Remembering the matriarch of West Chicago's Sonny Acres Farm
In her later years, Ramona Feltes often could be found sitting in her blue La-Z-Boy.
From there she would gaze out a large window of the farmhouse her grandfather built in the 1880s, admiring families enjoying fall activities at Sonny Acres Farm.
"I think that was very special for her," said Richard Feltes, Ramona's fourth son. "She was just delighted to have created this thing and see so many happy faces on the customers. She took a real sense of fulfillment and pride in that."
The West Chicago farm is where Ramona spent most of her 98 years. She helped her parents with farm work in her younger years, invited the public onto the property through a small farmstand she started with her husband, and launched the farm's popular fall fest with her nine children.
On Aug. 13, she died peacefully in her sleep, in the same bedroom of the farmhouse where she was born.
The Sonny Acres matriarch is being remembered by her kids as a hardworking, devoted mother who had an entrepreneurial spirit and deep dedication to her family farm.
"I think my mom defined the term working woman before the phrase was ever coined," said Ramona's only daughter, Joan Herrmann. "She was a savvy businesswoman, but she was also all about family and nurturing and giving."
Richard said some of his mother's earliest memories included bringing wood into the house to keep the stove going, collecting eggs from the chickens and serving lunch to the men who would come to the farm -- originally known as Oakwood Farm because of all the oak trees surrounding it -- to help with the harvest.
While attending West Chicago High School, Ramona lived with her grandparents in a house on the corner of Main Street and Route 59, where a McDonald's now stands. She walked to school during the week and went back to the farm on the weekends.
After graduating, she worked at the now-shuttered Lindsay Chemical Company and started exchanging letters with Victor Feltes, who was serving in the Navy. She told him she didn't want to marry a sailor who was gone all the time. When Victor left the Navy in February 1941, they started planning a wedding.
The two married on Memorial Day 1941. But a few months later, after Pearl Harbor, Victor re-enlisted and fought through the end of World War II.
In 1952, after Victor returned home, the couple put a small table out on along North Avenue, where they started selling sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers. Over the next few years, they expanded their offerings and named their roadside market Sonny Acres, in a nod to their eight boys.
Ramona sewed banners for the market, which she hung from the gas station on the street that her father had built in the 1930s, and business steadily grew.
Victor died in 1968, at age 52, leaving Ramona alone to care for the children, the youngest of whom was only 6.
Joan said her mother was always busy, attending her kids' athletic events and band concerts, making delicious dinners, doing the laundry without a washer and dryer, shopping for necessities -- all while running the business.
"The extraordinary thing was not only keeping the business open, but expanding it into a major operation," Richard said. "In a family business, no one ever agrees on everything, but she was able to guide us. She was able to shepherd the conflicting views and varying opinions about where to take the business."
Ramona was a devout Catholic who supported several parishes over the years. She had a dry sense of humor, never swore -- unlike her sailor husband -- and loved to travel. Every Christmas she asked her kids to give her a plain ornament so she could write on it all the special births, graduations and marriages that happened that year.
At her funeral, her son Larry said in a eulogy that Ramona was "not just a homemaker. She was home."
Richard believes much of Ramona's drive came from her desire to meet the needs of her nine children. Sonny Acres' success helped put them through college and graduate school. As time went on, the farm grew and schoolchildren started coming in to enjoy the dairy barn, pumpkin patch and hay rides. Now the farm draws thousands of visitors on busy fall days.
"She was a real fixture in the community," Joan said. "She knew when she needed help and over the years has provided an opportunity for women and teenagers to have jobs at Sonny Acres. In that respect, she did the community a lot of good."
The farm will reopen this fall and operate as usual, but Ramona's children haven't decided yet what will happen after this year. They agree, however, that one thing is for certain: this autumn, without Ramona, Sonny Acres won't feel the same.
Along with Richard and Joan, Ramona is survived by her sons Lorentz, James, Charles, Robert, Thomas, John and Edward, their spouses, 23 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.