James Kanter, playing a deputy, at left, and Jessica MIller, dressed as saloon girl Lil, practice their roles for the Wild West Show at Donley's Wild West Town, a re-created Old West town and museum in Union, IL. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Donley’s Wild West Town
♦ 8512 S. Union Road, Union, Ill.
♦ 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily May 18-19 and May 25-Aug. 23; Saturdays and Sundays from Aug. 24-Oct. 27
♦ Tickets, $16
♦ (815) 923-9000; wildwesttown.com
Updated: August 9, 2013 8:05AM
Go West, young Chicagoans. Go West.
Direct your parents to load up the family car and head on Interstate 90 past Barrington, past Elgin and through Hampshire. Go west to Union, Ill., the small-town (population: 579) home of Donley’s Wild West Town, a museum and low-key amusement park geared for ages 3-11. The attraction opens for the season on May 18.
“Real small kids get swallowed up in big theme parks,” said Randy Donley, one of the four-member Donley family running the park. “They come here dressed as cowboys and cowgirls.”
Donley’s Wild West Town is an easy day trip, 60 miles from Chicago. There’s a restaurant on-site and a dimly lit, air-conditioned museum that provides a place to cool off from the summer sun.
Outside is where the real action is — a 26-acre Old West-themed playground with fiberglass cows to lasso, hand-cranked trains to ride and the popular “panning for gold” exhibit with different shoots so “49ers” of various heights can try their hand. Guests get a small white bag for collecting fool’s gold with their admission ($16 flat fee that includes everything but food and souvenirs).
Donley’s Wild West Town is a throwback to the days when kids used real slingshots instead of playing “Angry Birds.” There are pony rides and a petting zoo, a vintage carousel and a small roller coaster, plenty of buffalo taxidermy and a fake Wild West jail. Three times daily, local actors, hired through a Woodstock, Ill. theater company, perform a show featuring a sheriff, an outlaw, a dim-witted deputy and saloon gals leaping on top of buildings and shooting blanks. A child-sized train chugs along a mile track surrounding it all.
The Donley family — dad Larry, 82; mom Helene, 78; and sons Mike, 60, and Randy, 58 — knows this isn’t Great America. They’re proud to offer something different, something that reminds them of their family road trips organized by Larry when his sons were still youngsters.
“In the 1950s, little Wild West towns were roadside attractions,” Randy Donley said. “How many are left?”
The Wild West town oddly has its roots in the Ford Model T, the first-generation car that never made it out to the real Old West. In 1958, the Donley family lived in Berwyn where Larry Donley owned a gas station. He was building the Model T out of junkyard parts and started to trade car repairs for parts and then all different sorts of antiques.
“It got out of hand,” Mike Donley said.
In 1972, the family bought seven acres in Union to store the trailers filled with antiques.
“It was just a place to store the collection,” Mike Donley said.
In 1974, they opened up the main building of what is now Donley’s Wild West Town, calling it the Seven Acres Museum. They charged $1 admission and the first year, 9,000 people showed up. Fifteen years ago, after customers repeatedly told them the space they built looked like an old western town, they renamed themselves Donley’s Wild West Town. Their property grew, and they added a restaurant and banquet hall.
The museum remains and showcases Wild West-themed antiques in old Field Museum display cases. There are outlaw death masks, deerskin vests,
angora chaps and lots of weapons. All displays have labels written by Mike Donley, an amateur historian.
The antique-filled museum remains part of the Wild West Town experience, though both Randy and Mike Donley agree that most kids want to head outside as soon as they set foot in the museum. The Donleys are active in buying and selling antiques. Randy Donley calls it the golden goose of the family business.
In particular Larry Donley’s antique phonographs and music boxes have become the centerpiece of the collection and are on display. The “Phonograph and Music Box Show,” now in its 38th year, attracts international buyers. The Model T sits in a corner of the museum in an area modeled after the Museum of Science and Industry’s “Yesterday’s Main Street.”
Each family member continues to work full time at the enterprise, each with his or her own niche. They remain close and committed to preserving their family — and family-friendly — business.
“That’s why we’re not on a reality show,” Randy Donley said. “We get along too well.”