Faces In the Crowd: Dan and Becky Wilhelm

January 10, 2019

By Aaron Michell

Dan and Becky Wilhelm are supposed to be retired.
Well, that was the plan anyhow.
In 2011, the couple purchased their up-north getaway home in Leota. Having come from the hustle and bustle of the Detroit area, they had every intention on settling down and enjoying their retirement with some peace and relaxation.
It’s funny how plans change.
Dan, a retired fire chief, and Becky, retired from nursing, decided to purchase the Leota Bar late in 2011. Renaming the bar “Trails End Restaurant and Pub”, the couple quickly added a snowmobile and ORV rental business “Happy Trails Rentals,” along with acquiring the property next door for a vacation rental home.
But the trail doesn’t end there.
This past December, the couple purchased the Leota Mini-Mart – renovating and renaming the gas station and convenience store, “Trails End Pit Stop.”
And in April, the Wilhelm’s will add one more restaurant to their enterprise when they open the “Trails End Family Restaurant” in downtown Harrison, in the restaurant building formerly known as the Chuck Wagon.
And six months ago, Dan was named the Summerfield Township Supervisor, just in case he needed something to do.
We caught up with Dan and Becky recently at their pub, where we talked about their businesses, their family of 5 kids and 14 grandchildren, their community of Leota, and that delicious smoked beef brisket with the secret Daytona sauce. While we didn’t learn the recipe for the Daytona sauce, we did learn that these two are more than a couple of faces in the crowd.

Marion Press: You’re not from Leota originally, right?
Dan: No, I was a fireman in the Detroit area – a town called Melvindale – and I bought a bar [in the Detroit area]. I wasn’t a fireman when I bought my first bar in 1983; I was 23 years old. I was in the Marine Corps and I bounced for 4 years at a bar. Made 20 bucks a night, and saved that 20 bucks five nights a week, for four years, and when I got out I had around $15,000. And I put it down on a bar at the corner of John R. and 6 ½ Mile Road in Detroit.
You actually had to buzz to get in. And it was a public bar that you could walk in, but if I didn’t know ‘em they didn’t get buzzed in. We had two-way glass; it was a tough neighborhood. This is our sixth bar.

MP: Is this your first bar that you’ve owned up north?
Dan: Oh yeah. We looked for two years to retire some place up north. I was a fireman, I went up through the ranks and became chief. I retired as chief, and for the last couple of years, we’d take weekends and head up north and get a hold of real estate agents and say, hey, we want to look at houses all weekend. So we ended looking at a house in Houghton Lake – putting a down payment down – and we come up to sign and [the sellers] weren’t ready to sign. So the real estate agent called us and told us that she had another house that she wanted us to look at. And we said, no, we weren’t interested.
But we got to [Houghton Lake] and the closing didn’t happen. So the real estate agent said, well, you’re up here, let’s go take a look at that house [in Leota] – and now that’s the house we live in.
And I always told Becky: ‘Don’t ooohh and ahhhh when we get there because then they’re gonna know that you like it.’ And we come around the curve, and I saw the pole barn and I go: Ooooohhhh, Ahhhhh!
And the house was everything we ever wanted. But we never thought we’d ever buy another bar again.

Dan and Becky Wilhelm

Dan and Becky Wilhelm

MP: So Leota was your retirement plan?
Becky: We actually bought the house and he still had another year to work. So I moved up here, and we called him a weekend warrior.
Dan: It’s nothing like the city. When we head toward the city, we get physically ill. I hate it.

MP: But you lived there for a majority of your life.
Dan: Lived there forever.
Becky: But it got pretty bad toward the end – that’s why we wanted to move up here. Plus, we raise a granddaughter and I wanted her to start first grade up here. We got her into McBain, and our other grandchildren moved up here with us along with my son-in-law and daughter. And so we wanted the kids to start fresh, so I moved up here a year ahead of time.
And Dan would drive by this bar all the time, and say: ‘I don’t know why they named it Riverside. I would name it something about the trails, Trail’s End – that’s what I would name it.’ And I said: Don’t worry about it. It ain’t happenin’.

