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Pioneer Land Ready for First Fair without Founder

(La Porte, IN) - The over 100 volunteers at Pioneer Land seem up to the task of making the popular 1800's style village come to life again without their leader during the upcoming La Porte County Fair.


Dick Reel, the driving force behind creating Pioneer Land and becoming a major attraction, passed away in February. He was 74.   

Dana Conboy, the new person in charge of what many people consider a magical place, said the challenge is daunting. The Wanatah woman is not backing away, though, because she promised Reel that she would be his successor.


Conboy, a volunteer at Pioneer Land for about the past ten years, said she accepted Reel's offer to carry on with his dream, thinking she'd have a couple of years to learn from him. But instead, she had to dive in when his passing came much sooner than expected.


“It was something I owed him because I gave him my word that I would be there for him. So, now, we’ll just get through it. It’ll be learning, but it’ll be fun,” Conboy said.

Conboy said all the volunteers committed to Pioneer Land succeeding for years had assisted her during a sometimes heavy-hearted transition.


She said the help has come from people involved in constructing the buildings down to volunteer workers in areas like the blacksmith shop, general store, one-room schoolhouse, and log cabin.


Long-time volunteers like Carl Schultz, Merle Miller, and Ron Schafer have also taken leadership roles.


Conboy said Reel's wife, Mary, also gave her the master plan for the village and all of the notes detailing the history of Pioneer Land taken by her late husband over the years.


“Everybody misses Dick, and that makes it kind of difficult, but it also makes it good for all of us to kind of go forward together,” Conboy said.

Reel realized his vision for Pioneer Land as a place where people and families come together in a more laid-back setting and have fun or talk. Toys and games made of wood and other old-fashioned materials are especially popular.  


So far, Miller said things have been more hectic than usual, from volunteers not realizing until recently everything that needs completing to keeping the village strong.


“Dick, of course, did an awful lot of stuff out at Pioneer Land. Stuff that people didn’t know he did. We really counted on him for a lot of things,” Miller said.

Pioneer Land was open as usual during the spring for annual tours by local school children. The village is now being prepared to operate as always during the fair.


Miller said the work is getting accomplished, though, because of the love and determination in their hearts for Pioneer Land. He said not one volunteer has ever been paid since Pioneer Land was established in 1995 with the log cabin.


The log cabin and 13 other buildings that came later were paid for entirely with donations of money and labor, along with dollars from fundraisers. Charitable contributions and fundraisers also pay for ongoing maintenance. No admission has ever been charged.


“That’s the coolest thing about Pioneer Land. We’ve done it all with volunteers and these hands,” Miller said.

After the fair, the focus will be on school tours during the fall and preparing Pioneer Land for the annual Christmas open house. Several thousand people usually come during the first weekend of December.


Many first-time visitors have made going there a tradition, including a woman taken to the hospital to deliver her baby after she began having labor pains during a holiday visit to the grounds.


“Now, she brings that baby back every year at Christmas,” Conboy said.

Dick Reel was also a retired Purdue Extension educator who spent many years working with youth in the 4-H program.


Conboy became a volunteer at Pioneer Land after Reel and another volunteer, Pete Jensen, began teaching her son about woodworking when he was still in grade school. Their connection to Reel and his wife blossomed into a friendship.


“Since we’ve lost him, a lot of people have come out and said he did this for me. He made this difference in my life. It’s a legacy that he left behind that I’m just going to do my best to honor,” Conboy said.

The LaPorte County Fair runs from July 9-16. The annual Ham and Bean dinner run by volunteers serving hundreds of meals on the grounds to raise money for Pioneer Land is scheduled for July 10. Volunteers will also have their annual fundraising auction on the fair's last day.


"In my mind, it's just a matter of carrying on who he was and what he wanted Pioneer Land to be," Conboy said.

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