New owners of Sonny Acres: 'We want to see it last a long time'
Many of our family photo albums have at least one picture from Sonny Acres Farm near West Chicago.
Our parents may have captured us in the pumpkin patch or next to the life-size characters painted by Frank Fiorello, a kid-at-heart artist who dreamed up smiling scarecrows, a donkey who forecasts the weather by his tail and a cow that proclaims "Pumpkin time is the best time!"
Mike Fontana has one of those childhood pictures. He pulls it up on his phone to explain how he, the CEO of a commercial printing company, now finds himself in the business of pumpkin-picking and hayrides. Fontana and his business partner, Chris Joyaux, are the new owners of Sonny Acres. The two hockey dads and lifelong friends from Bloomingdale bought the 22-acre property from the children of the late Ramona Feltes, who turned her family's roadside market into an autumnal retreat for generations of suburbanites.
Fontana's mom recently sent him a black-and-white picture from one of his earliest visits to Sonny Acres in the late '60s. It shows him as a kid, sitting in a horse-drawn wagon ride, looking over his shoulder at his mom's camera.
It's evidence of his family's ties to Sonny Acres and his desire to preserve the Fall Festival, which returns Saturday to the North Avenue icon.
"Everything everybody loved we want to keep the same, but just try to modernize it a little bit to make it more enjoyable," Fontana said.
On the eve of the festival, Sonny Acres still feels familiar, despite the ownership change. The differences have more to do with visitor experience and Fontana's entrepreneurial mind.
"Between Chris and I, we've run a company now for 25 years, and in a lot of ways, this is a business, and we have that experience," said Fontana, who with Joyaux co-founded American Litho, a Carol Stream printing company.
Like the Feltes clan, the new owners, who have seven kids between them, have made the operation a family affair. As empty nesters, Fontana and his wife, Jeannine, embraced the "surreal" idea of taking over Sonny Acres.
"When he first said this, I'm like, 'No way. This is way too big a project,'" Jeannine Fontana said. "But then I was like, it would definitely be something to do. I love it."
She runs the "whole front end," helping turn a costume and wig shop into more of a gift boutique with seasonal decorations. What was known as the old sales barn, a kind of general store with gingham curtains, is now the "farm fresh market," but the shelves are still stocked with locally produced corn, fudge, apple cider doughnuts and Amish jams.
Nick Terry, a Sonny Acres farmer for nearly 20 years, is still cultivating this year's crop of pumpkins. He and his family have moved into the Nagel homestead, a white-and-red house dating to 1895.
Ramona Feltes inherited what was originally Oakwood Farm from her father, Edward, the only son of Ferdinand and Anna Nagel. In 1883, the Nagels bought 100 acres just east of the intersection of what is now North Avenue and Route 59.
Feltes and her husband renamed the farm Sonny Acres, spelled with an "O" as a nod to their sons -- they would raise eight boys and one daughter.
"What else could we name it after all those boys?" Feltes told the Daily Herald in 2007.
Fontana can't imagine his family having as long a legacy at Sonny Acres, but the Addison Trail High School alum wants to keep the fall festival going as long as he can.
Last May, before the sale was finalized, the new owners told West Chicago officials they intended to preserve the operation of the site but also floated an "extremely preliminary" conceptual plan showing townhouses flanking either side of Sonny Acres, Economic Development Coordinator Pete Kelly said at the time.
Kelly said in an email this week that he had a quick conversation with a representative of the owners about a week ago, when "they just wanted to reaffirm that they were moving forward with the improvements to the existing operation, and let us know they were still seriously contemplating redevelopment on both the east and west ends of the property."
But Fontana said Monday the neighboring land provides room for overflow parking and a spookier haunted hay ride through oak woods during the fall festival. "Our 100 percent focus is on this. When we first had this land presented to us, we needed to understand what our options could be," Fontana said. "So that was it. It's 100 percent off the table. We're 100 percent invested in this. We've put a lot of money back into this place, and we want to see it last a long time."
So Fontana keeps his focus on the improvements: the new landscaping, paint jobs, social media outreach and a "Ladies Night" on Thursdays in October. Instead of having one ticket booth and one ATM, the festival will have three of each. A new tent also has been installed to provide cover for families enjoying sweet corn and other bounties of the harvest.
The most drastic change? The "night-and-day" difference between the old version of the haunted barn and the new one, Fontana said.
He credits the support of family and friends for helping revive Sonny Acres.
"So many of our friends just come here on weekends and help us just because they say they want to," he said. "It's amazing. It really is. This place has a place in so many people's hearts that they just want to come help."
Sonny Acres Fall FestivalWhen: Saturday to Nov. 3
Where: 29W310 North Ave., West Chicago
Details: The new owners have overhauled the haunted barn and an 18-minute haunted hayride, both of which open Sept. 27
Info: (630) 231-3859 or Sonnyacres.com