I was raised with two sisters and four brothers in a small Midwestern town of eight hundred residents.
The two most famous men in town were Walt Williamson and my dad Dempsey Hovland who were good friends. The difference between the two: Walt brought the world to Rockton IL. Dempsey took on the world from little Rockton IL
Our house was open seven days a week filled with magicians, musicians, athletes, politicians, and energy. I could wake up to a miniature scale of Great America on our dining room table with investors discussing plans with my dad- to Satchel Paige and his family visiting and staying for dinner -to a team of Cuban male dissident baseball players eating lunch with us to a team of female basketball players sleeping in bunk beds in our basement to a Chicago Bear playing my mom in basketball on our court in the backyard or Goose Tatum former Harlem Globetrotter teasing her and taking her on in a ball handling competition to Donkey's that played baseball wearing Converse eating my moms revered gardening before their owners loaded them up for a game.
The downtown storefronts of Rockton, Illinois were replications of the old wild west. My dad had one of his offices on top of the police department with a western storefront.
Obvious that Illinois was not geographically a western state, there was a reason for this. Walt Williamson was that reason.
Williamson built the Wagon Wheel Resort in 1936 . The resort continually grew offering more usual and unusual guest amenities. The resort was a popular stay for people from Chicago and Lake Geneva. Five years later, fire forced him to rebuild, using timbers salvaged from railroad trestles, utility poles, antiques and mostly unwanted items. Those second-hand items became part of his business model.
“Everything I buy is junk nobody else wants and I make something out of it,” Williamson said in an April 7, 1974, Sunday Register Star article.
|DOWNTOWN ROCKTON ILLINOIS|
After Williamson’s death in 1975, which coincided with the beginning of the retreat’s demise, the Wagon Wheel was bought and sold numerous times. But the new owners couldn’t re-create Williamson’s magic. Two suspicious fires two weeks apart in the nineties was the end of the Wagon Wheel Resort.The Key Club a five star restaurant where steep outdoor steps were taken to an oddly raised building that resembled a house in the bayou on stilts managed to stay open for a few years after the resort burnt down. The resort was destroyed by arson twice after Walt died. The first arson burnt some of the resort two contractors were convicted, within weeks the second arson in the 1990's destroyed all 300 acres . Lucky Luciano's nephew was the proprietor. The arson was never solved.
The Wagon Wheel boasted a bowling alley, swimming pools, candy factory, arcade and shooting range, golf course, numerous bars and restaurants, an airport, horse jump training facility , horse back riding trails, indoor tennis facility, wedding chapel, Viking hall ( held wedding receptions to boxing events). Celebrities and family members of organized crime were frequent guests. The Jazz icons all played there. Thousands of newlyweds spent their nuptial night in the antique sleigh bed in the honeymoon suite. As kids we would run the halls, open the door to sneak a peak at the unoccupied "Love Room" squeal and run away. The room was bigger than sneaking a peak of actual nude people. Which there were plenty of in the coed steam rooms. The resort was like going back in time the outside of town, with no press or distractions from the locals who were employed there. It was a town in itself.
For the children growing up in Rockton the Wagon Wheel was a town within a town with all of the best things to do in one place. It was our ticket to cheap or free ammenities that guests paid for. We bowled, ice skated, swam, road horses, and hung out in the" old west" eating Wagon Wheel fudge. We all personally knew the talking Mina Bird that lived in the main lobby and how to sneak into rooms for our personal use. A hell of a lot us worked as dishwasher, lifeguards, desk personnel ,waitresses stable caretakers, bartenders and
Walt originally purchased furniture building materials from burnt out structures and others financial losses of the depression.The site evolved into a miniature city, but the entertainment complex began modestly. Walt Williamson started the Wagon Wheel in 1936 as a hamburger stand and gas station. His first building was a hamburger stand, "Your dad ran that for him . He would give bags of hamburgers to needy families, giving away more than he sold." according to an old timer.
'Your dad would then take his pay and buy kids shoes and drop them off at bars .
