Thursday, July 4, 2024

Red Foley's Dude Ranch (Mackinaw Dells)

In the summer of 1942, country music performer Red Foley and his wife Eva Overstake (aka Judy Martin) operated a "dude ranch" at Mackinaw Dells near Congerville, Illinois.

For one brief season, from the end of May until Labor Day weekend, the couple hosted a series of weekly concerts while also offering pony rides, roller skating and concessions.

Foley, who grew up near Berea, Kentucky, was a rising star in country music at the time and a featured performer on the WLS National Barn Dance which was broadcast on Saturday nights.  He hosted his own show, along with his "Saddle Pals," during the week on the Chicago station.

Overstake had been a regular on WLS, along with her sisters, since she was a teenager.   Eva, Evelyn and Virginia Lucille (aka Jenny Lee Carson) were originally known as the Three Little Maids.  The Overstake sisters had grown up in Decatur, Illinois.

Ramblin' Red Foley's bio in the 1943 WLS Family Album referenced the new business venture this way:  Last year he and his wife, the former Eva Overstake, bought a farm in Illinois, which they plan to make into a "dude ranch."

In truth, Foley had only leased the pre-existing facilities at the Mackinaw Dells.  Situated halfway between Peoria and Bloomington, the area was a well-established recreation spot.   The park, which included a pavilion and a roller rink, had been hosting dances, picnics and celebrations for decades.    

In fact, in the 1930's the WLS Barn Dance booked a number of shows at the Dells including a "monster celebration" on the 4th of July, 1934.    It is possible that Foley had even performed there during those years and was already familiar with the area when he decided to put his name on the place.

How involved Foley was with the day to day operations of the park is however unclear.  Foley and Overstake, who lived in the Chicago area with four children at the time, did not appear to relocate to the Mackinaw Dells even for the summer.

Instead, as reported in the Woodford County Journal, Foley was renting a room at a residence in nearby Eureka on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for the season.

On the radio that summer, Foley was on hiatus from the Saturday night Barn Dance show on WLS but kept his Tuesday morning slot with the Saddle Pals which suggests he was returning to Chicago early every week. 

The stage shows at the Dude Ranch ran for 14 weeks, always on Sunday, rain or shine.  Admission was 30 cents including tax.  (Free for children under 10 and men in uniform).

Foley, often listed as "Foreman," was naturally always on the bill along with Eva.  Here is a list of additional musical performers and novelty acts:

May 31Hoosier Hot Shots, Jolly Joe Kelley, Texas Tommy and his Wonder Horse Baby Doll, Tex Atchison’s Lone Star Ramblers
June 7Pat Butram, Prairie Ramblers, Bolores & Her Bulldog, Bob & Jean in Skating Thrills, Ruth Baxter
June 14Dezurik SIsters, Rusty Gill, Al Verdi & Co., Bento Bros, Rita and Farm Dance Band
June 21Mac & Bob, Maple City Four, Eric Filmore & Co (Acrobats on a Perch), Ted & Flo Vollet (Balancing and Juggling), Mary Joe & The Lumberjacks
June 28Arkansas Woodchopper, Patsy Montana and Her Partners, Ted & Flo Vollet, Mary Joe & The Lumberjacks
July 4 & 5Cousin Emmy & Her Kinfolks, Farmer Bill, Polly and Her Bunkhouse Boys, Alma Deane, Grace Wilson
July 12WLS Rangers, Pepper Hawthorne, Hubert Dyer, Billy Woods
July 19WJJD Supper Frolic: “Red” Belsher, Paul Grove, Don White, Millie and Marge, Frontiersmen
August 2Poppy Cheshire, Skeets & Frankie (of Radio Station KMOX St. Louis), Beehler’s Hollywood Animals
August 9Lulu Belle & Scotty, Texas Tommy and his Wonder Horse Baby Doll, Lumber Jacks (from WJBC)
August 16Chuck Acree, Bill O’Connor (Irish Tenor), Screw Ball Club (from WDZ), Lumber Jacks (WJBC), The Noonans
August 23Cumberland Ridge Runners, Karl & Harty, Doc Hopkins, The Blue Eyed Boy, Coco & Teddy, Baker’s Trained Mule
August 30Whitey Ford (The Duke of Paducah)
Sep 6 & 7Prairie Ramblers (WLS), Parker Bros., Carl Thorson, WDZ Screwball Club

On Saturday June 27th, Red Foley and Patsy Montana were guest performers on the WLS National Barn Dance which was broadcast from McCormick Gymnasium at Illinois State Normal University in Normal, in cooperation with the McLean County USO Committee and the McLean County War Board.  The price of admission was 50 pounds of rubber or 100 pounds of scrap metal.  

Patsy Montana detailed the show and her time at the Dude Ranch in her autobiography, The Cowboy's Sweetheart:

"Illinois can be terribly hot in the summer, and that day was no exception.  They held the show in a gymnasium and with a big crowd it was stifling.  I was to go on last, and I waited in the heat.  It was like old times having Salty, Jack and the rest of the Ramblers there.  

It just got too hot in the gym so they decided to move everything outside.  I finished the show with "I'd Love To Be A Cowboy" and "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart."  

After the show we loaded up and drove back to our hotel in Bloomington.  The next morning we gathered for breakfast and went over the previous night's show, then we loaded up and headed out to Red Foley's Dude Ranch.

We arrived, unloaded and set up for that evening's show and we drove to a nearby town and had supper.  That evening's show was good, and it was hard to leave Red and Eva Foley.  You would think, being on the road so much and running into all of our friends, we could manage more time to visit.  It seldom happens that way.  You arrive in time to set up for a show, do the show and just as quickly head to another town to repeat the process."

The Red Foley "Dude Ranch, " a wartime experiment, didn't last.   Foley would soon move on to bigger and better opportunities.

The Mackinaw Dells pavilion and roller rink changed hands many times in the decades that followed and the spot was eventually converted into horse stables.   The final remnants of the Dells pavilion was razed in the 1990's after years of disuse.