LEO ‘SUNNY’ SCHMITZ, JR., 1928-2013

Farmer set up campground that has drawn generations


WAUSEON — Leo “Sunny” Schmitz, Jr., a Fulton County farmer who, inspired by a Sunday picnic gone awry, created a campground that has attracted families for decades, died Saturday in the Community Health Professionals Defiance Area Inpatient Hospice Center. He was 85.

He had congestive heart failure, his wife, Lois, said.

He retired more than 20 years ago from the enterprise that bears his nickname, Sunny’s Campground, in Fulton County’s Chesterfield Township. Three sons, Ron, Scott, and Randy, are co-managers, and daughter Diane Laster is the office manager. Mr. Schmitz still visited most days during the season from April through September.

“He was a social guy and liked to talk to people,” son Ron said.

Once, when their children were young, the Schmitzes packed an after-church picnic and drove to a state park in Indiana. The park took their money at the gate, but the family couldn’t find a place to have their picnic.

“We were disgusted,” his wife said. They did find a small place nearby to stop, and they started talking.

“We had the woods on the one farm. He said, ‘How about making our own place?’ ” his wife said.

They developed a pond and a campground on 50 acres. Mr. Schmitz had been called “Sonny.” The couple in 1965 opened “Sunny’s Shady Recreation Area.” Since then, he was known as “Sunny.”

“A lot of the older people thought we were crazy to do that,” his wife said.

Before that first season, the couple advertised in The Blade and camping periodicals. They put big signs on the main roads. And they decided that the land would make a nice gathering spot for their relatives if they couldn’t attract the camping crowd.

“We’re both from large families. It would have been a nice place for families to get together and picnic and swim,” his wife said.

Instead, other families had the same idea.

“The first couple years, we were swamped,” son Ron said.

The Schmitzes conducted research as they expanded.

“We visited a lot of campgrounds, from east to west, and found out what they did and how things were done; what their moneymakers were and followed suit,” his wife said.

Sunny’s has eight miles of roads, 800 campsites, and five lakes on more than 115 acres. Some visitors bring their campers for the season; some stay for a week or weekend. Orville and Donna Small of Lucas County’s Springfield Township and their young daughters were guests the first season and have returned annually since.

“It’s the atmosphere. Everybody likes it,” Mr. Small, 82, said. “We’ve seen quite a few people come back year after year.”

Leo Schmitz, Jr., was born Feb. 23, 1928, the son of Veronica and Leo Schmitz, and grew up on a farm in Fulton County’s Amboy Township.

“He had a hard time with school, so when he turned 16, he quit and went into farming himself,” his wife said.

He grew corn and soybeans and tomatoes for H.J. Heinz. Academics vexed him. Numbers and math didn’t. He bought and sold farms. In the early 1960s, he ran a roadside produce stand on U.S. 20, selling his own tomatoes and sweet corn and melons and other fruit he bought at the Toledo Farmers Market.

“He always went where the money could be made,” son Ron said.

Mr. Schmitz and his wife spent winters for many years at a mobile home park near St. Petersburg, Fla. He returned to farming for about a decade in retirement and grew soybeans in Williams County.

Suriviving are his wife, Lois Schmitz, whom he married Feb. 3, 1951; daughters, Judy Schmitz, Nancy Martinez, and Diane Laster; sons, Ron, Dan, Scott, and Randy Schmitz; brothers, Bill and Tom Schmitz; sisters, Florence Ruple and Camilla Cleghorn; 11 grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren, and three step-great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 2-8 p.m. Tuesday in Barnes Funeral Chapel, Delta, Ohio, with a vigil service at 7:30 p.m. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Caspar Church, Wauseon, where he was a member.

The family suggests tributes to the CHP Defiance Area Inpatient Hospice Center, the American Heart Association, or St. Caspar Church.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182