the Church by the Side of the Road. 

Olympian Janet Lynn, who trained at the Wagon Wheel's ice rink and later became a top skater in her field and the highest paid female athlete in the country, was a guest speaker at a Wagon Wheel Day where she shared her sentiments about her time at the Wagon Wheel. She returned in May 2016 to sign copies of her book, The Wheel, Legacy of Excellence, which credits Walt Williamson's generosity for making her career possible.

The Wagon Wheel also hosted a strong ice hockey league. From 1958 to 1962, the Wagon Wheel Cardinals played senior amateur hockey in the Illinois Ice Hockey League.

Inside the Wagon Wheel Resort sat a main lodge, the very popular Candy Kitchen, and other unique rooms.

In the Gay 90’s Room, shorts and slacks were permitted in the afternoon.

People came to the Trophy Room in casual dress. A tree stood in the middle of the room, remaining there until June of 2007.

In the Martha Washington Room, guests were requested to wear coats and ties. Extra accessories were kept in a coat room ensuring that proper dress codes were followed.

The Cock & Bull Lounge had a detailed chandelier. Over 10,000 business cards hung from the ceiling. Buck Jones was the bartender.

Other truly original amenities were the Silver Dollar Bar, The Carousel, Gayle’s Roost, a doll house, a bowling alley, room service, a public stenograph, a newsstand in the lobby, and the Wagon Wheel gas station. Two pools and a two-run ski hill were often used by guests.

A tornado blew the top off the pool on April 12, 1965. A sign reading, “No Lifeguard on Duty, swim at your own risk" was posted.” One of the pools had a bar.

Christmas decorations, an ornate Wagon Wheel statue, The Chalet right behind the annex, Red Barn Golf Course, a zoo with original animals in it, the Red Barn Playhouse, an air strip, rooms with exposed beams, carpeting, wallpaper, and a section of carved initials were part of the overall decor of the resort.

Sara Colby played the organ at the grand opening of the Garden Room on March 14, 1975. Slacks were not permitted; you had to dress up, though no need for a coat and ties in the Garden Room. The Garden Room had a sunken bar.

The Kelley Williamson Company

Before he started the Wagon Wheel, Walt Williamson sold petroleum products. In 1926, Walt Williamson partnered with Nate Kelley. Originally the Nate Byron Company, by 1926 the company sold greases and oils.

When Nate Kelley wanted to retire, Walt Williamson bought him out. Kelley passed away just 15 months after this transaction was complete.

The company owned sixteen gas stations. In 1933 the signs were changed from Kelley Williamson to Mobil. Today, the Kelley Williamson Company owns nearly 50 stations and the signs say "Kelley's Market." KW-Oil is still Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin’s largest supplier of lubricants, motor oils, fuels and related products.

One Rockton location that bears his name today is the Walt Williamson Pool at Village Green Park.

The Durand Farm School serves as another example of Mr. Williamson’s philanthropy. Mr. Williamson brought students to the Wagon Wheel and bought them Christmas presents. One part of the Farm School was once a pig pen that was brought in and put on the grounds.

Fires in the end

The Wagon Wheel suffered several fires after its popularity declined. The Rockton Herald featured a story on the 50th anniversary of the Wagon Wheel on Feb. 20, 1975. Walt Williamson died that year and the property was sold several times. In March 1989, the owners announced the resort would close July 30. In the early 1990s, later owners planned to remodel and reopen it.

Fires occurred on Feb. 2, 1993 in the Pigale Music Hall and the bowling alley. Another fire broke out behind the dorms and went through part of the annex, sometime around Halloween.

On Saturday, Jan. 30, 1999, the main lodge and hotel burned.

In 2004 the remains of the once famed resort were demolished.

After the resort closed, Jimmy Vitale preserved some of the Wagon Wheel's works of art at Cliffbreakers. Bobby helmets and head lamps in a room at the hotel also came from the Wagon Wheel.

The Wagon Wheel auction on Aug 23, 1992 included antiques from the Wagon Wheel including furniture, lamps, a canopy bed and a swan bed.

Gracing a case at the Gem Shop on Main Street is an 18 karat gold ring engraved with the inscription of “L.O. to WW ‘97.” The ring had been given to Walt Williamson’s father by his mother Lena in 1897. The ring was found in 1936 on the Wagon Wheel property.

Still standing today are the China Palace (formerly known as the Wagon Wheel Junior), the Red Barn Golf Course, the Church by the Side of the Road and the log cabin (now part of the 1854 Old Stone Pre-School property). The China Palace has kept many authentic pieces of the past.

Michael McGinnis contributed to this reporting.

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