Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Magic Our house was open seven days a week

Growing up for me was magic.

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.

I know now that we stuck out like a sore thumb when I was a kid I thought my home life  was equally normal to  anyone elses.

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.


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 ice rink was home to Olympic skaters and trainers. that included Janet Lynn, Peggy Flemming and  Scott Hamilton.The N.H.L.  Chicago Blackhawk's   team utilized the Wagon Wheel Ice Rink as their training practice  facility, a 180 mile round trip from Chicago. The  Chicago Stadium was flipped back and forth between ice rink to basketball court  to event hall, limiting practice time for the team . Pre -season games were also played at the rink.

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 
house keepers. 

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.

Philanthropic Barnstormer

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 grew up as an only child raised by his grandparents when his parents decided not to stay married when he was an infant. My dad survived that, born during  the Spanish Flu pandemic and World War I , the Depression , fighting in Normandy, Bastogne and The North African Campaign in World War II , his first wife being murdered raising his son as a single father on the road. To him a 9 to 5 job was never an option he was not cut out for it.

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.


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