In its heyday, the Wagon Wheel Resort was considered the premiere place to visit in this area. The creator of this legendary place was Walt Williamson. Walt started his quest in 1936 with a small loan and a desire to open a truck stop and root beer stand. After that business burned in 1941, he moved his operations to Rockford. He stayed there until 1946, when he shifted his sights once again to the Rockton area. Walt used recycled products to build. He used telephone poles, hardware left overs, and what he lovingly called “junk” to rebuild. He kept improving the property into a one-of-a-kind showplace. It boasted of its own bowling alley, two ice skating rinks, swimming pool, candy shop and air strip. The resort stretched over 300 acres at its peak.
The clientele included movie stars, performers and sports stars. Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan were guests. Local girl turned actress, Barbara Hale held her wedding at the Old Stone Church in 1946 and a brunch reception at the lodge.
Walt continued working on his place until the day he died in 1975. But long before his death, folks started speaking of strange things happening in the area of the resort. There were stories told of the rooms at the lodge having cold spots, lights flickering and shadows seen wandering its halls and grounds. After Walt passed away and the former grandeur started to fade, the stories and rumors grew.
Websites mention that there was a bell hop who committed suicide in the building but as often is the case with these legends, research failed to find the bell hop mentioned. However, the stories that were found prove to be stranger than any fictional one.
One story told of a horrible car accident which occurred on the curve around the resort. In fact, this curve was so deadly it earned the name “Death Curve.” The worst accident happened on March 20, 1950 when a car filled with eight people slammed into a petroleum truck. All eight victims died. Robert Rinehart, 37 years old, his wife, Patricia, 20 and their 16-month old daughter, Mary Mae died instantly. There were five other passengers in the car including Robert’s brother, Raymond. Twenty-one-year-old Betty Miller also had her 19-month old baby David along. They lived through the initial impact but died on the way to the hospital. The group was on the way to dinner in Beloit when they accident happened.
Willis Irvin Spring, twenty seven, was the driver of the petroleum truck. He stated that the car the Rinehart group was riding in swerved over into his lane and he had no time to avoid striking them. According to the article written about the accident, this was one of several at that location. The coroner was quoted saying that over 25 people had been killed there in the twenty years prior to this accident. Some people believe that might be one of the reasons that this particular area is so haunted.
There are certain conditions that seem to amplify paranormal activity in a particular area. One is running water. Two rivers, the Pecatonica and the Rock converge a short distance away from the location where the Wagon Wheel once stood. There is also evidence of Native Americans that once settled there. That too, increases the chance for activity. All of these plus an event that causes tragic deaths seems to leave an imprint of the location.
Another story from the Wagon Wheel happened on March 1 of 1979. Twenty three year old Jesus Lopez worked as a maintenance man at the resort on the overnight shift. He was due to get off around 5:00 a.m. When his replacement arrived, he could not locate Jesus. When the man began to search for Jesus, he had no idea the horrible scene that awaited him. He finally found Jesus on the kitchen floor, surrounded by blood. It was initially called a suicide but after an intensive investigation it was classified as a freak accident. Though it was almost impossible to imagine how such a thing could happen, Jesus had somehow stumbled and fell. According to the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, Jesus had fallen into the band saw that was used to cut meat. He died from loss of blood from the injury to his neck.
Of course, no one can say with any certainty that these incidents mentioned have anything to do with the ghostly encounters people have experienced in this area. Some have shared their stories of hearing music coming from the area where the lodge once stood. Music, they say, that is a reminder of the grand parties that used to be held there. Others claim to hear the sounds of drumming left over from the days that Native Americans lived on the property. And some say that shadows wander the grounds where movie stars once stayed. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, most people that visit the old grounds share a sense of sadness at the loss of such a grand place.
Copyright © 2018 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events