Will this suburban tradition end? Sonny Acres family puts property up for sale
As a kid, the autumn trip to Sonny Acres near West Chicago went something like this: We wore an ugly sweater, our parents plopped us down in the vast pumpkin patch and made us smile for the camera, and then we recorded our height near a scarecrow that asked "How Tall This Fall?"
When we got a little older, and it wasn't so hard to lift a pumpkin, we graduated to the haunted hayride and haunted red barn for a spooky night with friends after school.
Then there might have been a hiatus until nostalgia brought us back for the bushels of apples or to repeat the ritual with our own kids.
Ramona Feltes carried on the tradition with her nine children until her later years, when she watched the busloads of kids flock to her family's suburban oasis from her living room window in her family's homestead dating to 1895.
Two years after the 98-year-old family matriarch died, her sixth son, Tom Feltes, still runs Sonny Acres as its manager, putting in 12- to 16-hour days during the ever-popular fall festival from the end of September through Halloween.
But his family has put the 21-acre property up for sale, raising fears the tradition could be coming to an end.
Feltes and his wife, Ellyn, do not support a sale of the North Avenue landmark, but a majority of his siblings agreed to seek a buyer, he said. Ideally, he wants to sell Sonny Acres to someone who appreciates the throwback charm and will take the reins of the family business.
"I couldn't imagine the kids would come up on Halloween ... and there's a closed sign here," Feltes said Tuesday as students toured the farm. "Oh, that would be really sad."
Since June, a RE/MAX office has marketed the property; the listing price is now $5 million. Feltes said there's been one offer, but the financing fell through.
"There's no stampede to buy it, and it will always be Sonny Acres if it does sell," he said. "The highest, best possible use for this property is what it's doing now."
The property sits in an unincorporated area in Wayne Township. Kevin Wiley and Robert Larsen, two DuPage County Board members who represent a district that includes Sonny Acres, were unaware of the sale listing.
"It wouldn't surprise me because they've been talking about going into retirement, but I have not heard that," Wiley said.
He called Sonny Acres a cornerstone of a stretch of North Avenue that still retains a hot dog stand and an old-school, drive-in theater.
"It's just a great place to gather and feel like you're back out in the country," he said.
Originally Oakwood Farm, Sonny Acres has stayed in the Feltes-Nagel clan since the late 1880s, when Ramona Feltes' grandparents bought 100 acres there.
In 1952, after her husband, Victor, returned home from World War II, the couple put a small table along North Avenue and started selling sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers. Over the next few years, they expanded their offerings and named their roadside market Sonny Acres, spelled with an "o" rather than a "u" as a nod to their sons -- they would eventually raise eight boys and one daughter.
Victor died in 1968, at age 52, leaving Ramona alone to care for the children.
"After school, it was put on your work pants and go picking," Ramona Feltes told the Daily Herald in 1999. "It got them all through college."
Tom Feltes still cultivates fields off-site to stock Sonny Acres with sweet corn, pumpkins, gourds, squash and tomatoes. For the fall festival, tens of thousands corn stalk bundles -- hand-cut and hand-tied -- are sold and used as decorations.
But it's the cutouts of Halloween characters -- painted years ago by an artist -- that are a source of novelty still frozen in time. A life-size figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator still stands in his usual spot with the message, "I'm Back For My Pumpkins At Sonny Acres," even if today's audience doesn't get the joke.
Though mostly synonymous with autumn, Sonny Acres turns into a Christmas tree lot the day after Thanksgiving. After the holiday, Feltes, 66, takes a well-earned, 10-week sabbatical until spring.
He concedes it's a "young man's job."
"But this has been my livelihood," he said. "I've done it all my life and well, no, I don't want to give this up. But you do get older, and it gets harder to do."
• Daily Herald staff writer Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.