Posted by Paul Callighan on Jul 24, 2019
Whether it was growing up in a family where he was the only boy, going through school where grades did not come easy, learning the carpenter trade, or marrying and becoming a dad to six kids, Dan O’Connell always seemed to be getting some valuable life lessons for his next step of  a journey that led his wife and him to own a thriving campground business near Amboy until their retirement.  A native of Chicago’s northwest side, Dan was the youngest of seven children.  He graduated from Fenwick High School and Loras College and then married Jane and became a union carpenter supporting his family.  Early skills learned in typing and writing led to union leadership roles at the Chicago district council of carpenters.  But it was family camping vacations that ultimately led to that final step into the business of recreation.
photo credit:
As Dan describes it, he and Jane watched RV’s, campers, and tenters descend on a campground for a weekend getaway and they all paid a registration fee.  Crunching numbers in his head, Dan began a two-year search for a career-changing piece of property to take him away from the hectic pace of Chicago to become the owner of his own business.  A small operation on a 110-acre parcel near Amboy was purchased on contract for $200,000 (with $20,000 down),  It came with a small store, 12 yearly campers, 50 camp sites with electrical hookups, and a descent washroom and shower building.  He moved his family to the compound in 1977.
Dan joined the Illinois Campground Association and the National Campground Owners Association but continued to work his union job while his wife did the campground tasks.  Business had its ups and downs.  Their first Memorial Day they hosted 12 yearly campers and about 100 other families.  But the next weekend they only had five families.  It was five years before money from operations began to generate a paycheck.  O’Connell’s emphasis was placed on welcoming campers and offering various entertainment activities.  Dan also took terms as president of both campground associations.
The business took another step forward when it became part of the Leisure Systems, Inc. “Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park” franchise and Dan created what he calls his “bank book” to successfully get loans for improving and expanding the business.  A three-ring binder with a “Yogi Bear” decal on the front became a detailed history of ownership, financials, what the loan would allow them to do, what nearby competition existed, and how marketing and advertising would be used to generate more business.  The bank was treated as a partner and site visits were regularly arranged.  The loans kept getting approved.
The next level of expansion came when Dan and his wife, along with two other park operators, formed a group of 15 parks to jointly provide operating data comparisons and comparable nationwide data.  Banks had never seen this type of statistical information for the recreation industry and it gave them confidence when approving loans.  This allowed the campground to eventually expand to 300 acres and revenues went from $28,000 in year one to $2.5 million plus an additional $1 million in RV sales.  There were now 700 campsites, plus a wooded area for “primitive” camping, three pools, three spas, three kiddie pools, a double flume waterslide, mini golf, paddle boats, a convenience center, a convention center to seat 500, two laundromats, and a snack bar.  Employment reached 115.
Working ten-hour days, seven days a week began to take its toll and, along with two bouts of cancer and children going into other careers, the O’Connell’s sold the campground in 2004.  Dan and his wife are now truly enjoying leisure and time with their children, their spouses, 16 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.  Dan and Jane will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary on August 15th.
Welcome to Sycamore Rotary Dan!