LeRoy remembers its fun-time felon
LeROY — Embezzlement isn't usually something to commemorate. But for longtime residents of LeRoy, theft and deceit are at the heart of a once vibrant and popular tourist attraction.
Oak Dale Park and its founder, Cy Thomson, are set to be remembered during an event at the LeRoy Community Center at 2 p.m. Saturday, nearly a century after its demise.
"This is the last one," said Eileen Evans, the event's organizer and a local authority on the infamous hotspot and its creator.
In her book, "Cy Thomson: The Generous Embezzler," Evans writes that Thomson was hired by Geo. A. Hormel & Co. in Austin around 1910 and quickly rose to be a comptroller. In that capacity, he embezzled $1,187,000 over 10 years.
He used the money to build Oak Dale Farms and Oak Dale Park in the LeRoy and Blooming Prairie areas. The farms were state-of-the-art places for raising champion livestock.
The park was just across the Minnesota-Iowa state line from LeRoy and had a big swimming pool, a dance pavilion that could hold 1,000 couples, a campgound a hotel and restaurants. It attracted 30,000 or more people in a weekend. Each paid a dime to enter.
Evans, 84, moved to Minnesota from Illinois in 1992. Two years later, she was introduced to Oak Dale Park during a gathering with some neighbors. It was a reluctant conversation.
"Nobody talked about it," Evans said. "It was a dark part of LeRoy's history."
When caught in July 1921, Thomson confessed to the embezzlement and was sent to prison. The farms and park withered.
"This had so much to offer," Evans said. "If only he hadn't stolen the money to do it."
Evans said she created Cy Thomson Memory Day to satisfy people's curiosity, and to gather more stories.
"We had one in 2012, and 2013," she said. "We didn't have one last year, but I was asked to do one this year because First State Bank and the LeRoy Public Library are celebrating 100 years."
Thomson served nine years of a 15-year sentence, and at some point afterward ended up in Montana.
Despite his failings, Evans said she can't help but admire Thomson's vision. Not only did he build Oak Dale Park, but Oak Dale Trail, which stretched from Chicago to the Twin Cities. Thomson had also built up an impressive poultry business and beef operation.
"When he got caught, he knew to the penny how much he had embezzled, and he'd never written anything down," Evans said. "He never missed a day of work in 10 years. But it was probably just so he could keep it going."
Evans will be joined by guest speaker and Louisiana transplant Jerry Barber, who has also collected information about Thomson. Attendees will also be able to see where many of the structures once stood. It is now privately owned land.