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Tourism in McHenry County's backyard

Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 4:51 p.m. CDT

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When people enter Donley’s Wild West Town in Union, they are sworn in as “deputies” and can learn how to pan for gold pyrite, throw a lasso, shoot slingshots, throw tomahawks and even shoot popguns.

The throwback to the Wild West era is one of several tourist attractions in McHenry County. And as residents plan their summer vacations, and check out where to visit, officials with the McHenry County Convention & Visitors Bureau want them to remember there are nearby places to go.

“There’s a lot of different things to do,” said Jaki Berggren, the bureau’s executive director. “It’s not a place that is a household name, [but] we do have a niche.”

Donley’s Wild West Town

Every day during the summer season usually means visitors for Donley’s, including groups from day care centers or park districts. Mike Donley, who helps run the attraction in Union, said 99 percent of visitors are from outside McHenry County.

This is the 39th season for Donley’s, which started as a museum. Eventually a restaurant and a banquet hall were added. There was no real master plan, Donley said.

The entertainment is aimed at youngsters 3 to 11 years old. “That’s our niche,” he said.

Donley’s has a museum with artifacts from the Civil War and a phonographic collection, among other things.

People working at the Wild West town are mostly high school and college students who have an interest in going into acting or primary education, Donley said.

Parents and grandparents also like to come, he said.

“They’re starting to bring kids, because they came here as kids,” Donley said.

The Railway Museum

The Illinois Railway Museum has been in Union since 1964. It now has 450 pieces of equipment and gets about 60,000 visitors from May through September, said Nick Kallas, the museum’s executive director.

Visitors can ride pieces of equipment that could be 75 to 100 years old.

“They can experience something they can’t experience anywhere else,” Kallas said. “We encourage people to touch these things and come on and ride.”

Among the trains there are rapid trains, “El” cars and street cars, Kallas said.

“There’s no place else in the country where you can go to you have this mix of equipment in one place,” Kallas said.

Usually visits last about four hours, and some people spend a whole day.

“Seeing everything and reading all the signs, it’s going to take a while,” Kallas said.

The Royal Manor Bed & Breakfast

The bed-and-breakfast in Woodstock is well-known for being the exterior of the Cherry Street Inn in “Groundhog Day.” However, it didn’t actually become a bed-and-breakfast until 2010.

Karla Stewart-Martin, who owns the Royal Victorian Manor with her husband, Everton Martin, bought the house in 2008, and began updating the bathrooms, plumbing and wiring in the house.

“It’s a real magnificent house,” Stewart-Martin said.

About half of the guests are fans of the movie, so the couple does not do too much promotion of the house being the “Groundhog Day” inn, Stewart-Martin said.

“Other people are interested in seeing the renovation done to the Victorian house,” she said.

The couple put in a picket fence and replaced the arch in front of the house, so it looks similar to the what it looked like in the film.

Using the movie is part of the hook of getting people to stay. Some people will drive by and stop to take a picture outside the house and some ring the doorbell, Stewart-Martin said. 

The couple doesn’t take walk-up guests or give tours of the house to those not staying at the bed-and-breakfast.

“If we have guests, our attention is to the guests,” Stewart-Martin said.

The couple, who live in the attic, also didn’t try to replicate the inside of the Cherry Street Inn.

“We didn’t want to pattern it after the movie, because at the end of the day, we would live in the movie,” Stewart-Martin said. “If 50 percent of the business is not ‘Groundhog Day’ fans, you’re doing them a disservice.”

The Ravenstone Castle Bed and Breakfast

Modeled after a 16th-century-style castle, the bed-and-breakfast was built on 10 acres in Harvard in 2001.

Rose Michel, who owns the bed-and-breakfast with her husband, Jose, get so many people who want to take a tour of the place that they open it four times a year to the public for an admission fee.

“We just can’t allow people to come in and go through the place,” Rose Michel said.

The rooms are decorated with different themes, including an Egyptian room, a King Arthur room and a Queen Elizabeth room.

They try to keep to small parties at the 4,500-square-foot castle.

The couple are in the tapestry business, which they sell at Renaissance fairs. They had the land, and they wanted to build a castle.

“It kind of just evolved into what it is now,” Rose Michel said. 

“We get a lot of people that travel that come to see us,” she added.

The Sanfilippo “Place de la Musique”

One location that is popular is also a secret.

The Sanfilippo estate in Barrington Hills has collections of restored antique music machines, phonographs, arcade and gambling machines and chandeliers, among other things. But where it is isn’t widely known.

The estate is a private residence, but its owner, Jasper Sanfilippo, opens it for prearranged group tours and charity events, Sanfilippo Foundation Executive Director Greg Leifel said.

The house was built in 1974 and has been expanded several times, Leifel said.

Leifel said he encourages groups to organize visits through libraries or park districts.

An address for the Sanfilippo estate is provided once people buy tickets for an event or a group tour.

There are regular inquiries about being able to take a tour of the estate, Leifel said.

“[Sanfilippo] formed the foundation to educate people about automatic musical instruments and share the collection [and] found a way to give back to the community,” Leifel said.

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