DIXON – Donnie Giedd of Lost Nation did something Tuesday morning he’s done thousands of times in the last 40 years.
He walked into Bunny’s Bait Shop in Dixon, plunked down some cash and bought some lures and sinkers. The people behind the counter, Ray and Irene Hays, have operated the bait shop located at 1024 East River Street in Dixon for more than four decades.
When asked what kept him coming back, Giedd smiled and said, “It’s not the ornery old fart that works here, that’s for sure.”
“No, they’re good people. I like them. They’re always smiling, joking. It’s just one of those places you want to be,” he added.
Alas, Giedd and other customers of Bunny’s Bait Shop will have to find another place to buy their nightcrawlers, minnows, lures, sinkers and whatever else is needed to land a big one. The shop’s last day of operation will be Oct. 8.
Irene, 82, has had some health issues, and visits to hospitals has left the shop closed more often than they’d like. The couple that has been married for 65 years decided the time was finally right to close the doors to their business.
“You can’t run a business 3 days, then off 2, then back another day, and a half a day here,” Ray said. ‘We’ve had so much medical and other stuff where we’ve had to be gone, we just couldn’t keep it going.”
Ray, 84, worked at a cement plant in Dixon for 29 years and 11 months before a strike suspended operations in 1984. He was 1 month shy of earning a full pension at the time.
A good chunk of the time he worked in cement, he was also selling bait. It was a family affair.
In the early 1970s, his two daughters, Veronica, then 7, and Marcia, then 5, wanted to earn some extra money for when the carnival came to town, as well as for swimming and roller skating. It was decided to sell worms in front of their house on Washington Avenue.
“I thought a little bit and I said, ‘You know, just put up a sign in the front yard and I’ll pick up nightcrawlers and you can sell them to people,’ “Ray said. “They had me picking up nightcrawlers all night. I didn’t even hardly have time to go to work. They were selling them 35 cents for a dozen or three dozen for a dollar.”
The idea was a hit. Soon, the girls had a cigar box full of money – enough to last them through the summer. They didn’t want to sell nightcrawlers any more, and though Ray tried to talk them into continuing it, they had had enough.
Ray didn’t. The only other place that sold bait in town was a multi-purpose sporting goods store, so Dixon was ripe for a bait shop. It would be called “Bunny’s Bait Shop,” in honor of Veronica, whose nickname was Bunny.
Ray arranged to pay taxes, got a catalog and then discovered each order he placed had to be at least $50.
“My gosh, we looked at that catalog upside down and backwards trying to figure out how to spend $50 on this kind of stuff,” Ray said. “We finally got the order in. Three months later, we were buying $85 worth of pop a week. That’s how fast it changed in 3 months. We had a lot of people coming by.”
Ray’s booming business, however, soon drew the attention of local government. The City Council ordered him to close, without proper licensing.
Ray responded by fixing up a pickup truck with compartments on the side, filled with fishing tackle. He thought he had found a loophole. Again, the city fought back, threatening him with jail time if he didn’t shut down.
“At the end of a City Council meeting, I said I’d like to make a statement,” Ray said. “Bunny’s Bait Shop will be open tomorrow morning, in front of the house, as a peddler. There was no license required to be a peddler in Dixon, so we fought them off for another month. Then they changed the law, and you had to have a license to be a peddler. They wouldn’t let me buy one.”
Ray was able to operate in front of his house for about 2 years total. He also had 2-year stints at places on River Street, one that he leased, and one that he rented, before the current property became available. It had been a gas station, but that land was given to the city, provided it was made environmentally safe.
The city, in turn, gave it to a construction company, who cleaned up the area by tearing out gas tanks and replacing dirt. Once it was environmentally sound, the property was sold to a local lawyer.
In 1978, a realtor informed Ray the land may be available, and he jumped at the chance to buy it, with the provision he only pay a certain amount each month, instead of buying it outright.
Until he fully owned the property, however, he could not build on it. He convinced the person to let him pay it off early, and Bunny’s Bait Shop had its permanent home beginning on Labor Day, 1978.
Irene worked behind the counter the most in those days, as Ray still had 6 more years of work left at the cement plant. She admitted she was no expert in the fishing field at the time.
“When we first started out, I didn’t know that much about fishing and tackle and stuff,” Irene said. “I would ask the guys, and they didn’t mind explaining things to a woman. I learned a lot.”
Much like a fisherman has to fight an ornery fish, Ray had to fight off some legal challenges to keep his business afloat. At one time, his property had entrance access to Route 2, but that was closed by the city. A guardrail was put in to deny that access.
Another time, the state wanted to take over the land to straighten out the curve on that stretch of Route 2, on the south side of his property. He was offered $4,500, a sum he flatly rejected, especially since he had constructed a maintenance building on the site that cost him $10,000 to build.
One day, a state worker was seen poking holes in the property, a process that continued over several days.
“I went out there and said, ‘What’s going on?’“ Ray said. “He said the state sent him out here to do this. They’re trying to find contamination and they can’t find any. They figured they could steal the property. They could take the property because it was contaminated and in violation of the law.
“I wasn’t worried about that because they didn’t know the situation about how I obtained the property. They gave up and left the highway like it was.”
In 2000, Ray noted he considered shuttering the business. When word got out, calls came flooding in hoping he would reconsider, including five calls from people overseas who frequented Bunny’s when visiting the area. They wanted to know what could be done to save the bait shop.
From the mid 1980s, Irene had asked Ray to put in vending machines with bait that people could access 24/7. Ray had nixed the idea, but relented then. It’s been a smashing success for 20 years.
“It went over really good,” Ray said. “Sometimes that did more business out there than we did in here. People would come in and say, ‘That’s a good idea.’ I’d say, ‘Boy, that’s the best idea I’ve ever had.’“
The focus now is getting Irene back to good health. Once the first woman to run for mayor in Dixon, in the late 1970s – “There was an article in the newspaper. It said, ‘Woman baited into running for mayor.’ That was the headline.” – she now has kidney issues that will soon require dialysis.
The property is up for sale, and it may or may not be a bait shop in the future. Once the property is sold, Ray’s focus can be on his wife’s care, as well as getting on their beloved Rock River to reel in the occasional catfish or walleye.
When asked what he’ll miss the most from Bunny’s Bait Shop, Ray didn’t hesitate.
“I got to know a lot of people and made a lot of good friends,” Ray said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ll miss.”