DIXON – One day in 1972, Ray and Irene Hays' youngest daughters caught the entrepreneurial spirit. Their lives would never be the same.
Veronica and Marcia, then 11 and 9, decided they needed steady income.
"They said they wanted to do something to make some money, so I made a 'live bait' sign and hung it up in a tree," said Ray, now 78. "We sold bait for 35 cents a dozen, and 3 dozen for a dollar."
The Hays family lived on Washington Avenue at the time, and ran the bait shop from home. Daughter Veronica's nickname was Bunny, and when customers started referring to the business as Bunny's, it officially became Bunny's Bait Shop.
"Mom and Dad ended up doing most of the work," Ray said. "The kids put all their money in a cigar box, and they soon told us they had enough money, and we could take the sign down."
The business, however, was meant to last far longer than the girls' limited attention span. Ray and Irene continued to run the business from home.
But as they expanded inventory to include different types of bait and equipment, complications arose.
"We were in a residential area, so we had to fight the city for 2 years on zoning issues," Irene, 77, said. "They even threatened to put Ray in jail."
The dogfight with City Hall even spurred an unsuccessful mayoral run by Irene.
"They can put cemeteries, crematoriums, and prisons near your yard, but you can't sell bait out of your home? It doesn't make any sense," Irene said.
Ray dug in his heels, fixed up a truck for the business, and was ready to put Bunny's on wheels, if necessary.
"I told them if I couldn't run things from home, I'd be a street peddler," Ray said. "They had the city attorney look for something to keep us from doing that, but there was nothing on the books."
The Hayses finally gave up the fight and moved Bunny's Bait Shop to the round building at 500 River St. There was another move to where the J&L gas station used to be on East River Road. Finally, in 1978, they decided to build at their current location at 1024 E. River Road, and the shop opened on Labor Day of that year.
The bait shop became the center of their lives, and the customers like extended family.
"We started watching grandparents bring in their grandchildren, and now the grandchildren are bringing in their grandkids," Ray said.
They got used to the odd hours, but it became more difficult when they weren't at their home anymore for the fishermen who wanted bait at 2 a.m. They set up an apartment and literally lived at the shop for a while.
"Our summers were so messed up; we were always at the shop," Irene said. "In 2000, we put the word out that we were going to close, but it didn't go over well."
Longtime customers voiced their disapproval, and calls came from regular Dixon tourists from as far away as Ireland, France and Germany, pleading with the Hayses to keep the shop open.
They got a few inquiries about the business, but none of the prospective buyers seemed like a good fit. Irene then came up with an idea that would keep the couple at Bunny's for another 15 years.
"People would come in and tell us they got worms out of a machine, but they were dead," Irene said. "I didn't see why we couldn't do live bait that way."
They picked up some old vending machines from Knack Vending and Ray's brother fixed them up to serve their specific purposes. They had machines for tackle, and cold machines for certain types of bait. A "warm machine" was even kept at 50 degrees especially for the red worms and dip worms.
"We really just wanted to cut our hours, so when we put the 24-hour vending in, we decided to keep the shop," Irene said. "People loved it, because they didn't have to get night crawlers at the gas station at midnight."
Now the bait shop is back on the market, and the Hayses say they are resolved to sell it this time.
"This has been our baby, so a sale won't be easy, but we're not gonna be as stubborn this time – if they've got the money in their pocket, it's theirs," Ray said.
The couple, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary April 18, want the freedom to travel. They plan to visit their four daughters and grandchildren often, and oh, there's one other item on their list of things to do.
"We want to go fishing," Irene said. "We used to go all the time, and with the shop, we don't get a chance to go anymore."