Sunday, May 15, 2022

Flashback 1999: Lasso the kids for Donley's

     I was sad to hear that Donley's Wild West Town is closing after 45 years in business. I was only there once, nearly a quarter century ago, with the boys, then 3 and 4, but I remember it being a fun, unusual place, with a little train, and a jail, and panning for "gold," and energetic employees working hard to give kids a great experience. 
     Usually, my old stuff doesn't make me cringe, but this one did,  a little. You could slice the first four paragraphs off and lose nothing. If this were someone else's work—oh that it were—and they asked me to critique it, I'd say, "You buried the lede. Start with 'I never had heard of the place...'" Or, better, "I'd never heard of the place..." Less awkward. Ah well.
     News is by nature negative. Headlines point to the disasters and tragedies of the day. You never see "EVERYTHING'S FINE" in big type.
     That's good, since everything is not fine, as a rule. So the bad gets publicity, and the good can be ignored. Run into something wonderful and enjoy it, but keep it to yourself. You don't want to be a publicist. What is forgotten is that others might enjoy it too, if only they knew.
     So, realizing the risks involved in praise, I have to let this one out:
     Donley's Wild West Town in Union, Ill. Fun. Unexpected.
     I never had heard of the place. Never heard of Union, for that matter. My wife found it. She has been running her own one-woman summer camp, and, in her endless quest to occupy the boys every day, found Donley's in a book. My first thought was: "I've never heard of Union. It must be far away."
     Make that far, far away. A solid hour's drive from Chicago. Plenty of time to dread the kind of cheesy, rundown joint a bitter cynic such as myself would expect from "Wild West Town." Neglect. Decay. A few pathetic attractions, run by indifferent teens forced to wear plastic uniforms.
     It wasn't. Not close. A big area enclosed by neat wooden buildings. For nine bucks, kids pan for gold in a miner's flume and ride a pony and a small choo-choo train. They are taught to lasso and invited to watch a bullwhip demonstration and a 20-minute Wild West show with gunplay and chases and corny jokes and bad guys tumbling from balconies.
     The place had an enormous restaurant where a tired dad could enjoy a beer with his lunch, and a jail cell where the sheriff herds the kiddies into a real old-fashioned lock-up and lets them ponder their imprisonment for a moment before compelling them to sing a song before he lets them out, all with a deft good humor, as if he hadn't done the same thing a dozen times that day, a hundred times that week, and thousands of times over the years.
     That wasn't the best part, however. The best part, for me, was the faces of the employees. They were adults. Men. One face after another, deeply tanned, lined, sun baked. Cowboy faces. Grizzled Marlboro men. A long, white mustache. A Clint Eastwood squint. All dressed like real, genuine cowboys. My kids will remember the pony, but I will always be amazed that the guy leading them around looked like he just stepped out of "Rio Bravo."
     Enthusiastic, authentic employees couldn't be an accident.
     "What we try to do is attract people who have a love of the old West," said Mike Donley, son of the founder, adding that the town has been there 25 years this summer. "We get a lot of retirees looking for something to do. The first thing we try to instill is: We don't pay your salary. Those guys coming through the door do. If those kids go home at night thinking you're camping under the stars, eating beans, then you've done your job. If you haven't, those kids aren't coming back."
     So that's the story. My apologies for sharing something positive. I'm sure I'll be my old self again next time. But with my kids clamoring to return and, incredibly, me looking forward to taking them, I couldn't just sit on this. The bulk of August stretches long and hot before us, and more than a few readers must need somewhere to take the kiddies that is worth the drive.
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 3, 1999


  1. The piece seems fine to me, but whaddo I know? What I'd have appreciated was a slightly more filled out intro today.

    "My kids will remember the pony" makes me wonder if, having been 3 and 4, they recall the place at all. "I was only there once" preceding "... my kids clamoring to return and, incredibly, me looking forward to taking them..." is somewhat notable. I suppose it's just the usual situation of life getting in the way and plenty of other things to do, but it seems mildly unfortunate that you never returned. : )

    I surely know how it goes, however. I've wanted to go to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union for a long time, but have never pulled the trigger. In the general scheme of things, an hour isn't that far, but apparently it's far enough!

  2. I first went to the Illinois Railway Museum (55 miles northwest of the Loop, in Union) a long, long time ago. It was so long ago (in 1970), that there were no storage barns at all, only the original depot. Most of the rolling stock was just sitting in the weeds and prairie grasses,in various states of decay, and completely unprotected from the elements. The earliest barns weren't built until the 70s and 80s.

    Over the decades, I've watched the IRM mushroom into what is now the largest railroad museum in the country--with over 450 pieces of equipment on 100 acres, many barns and buildings, miles of overhead (trolley wire), and almost five miles of track.It now hosts huge annual events, not only train shows, but antique car shows as well.

    And yet, in all the years I visited the IRM, I can't recall much about Donley's Wild West Town. It was barely even on my radar. I must have passed it many times, but I don't even remember what the inside looked like.I dimly recall going there once, to see an exhibit about barbed wire, mostly because I used to live in the nearby town where it was frst invented (DeKalb). As a life-long juice fan (electric-powered transit--streetcars, trains, subways, and even buses), the IRM was like going to trolley heaven, so that's where I went.

  3. I think your opening paragraphs are fine. Perhaps you're trying to apply bad news principles to a good news article. Not everything needs to open with the classic Steinbergian Hammer; you're entitled to wander around the topic a bit before getting into detail.

    As for Donley's Wild West Town, I am quietly amazed that they have been around this long. We would always see their place as we made the big sweeping turn onto South Union Road on our way to the Illinois Railway Museum, and someone in the car would invariably say, "We should go there sometime." Now it's on our list of Things We Missed.

  4. A problem with getting old is that you keep on hearing that places you always meant to visit are no longer there. "Where are the snows of yesteryear?"


  5. My dad would take my son every year then both my boys eventually all three. They still remember being bamboozled out of their "gold"


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