Family memorializes teen with Western-themed park
DENT, Minn. -- Tucked behind Ronald and Val Nicklay’s home on West McDonald Lake in Dent lies nearly three acres of well-maintained land.
The grass is kept short and neat and the flower beds blooming. A statue of a boy in a cowboy hat greets visitors from a stone formation. Black walnut trees shade the peaceful grounds.
Dozens of gnomes and animal figurines peer out from among the trees, historical buildings and pioneer-era farming equipment.
The Nicklays bought the land in the late 1970s so their son, Lonnie, had a safe place to ride around on his three-wheeler. After he died at age 14 in an accident at their Moorhead home in 1981, it gradually became a memorial park.
“He was an outdoors kind of a kid, and he loved this place so much,” says Val, 73.
The park, complete with a pioneer cabin, jail and doll museum, is Western-themed, which fits Lonnie’s love of all things Western. He’s seen in several photos wearing his trademark hat and boots at the Minnesota State Fair.
“I know he’d be real happy about it,” says Ronald, 75, adding, “He’s forever 14.”
Everything at the park was built by Ronald, who owns RJ Nicklay Cabinets in Moorhead, and his nephew, Tim. Some of the wood came from neighbors’ home projects, the artifacts from auctions and prop sales. The teepee was made by the same company that worked on the “Dances With Wolves” set. A drum Lonnie got on a trip to South Dakota at age 10 is inside.
“They built everything by hand, a little at a time,” Val says of her husband and nephew.
Tim’s fiancée, LaDawn Turner, does the landscaping and flowers. Swiss chard, tomatoes and carrots sprout from Ronald’s vegetable garden.
The Nicklays accept donations to help pay for upkeep but keep their park free and open to the public except during the winter. They encourage and delight in visitors.
“The first thing my husband does when he comes out here is check the guestbook to see who’s been here,” Val says. “You can do all you want, you can have everything like this, but if nobody comes, what good is it?”
Lonnie’s Park is even free to use for events such as weddings, family reunions or picnics. It was used for a lakes association meeting this past weekend.
Val estimates that 20 to 25 couples, including Lonnie’s older sister, Kim, and her husband, have said “I do” on their grounds. Tim and his fiancée plan to marry there in September.
Every year, the Nicklays hold a picnic in Lonnie’s honor. This year’s event drew about 175 people.
“It’s amazing that that many people would come down and spend time with us at Lonnie’s Park,” Ronald says. “It really makes me feel good to know that people care.”
Others use the park in memoriam, too. The picnic shelter was built by employees of Fargo-based Northland Truss Systems in honor of their owner, Rick Pierce. Trees marked by little plaques for other loved ones are scattered throughout.
On display inside the shelter is a poem left at the park 15 to 20 years ago from a mystery visitor who signs the guest book “MJ” every year.
Ronald and Val want to add a chapel and other buildings, but those plans are on hold for now.
“I really feel good about having it and doing what I do,” Ronald says. “I wish that my health was a little better so I could get some of this stuff done faster, but you gotta take what God gives you.”
If you go
What: Lonnie’s Park memorial park with historical buildings
When: Anytime except during the winter
Where: 43670 338th Ave., Dent, Minn.
Info: Call Val Nicklay at (701) 238-4181 for more information.