Your dad was not out to embarrass anyone. He was upset about fathers spending money to drink when their kids went without. He always had a soft spot for kids."
My dad continued throughout his life to give . He raised money to open the Boy's Club. and the first city baseball league diamond,in his hometown. Mooseheart Orphanage , and hundreds of community service organizations benefited financially from his philanthropic heart.
My dad was not typical- so I realized as I aged.
Growing up with him there was no line between business and family.
My dad was a barnstormer, a one man band his job was filling seats for the athletes and entertainers who sent out to tour cross country. He did not punch a clock he did not have the guarentee of a 40 hour weekly paycheck. Our family was large nine people to feed and shelter. He employed and paid the salary and operating expenses for five basketball teams, two baseball teams, dozens of entertainers, and a staff nation wide of pageant coordinator employees.
He was a promoter his entire life. As a teen booking the Swing Orchestras.As a kid organized marble tournaments that drew hundreds at local parks . Running away from his hometown in Wisconsin in 1933 he survived employed for brief stint in Chicago as a teen numbers runner/collector for the Irish Mob run bookies.
In his early thirties expanded his 2Oth Century Attractions business after serving in World War II into a national phenomena.
My mom played basketball on his World Famous Texas Cow Girls basketball team, she later managed 26 states of his Miss American Teenager Franchise, and continued to recruite and train his basketball teams.
My dad owned numerous sports teams, coached , booked, and promoted them. He managed booking engagements for other team owners, Satchel Paige, Pee Wee King, Ruth Hill Marionettes , The Harmonica Rascals, and hundreds of other athletes, musicians and acts.. I am still amazed how he kept it all straight and never missed a beat.
At 5 we were old enough to be put to work labelling, licking, and stamping hundreds of booking fliers on Saturday mornings watching cartoons and Sunday evenings watching Walt Disney. On Monday we would hall them by wagon to the post office. If one of my dads teams baseball or basketball game was within 100 miles he took us or put us in an RV or auto with the halftime acts. As children we spent every summer in a station wagon with my mom traveling from Illinois to every state west of the Mississippi River to recruit new ball players and run the state finals for Miss American Teenager. My dad stayed behind to manage the other end of business.
My mom and all of us kids lived in hotels in the summers from state to state traveling in a station wagon. She had lived the barnstorm life with my dad on the road before we were born. She was no Sally Daisy she was tough enough to be out there alone with half a dozen kids in tow. Our school years end was cut short of our classmates ,taking our lessons and finishing the assignments on the road and mailing them in. My dad lived on the road in hotels state to state for the rest of the year and my mom when she had to cover . Us older Hovlands by 15 we were sent out on the road to handle business across the United States on our own .
7 of us ready to go to a booking
|My DAD WHEN HE WAS A LITTLE BOY 1920'S|
My mom was born 17 years after my dad by midwife in 1934,during the Great Depression in Arkansas, She survived that and and her family anchored down during the Dust Bowl. Her older brother fell into a fire at their dad's cotton gin he died at 12. Two other siblings died as toddlers. Her dad moved the family farther south from Malvern to Winthrop. When his oldest son died they moved deeper south from Winthrop to to Gillham. Her daddy pulled trees with a horse and chains sawing them into poles he shipped on trains selling as utility poles. My mom was sent to work the fields in the summers at age eight with her sisters to help support the family of 9. An outhouse, coal for heat and brushing teeth and an orange in a sock at Christmas was a far cry from the world my dad opened up to her, when she joined his World Famous Texas Cowgirls ( originally from Chicago, then Bismark, then Beloit ,WI where he was born lastly run out and Rockton , IL where the Wagon Wheel Resort was) female basketball team 1949-1977.
She came from rural Arkansas ,a town with a general store where she everything from clothes to farm tools were sold. My dad had her in the company of Bob Cousy, George Mikan, The Harlem Globetrotters and news reporters within a month out of Arkansas. She fit right in she sparkled and had a way abot her that captured attention in any forum. She was special and he knew it.
|MY MOM ON THE LEFT HOF BOSTON CELTIC BOB COUSY IN THE MIDDLE|