MP: And so you bought it and named it Trails End. I’d say for a small-town, this is a big bar. What are some of the things that bring people in here?
Dan: Definitely the ATVs, side-by-sides. We do a lot of charity stuff. We do rides for Special Olympics. We have what’s called the TERROR ride. Trails End Rough Roarin’ Off-Road. We’ve done it probably ten times, and our record number of people is 1100… It’s just amazing. We go on a run – about 95 miles – and it does well. We’ve raised as much as 20 grand for Special Olympics. And we do Wertz Warriors. Don Wertz, he played for the [Detroit] Tigers years ago, and started this group called Wertz Warriors. They come up the first weekend in February and come with semi-trucks and about 100 snowmobiles to help support the Winter Special Olympics. And we cook ‘em breakfast and give them a check for 5,6,7 thousand dollars, whatever it is. Bill Freehan, Mark Fydrich, former Tigers will help cook in the kitchen.
Becky: And we try to keep it local too – we do area 7 for the kids in the Special Olympics in this area here.
Dan: And they bring the kids, and the kids serve hot dogs.
Becky: The [kids] like wiping the tables. You’ve gotta watch, because they’ll take your drink before you’re done! But it’s kind of cute because we get little trinkets that they give out to all the customers that come. They’re just amazing to have here. They’re funny.

MP: And so you guys try to give back.
Dan: Yeah. The schools, the VFW, Christmas’s for Kids at the Township. We definitely believe in giving back to the community. The community has made it for us, and it’s done well.

MP: And for those who aren’t familiar, this area is loaded with snowmobile trails, right?
Dan: This is the trail head. When you’re coming up north, this is where the trails start, right here. This is probably the southern-most trail system for Michigan that there is. There’s nothing by Grand Rapids, or Kalamazoo, or anything like that. The trails start right here. This is definitely a destination ride. People going to Houghton Lake or St. Helen – when they go for a ride – they’re going to the Trail’s End. That’s where a major part of our business comes from.

MP: Tell us a little bit about your family.
Becky: I have two grandsons that moved up here with my daughter. She works at the Pit Stop now. My son-in-law helps at the Pit Stop, and he cooks here. They help with Happy Trails Rental. And my two grandsons, Austin and Justin, work here along with my granddaughter, Brianna. They work all summer. Not so much now with school going on.

MP: That’s gotta be kind of fun. Kind of a family business.
Becky: It is. I love it. And [Dan’s] brother, Dennis, lives close by too, so he helps out with the books. And then my brother retired from downstate, and Dan talked my brother into moving up here, so he bought a house two doors down from here, and he helps with the rental. And I’m very proud of our employees too – they’re all very good. We have a good crew, we really do.

MP: And your grandkids go to McBain Schools?
Becky: It’s an awesome, awesome school system. McBain is just amazing.

Dan and Becky have helped raise upwards of $20,000 annually for the Area 7 Special Olympics.

Dan and Becky have helped raise upwards of $20,000 annually for the Area 7 Special Olympics.

MP: What is your favorite part of living at the trail’s end, in the middle of nowhere?
Dan: For ten months, I didn’t do nothing. And when I tell you I didn’t do nothing, I. Didn’t. Do. Nothing. I came up here with the idea that I’m going to hunt, and fish. You know why I didn’t do nothing? Because I didn’t have to. So I didn’t. There was no reason to get up; no reason to get out of the chair, so I didn’t.
Becky: He’d say: ‘Well, I’ll go cut those trees down – nah, I’ll do it tomorrow.’
Dan: I’ll do it tomorrow. I was used to a regiment. I’d always worked two jobs, three jobs – that’s been my life since I was 18 years old. And now all of a sudden I didn’t have any job, and I didn’t have any identity; before, I was chief. Now, I’m not a fireman no more, I’m not a chief – I’m just a retired guy watching TV. I told her I was going to go down to the store and hang out with the retirees, and that lasted for about three days. So when the deal came for the Pub, we jumped at it and took it.

MP: What is your favorite part of owning the bar?
Becky: All the people that I’ve met. I love meeting all the people – we’ve met some great people that I wouldn’t have ever met, had we not owned the bar, and we’ve become good friends with. We have Christmas with my neighbors; it’s just the people that we’ve met that we probably never would have.

MP: What has been the best advice, or the key to success throughout the years?
Becky: We’re a team. We’re like a team. He’s my right arm, and you have to have each other’s backs – all the way. I couldn’t do it without him – we each have certain things that we do as a team.
Dan: I know a lot of bar owners over the years, and I don’t know many bar owners that are happily married today. They become their own best customer: they cheat, they drink. They become their own best customer. We’ve been married 20 years – a lot of ups and downs but mostly ups. It takes teamwork.

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