'It was part of our social life': Residents, ex-employees remember Pheasant Run's heyday
There was a time when Pheasant Run represented St. Charles' future as a premier entertainment destination.
Built in 1963 on what was once a dairy farm, the resort was the envy of all other Fox Valley communities in its heyday, former Mayor Fred Norris recalls.
It was a setting for lavish dates and upscale banquets and performances by notable entertainers. And it continued expanding in size and scope as founder Edward McArdle brought his vision for the property to life.
For decades, the resort at 4051 E. Main St. flourished, drawing community members, business professionals and vacationers. It put St. Charles on the map with its golf course and convention center. It stood out with the nation's first indoor/outdoor swimming pool and a two-block replica of New Orleans' Bourbon Street.
"The synergy we got off Pheasant Run was next to phenomenal," Norris said. "It was part of our social life. It was part of our economic well-being. It was part of the vitality of the community."
Now its future is in doubt.
The iconic property goes up for auction Monday through Wednesday, with bids starting at $2 million, according to its listing on the Ten-X Commercial real estate website.
The site has been for sale since November, shortly after the management announced plans to restructure operations and lay off 75% of its staff. The 42 remaining employees were notified last month their jobs also are in jeopardy.
What will become of the 18.3-acre site remains to be seen, but St. Charles officials have expressed a desire to partner with the new ownership to help revive the city's eastern gateway.
News of the impending sale doesn't come as a shock. The resort has faced financial turmoil in the past, falling into foreclosure in 2011 and later being purchased by an investment group.
Still, anyone who has been to Pheasant Run has a story to tell, regardless of where it falls in the resort's 57-year history.
Before the property at Route 64 and Kautz Road was a resort, it was a showcase dairy farm owned by renowned St. Charles resident Col. Edward Baker.
It also was home to lifelong resident Melvin Peterson, now 98, who has been dubbed the city's walking history book.
His family moved from its Crane Road farm to what was then called Airport Farm, where Peterson started working for Baker in the 1930s.
He learned about welding and mechanics. He helped run and repair equipment. At the request of local doctors, Baker frequently sent Peterson to deliver dozens of fresh eggs to the hospital.
On the other side of town, Peterson's father took care of Baker's beloved racehorse, Greyhound, and worked as the gardener at Hotel Baker.
After Baker died in 1959, McArdle bought the nearly 180-acre Airport Farm with the intention of building a steakhouse and hotel, according to St. Charles History Museum records. The original Baker barn was converted into McArdle's new restaurant and remains on the grounds today.
The area has since been developed -- a little too much too quickly, if you ask Peterson -- but it remains the same close-knit community.
"Everything started small and started locally," Peterson said. "And then it grew, but it grew with St. Charles people."
Pheasant Run was only a few miles from her house, but St. Charles native Maureen Lewis always felt like she was "getting away from it all" as she'd drive to her volunteer hostess job at the resort's dinner theater.
Surrounded by farmland in 1965, the property offered an experience unlike anything else in the Western suburbs.
Lewis remembers strolling down the bustling Bourbon Street with her now-husband, Phil, before their high school prom. She recalls her parents' excitement to have a live music venue in town and a row of boutique shops.
On nights and weekends, Lewis and other high school girls would dress up to greet and seat guests at the dinner theater. They weren't paid, she said, but they did get to watch the shows and snack on bread for free.
"It was pretty swank -- that was the word we used back in the day," she said. "There was no place like that to go to without going into (Chicago)."
As her community involvement grew, Lewis attended and organized events at Pheasant Run, including the four-day America in Bloom symposium last year.
But one of her fondest memories is from about 10 years ago, when she took her six young grandkids to spend the night. School was canceled because of cold weather, so they spent the day swimming in the pool and packing into one hotel room.
"It had a lot to offer," Lewis said. "I'm hopeful someone will come and want to revive it."
The thrill of riding in a golf cart through the property as a young girl is a feeling Susan Keys will never forget.
An employee of the resort from the very start, her father, Pete Mirkes, had a hand in every aspect of the grounds and hotel for 50 years, she said. He and McArdle maintained a close bond, a loyalty that dated to when the pair cleared the land that would eventually become the golf course.
With their mother working as a nurse nights and weekends, Keys and her two siblings got to tag along whenever Mirkes was called to check grass seed, fix broken irrigation, turn on pumps or address storm damage.
And sometimes, she said, it was just to take a ride on the golf cart.
From riding snowmobiles in the winter to working at the Bourbon Street shops in high school, Keys' childhood memories of Pheasant Run are plentiful. She was hired in 1994 to work with her dad, handling office duties, filing paperwork and running for supplies.
It was common for the resort to employ generations of family members, Keys said, noting her brother and sister also worked there. Staff members and supervisors supported one another, "pulled together as a team and made what could seem impossible, possible."
"There hasn't been and never will be any place like it," she said. "I am forever grateful and honored to have been a part of it."
In the years before Pheasant Run was sold in 2014, Edward McArdle remained a visible presence.
He and his wife, Marian, lived in a beautiful apartment at the end of the golf wing, former employee Terry Robinson said, and he would frequently walk through the grounds with his pet dog, stopping to crack a joke and engage in conversation with guests.
"He just loved to see people having fun at his resort," Robinson said. "He was a really unique human."
Some of her co-workers were intimidated by McArdle, but he took a liking to Robinson, who spent about 20 years working for the family at Pheasant Run and in its corporate office.
Before McArdle died, his son and the company's CEO, David McArdle, asked Robinson to help oversee his parents' care and move them out of their Pheasant Run apartment. She considered the responsibility an honor.
Robinson was still working for the corporate office when Pheasant Run was taken over by new ownership -- a sad time for the McArdles and the employees. Business had noticeably dwindled, and it was becoming more difficult to maintain the aging property, she said, but she always was proud to work there.
"They treated us like family and empowered us to do what we could to keep the guests happy," Robinson said. "I have nothing but fond memories."