Wagon Wheel Resort remembered at Historical Society event
RTHS President Marilyn Mohring was the evening's presenter. She also serves as the museum's curator. “We have a treasure trove of artifacts from that era, “Mohring said.
The Wagon Wheel had a modest start as a seven-stool hamburger stand and filling station in 1936. Gladys Burgis was one of the first employees.
As Mohring's presentation began, photos of classic cars of the era flashed across the screen, with a sign for Mobil gas along with a sign that read, “Wagon Wheel Tourist Court.” Twenty years later, in 1956, the Tourist Court celebrated its anniversary.
“The Wagon Wheel was a hub between Belvidere, Freeport, Rockford and Rockton,” Mohring said.
World War II in 1942 was a time of tire and gas rationing.
The expanded Wagon Wheel opened on December 1, 1944 until a fire broke out that same month. Ten days later they reopened in time for New Year's.
Growth of the resort continued. In May of 1950 it had 55 rooms and four apartments, with five wings and the main lodge area.
The resort covered 314 acres. A 1958 aerial view showed an air strip, laundry and the Candy Kitchen, pig pens, and a sawmill. The Red Barn Golf Course was built in the 1950s, accompanied by a little lake.
By 1970, the Wagon Wheel was very popular. An ice rink and a curling rink were added.
The Wagon Wheel Theater first began performances in tents. In June 1950, 400 people attended a show there. The cost of admission was $1.50.
In 1955 a permanent theater was designed with support of a Beloit College professor. A grand opening was held in 1956 with 412 people coming. Ticket prices were $2.25.
Another grand opening celebrated a specific entrance to the resort and the addition of gift shops, an ice cream parlor, the Pigalle Music Hall, playhouses and special décor.
The Candy Kitchen was where peppermint candy stripes were created and employees dipped chocolates by hand. Found in the Candy Kitchen were seven LB. Easter eggs. Sharon McCardle shared, “Those eggs cost $15." Another picture showed Frank May mixing the candy. Valentine boxes could also be purchased.
Mohring showed visions of Christmas decorations in outside views of the lodge through the seasons, including an orange sleigh and green reindeer.
Lobby photos of celebrities who came to the Wagon Wheel included Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Bob Hope. Jack Nicklaus golfed at the Red Barn Golf Course and signed autographs. Numerous celebrities graced the resort during its heyday.
The Cock and Bull Lounge had 16 years of business cards stapled to the ceiling. Three views of the Martha Washington Room featured novel light fixtures.
One of the most memorable employees at the Wagon Wheel was longtime manager Gayle Manners. Not to be confused with the syndicated etiquette columnist using that pen name, Rockton's Miss Manners always made sure everything was done properly at the Wagon Wheel.
Plans for the Garden Room received the seal of approval from Miss Manners in 1975. A 19th century statue captured great attention.
Photos of the trophy room captured an atmosphere of casual dining. But the Martha Washington Room required formal wear.
A tree sat inside the Gay 90's Room. Walt Williamson and Miss Manners greeted guests in the Gay 90's - the moment captured in a photo.
Then-Rockton residents Paul and Billie Liddell were among the local musicians whom Mohring recognized as performing at the Wagon Wheel.
Mohring's presentation showed advertising and menus, each with prices of the day. Wagon Wheel playing cards, matchbooks, postcards, brochures, cigarette lighters, and silver spoons made interesting souvenirs.
One Thanksgiving, 910 people made reservations for dinner Families enjoyed complete dinners of turkey and all the fixings for $6.90.
Skiing, a chalet, and a ski school were on site, opening in 1976. Currently sitting in the Green Street Museum is a set of skis donated by Jim Taphorn.
News articles quoted visitor disapproval of the fact that once you got down the ski hill, you had to walk back up.
In 1963 the Key Club opened, with one-year membership dues of $12. Round wheel-shaped windows were an eye-catching part of the Key Club.
Stairs led up to an upper level.
Recreation and amenities
A “Wagon Wheel” logo graced the bottom of one of the pools. A tornado blew the top off of the pool on April 12, 1965. So a sign reading, “No lifeguard on duty, swim at your own risk,” was posted.
Tennis courts were added in August of 1972. A storm took the top off the interior of the courts.
