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McHenry County

Donley's Wild West town listed for sale in Hammacher Schlemmer catalog

UNION – It’s down to the wire, and you still haven’t located that perfect holiday gift for the guy or gal who has everything.

How about a 23-plus-acre amusement park, complete with Wild West-themed buildings, a junior-sized steam locomotive and railway, two residences, a warehouse, museum, restaurant, convention hall, commercial kitchen and more? It’s right there on page 6 of Hammacher Schlemmer’s holiday catalog, and only $7 million.

Any area cowpoke knows the above describes just one place: Donley’s Wild West Town in Union, where generations of kids have panned for “gold,” climbed atop a pony’s saddle and thrilled to the thrice-daily, live-action Wild West shows. 

“We’re not closing,” were the first words out of the mouth of Larry Donley, who, at age 87, is hoping someone new will come along to take the property’s reins. But he and his wife of 65 years, Helene, are adamant that, should no buyer sidle up, the park will open for business as usual come spring.

“At my age, you have days that you don’t feel good and days when you shouldn’t be at work,” Larry Donley said. “But I don’t regret any time I put in. I still put in seven days a week all summer.”

The Donleys opened Wild West Town, originally called the Seven Acres Museum, in 1974. It was a repository for Larry Donley’s burgeoning, eclectic collection of everything from phonographs to Adolf Hitler’s silverware. 

Over the years, as adjacent property became available, the Donleys expanded. In part to alleviate the boredom of some of the young children dragged along to the museum and antique village by their parents, the Donleys added the ever-popular Sweet Phyllis Goldmine, kiddie rides, a slingshot range, carousel, cowboy roping lessons and more. In recent years, the Donleys said it’s attracted roughly 50,000 visitors each year, including school groups.

For many area high school students, Donley’s meant a first job. And for some who earned parts in the live-action shows, it spurred stunt-business careers. 

Stacy Logan and Larry and Helene’s granddaughter, Shawnah Donley, are among those with stunt-acting credits that followed stints as Donley’s Wild West live-action players.

Randy Donley is Larry and Helene’s son, Shawnah’s father, and brother of Mike Donley, with whom he operates a thriving antique auction business. The potential sale of his parents’ property is bittersweet, Randy Donley said. 

“Last summer, for the first time, one of our employees said ‘My grandmother worked here when she was a teen,’ ” he said. “That’s when you know you’ve been around a long time.”

Randy Donley said he, too, is hopeful someone will come along who has an interest in keeping the park open. The family is open to negotiations involving a potential partnership, purchase of a segment of the property – or the whole kit and caboodle, including the museum’s considerable and impressive contents. 

“There’s some really rare stuff in this museum,” Randy Donley said, standing in front of a Smithsonian-documented, original Ford’s Theatre playbill from the night of the Lincoln assassination.

Rare is exactly what Hammacher Schlemmer aims for when selecting items for its catalog, said John Pinto, a buyer in charge of “image items” for the book.

He said Mike and Randy Donley were showing authentic stock market ticker tape machines, the type with the little glass domes at the top, at a trade show last winter.

“Some still had the authentic tape in them with the stock quotes,” Pinto said. “They had refurbished them and made them salable. We placed them in our catalog and in a retail store we have in Manhattan. After we met them and discussed that, they said ‘What would you think about selling our whole amusement park – our Wild West Town?’ ” 

The decision was made to include the park in the venerable catalog company’s holiday book – Hammacher Schlemmer’s most widely distributed catalog at just shy of 8 million copies – issued the week of Thanksgiving

To Pinto’s knowledge, it’s the first real-estate entry in the catalog’s history, and its most expensive offering to date. 

“We’ve had a two-person submarine and a five-person submarine,” Pinto said, referencing items listed for $2 million and $2.7 million, respectively.

In the holiday catalog, Donley’s Wild West Town appears alongside the World’s Smallest Quadcopter ($39.95), Cordless Outdoor Lighted Ornaments ($49.95) and just below the Robotic Pugilists ($59.95).

To date the entry has drawn one legitimately potential buyer for Donley’s, as well as plenty of curiosity.

“This is my fifth interview,” Pinto said. “The New York Times called me yesterday. … It’s just a wow story that you can buy a ‘town’ … and it’s a really nice place.”

Indeed it is, said Helene Donley, adding that she’d not change a thing about the way she and her family have spent the past 42 years.

“I’ve enjoyed the park, and the fact that our family has always been together,” she said. “I love to see kids come in here with their cowboy outfits on and their cowboy hats.” 

A qualified buyer who finds the sounds of jangling spurs and children’s laughter equally musical – clearly, for the Donleys, that’s the perfect present.

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