By Marianne Mueller


 ROCKTON – Vivid images of the former Wagon Wheel Resort flashed across a screen as Wagon Wheel Historian, Gary Glaser took everyone back in time. The Rockton Township Historical Society Green Street Museum welcomed a full house on April 26.

“This presentation came from suggestions made at the last Wagon Wheel Day,” Glaser said.

The first picture showed a couple sitting behind a gigantic size chocolate Easter egg found at the Candy Kitchen.

A little boy riding on a train, the Wagon Wheel Jr. (now known as the China Palace), and a necklace purchased at the Wagon Wheel were shown.

Glaser passed on a message from Janet Lynn who sent warm regards to everyone.

Gracing a case at the Gem Shop is an 18 Karat gold ring engraved with the inscription of “L.O. to WW ‘97.” The ring was 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. “It is still a mystery how it got there,” said Glaser.

In 1926 the Walt Williamson partnered with Nate Kelley. Originally the Nate Byron Company by 1926 greases and oils were made available.

In 1933 the name was changed from Kelley Williamson to Mobil. Sixteen stations existed.

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

Creston Trains, Railroads in miniature were built in 1965 by Elmer Tolstead.

“No history can be found about what happened with these,” he said. “It is estimated that these had a value of $100,000,” said Glaser.

 David Wilson was credited for working on railroads.

“It took seven to nine minutes to make a circuit,” said Glaser. “The incline, trestle, and locomotives were built to scale. Eight thousand rides in total were given.” Glaser added.

On aged, discolored postcards pictures taken by Dick Redmond took guests back to the time were the tracks were removed.  “The Kelley Williamson truck knocked down 20-30 mailboxes,” said Redmond.

The next reel reflected on the Wagon Wheel auction on Aug. 23, 1992.

“That auction had just about all antiques from the Wagon Wheel,” said Glaser. Items auctioned off included furniture, lamps, a canopy bed and a well-remembered swan bed.

The Durand Farm School serves as one example of Mr. Williamson’s philanthropy. Mr. Williamson brought students to the Wagon Wheel and bought them Christmas presents. A clip from the Rockford Morning Star featured detailed stained glass churches windows came from the Chapel at St. Anthony.
It was noted that one part of the Farm School was once a pig pen that was brought in and put on the grounds. In 1981 a rededication happened. The Walt Williamson Chapel still has his name on it.

Jimmy Vitale preserved works of art at Cliffbreakers. Bobby helmets and head lamps in a room at the hotel also came from the Wagon Wheel.
Stained glass windows at the Calgary Church, and the Rice Chapel; each have the same windows as the Church by the Side of the Road.

About three years ago Janet Lynn was a guest speaker at a Wagon Wheel Day where she shared her sentiments about her time at the Wagon Wheel. An excerpt she wrote spoke of the respect Mr. Williamson always gave.

Tracks that covered 360 acres were estimated to have been built sometime around 1961, before a fire hit. No Ice Palace had been built yet.

A fire broke out behind the dorms and went through part of the annex, sometime around Halloween.

“They had a big zoo with two bears, two buffalo, and peacocks,” said former Wagon Wheel employee, P.W. Hodges.

Pictures of Walt Williamson, and portraits done by Beloit artists drew great interest.

Stirring memories was a photo of Gayle Manners holding Rockton resident, Gayle Shedd Haab as a baby. Haab was a named after Miss Manners. Haab’s mother, Joe Shedd was an employee of the Wagon Wheel.

Filling a brochure was the main lodge, the Gay 90’s room, Sara Colby at the organ, and the Grand Opening of the Garden Room on March 14, 1975. Slacks not permitted; dress up but no need for a coat and ties in the garden room. The garden room had a sunken bar.

 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.

The Martha Washington room requested that guests wear coats and ties. Extra accessories were kept in a coat room assuring that proper dress codes were followed.

A full colored photo showed a chandelier in the Cock & Bull Lounge. Over 10,000 business cards hung from the ceiling. Buck Jones was the bartender.

The Sliver 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 were truly original amenities.

Pilipino boys from a Hollywood Key Club worked in the Gay 90’s bar.

Still standing today are the China Palace, (formerly known as the Wagon Wheel Junior), the Church by the Side of the Road and the log cabin (The Old Stone Pre-School). The China Palace has kept all of the authentic pieces of the past.

Irene Fisher purchased a Cannon camera with which she took over 400 photos of the Wagon Wheel. A tornado blew the top off of 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.

The main entrance to Miss Manners apartment, Christmas decorations, an ornate Wagon Wheel statue, The Chalet right behind the annex, the golf course and Red Barn Play House, sandstone figures, rooms with exposed beams, carpeting, wallpaper, swan beds and a section of carved initials were featured. Waitresses had to pass inspection before they could report to work. Doris Fisher recognized her husband in a photo.

“I was a salad girl and he was bus boy,” she said. The Rockton Herald featured a story on the 50th anniversary of the Wagon Wheel on Feb. 20, 1975.

Fires occurred on Feb. 2, 1993 in the Pigale and the bowling alley.

The annex and chalet and a Rockton water tower appeared in a clip. On Saturday, Jan. 30, 1999 the main lodge and hotel burned.

Without any notice a sign read, “Closed July 30, 1989.” In 2004 the remains of the once famed resort were demolished.

The Wagon Wheel may be gone, but it is never forgotten.

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