Places to shop included Gayle's Roost, a ladies dress shop, and The Red Rooster, a variety store. His and hers styling was also onsite.
The Red Barn Playhouse and some horse stables proved to be fun spots, with pony, trail and wagon rides. Red Barn Country Club opened in 1963. In 1971 the Glenn Miller Orchestra appeared at the Red Barn Theater.
Airport offices played an integral role at the airstrip.
By 1958, a 12 lane bowling alley was added.
The Frontier Inn was once known as “Wagon Wheel Jr.” The building is now The China Palace and has kept all authentic pieces of the past.
Many of the guest rooms in the Wagon Wheel showed Walt Williamson's eclectic taste.
Seeing photos of managers and employees brought back fond memories. During the presentation, RTHS member and former Wagon Wheel employee Judy Bates was wearing a uniform that was once worn by Rose Bates Lovejoy, who was a waitress at the Wagon Wheel. “Miss Manners said we had to have the dresses starched, and we had to have clean nails,” Bates told the crowd.
Other members of the same family who worked there were Lois Peterson and Norma Bloom. Bates shared that she spent time at the Taggert School of Dancing. “I danced at the Gay 90's,” she said.
One of the guests at the event was Gayle Shedd Haab. She is the daughter of Joe Shedd, a former employee at the resort. Haab was named after Gayle Manners who was her godmother, and the presentation included a baby picture of her with Miss Manners.
Bill Vedra, former Rockton Village president, was another former employee.
P.W. Hodges was shown in a photo surrounded by all women. “He was quite handsome and all of the guests called him Elvis,” Mohring said.
Gracing a case in the Gem Shop Shop & Diamond Source is an 18 karat gold ring engraved with the inscription of “LO to WW '97." The ring had been given to Walt Williamson's father by his mother Lena in 1897. It was found on the Wagon Wheel property.
The Ice Palace
In 1958 the grand opening of the Ice Palace welcomed skaters such as Lynn Conklin- the first to use the rink. Many skaters from Rockford also trained at the Wheel.
Mohring recognized all of the ice skating coaches.
The Ice Palace was stunning. More than nine miles of pipe was installed under a three-inch concrete floor with pipes buried in it. The pipes were used to freeze the ice. Equipment came from the Palace Theater in Rockford.
The Wagon Wheel Cardinals hockey team were also well known. They frequently won conference titles in the Illinois Ice Hockey League. In 1963 they took first place in the U.S. American Amateur Hockey Invitational Tournament. On April 9 the Rockford Ice Hogs honored the Wagon Wheel Cardinals in fundraising support of the Greg Lindmark Foundation; and all who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
An original Wagon Wheel Cardinals hockey stick sits in the Carriage House Green Street Museum. In 1961, curling teams were formed. Tommy Tiblings took care of the ice.
Viking Hall was built in 1966 - large enough to have between 25-35 vehicles on display. The bar originally was a different shape. Miss Manners wanted an L shaped bar so she had four feet of the original design cut out. In Oct. 1966, the Viking Hall's first event was held with Billie Lidell and her mother hosting.
Statues named Mercy, Law, Justice and Big Eagle sat on the Wagon Wheel land, each in a different location on the grounds. They came from the Winnebago County Courthouse in 1955.
The Church by the Side of the Road was built in 1964 in honor of Walt Williamson's mother. In 1969 the log cabin school (Old Stone Preschool) was built as a stop for the “Happy Train.”
Creston Trains, railroads in miniature were built in 1965 by Elmer Tolstead. “Walt never really did much with these," Mohring said.
A series of fires broke out over the years and one day a sign appeared, “Closed July 30, 1989.” In 2004,the remains of the resort were demolished.
“When Walt did things, he did them in a tremendous way, “Mohring said.
After the presentation, guests enjoyed foods and beverages that were once made at the Wagon Wheel, including sweet rolls baked by Judy Bates using their recipe.
The RTHS's Green Street Carriage House Museum is now open for tours from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. each Saturday.
RTHS invites all history lovers to its series of programs. On April 25 at 7:00 p.m. former Rockton Township Cemetery sexton Jerri Noller will talk about the Rockton Township Cemetery restoration.
Michael McGinnis contributed to the reporting. View more Wagon Wheel photos at the RTHS website.