Lee W. Merrick, 92, who owned Little Amerricka, the Marshall amusement park that bore his name, died Friday after a brief illness.
The amusement park, which features 26 rides and attractions, will remain open, said Darrell Klompmaker, the park's general manager.
"Lee and I have been doing this together for all 20 years and his wish was for it to continue on," Klompmaker said.
Merrick didn't live as long as he expected. At age 81, he told the State Journal that "every one in my family has lived to be about 100. One lived to be 106."
He was a railroad hobbiest involved since the 1960s in grand scale railroading or ridable miniature railways, Klompmaker said. "Not like your average guy who has a train set in the basement, but large-scale trains."
Jorja Merrick, of Lake Dallas, Texas, described her father as "unique."
"He was an entrepreneur. He was a visionary," she said. "He had an energy to be reckoned with, and it's an energy that's going to be greatly missed by a lot of people."
Merrick was a longtime livestock renderer who owned dog-food plants here and in other states. He died at home in Medina, a tiny town in Northeastern Dane County.
A 2000 fire caused $200,000 in damages and ruined a machine shop where the park's trains were built and repaired. Merrick told the newspaper the machine shop was uninsured. "I don't believe in insurance," he said.
Originally an Elgin, Ill., farm boy, Merrick opened the amusement park as a hobby in 1991, some years after moving here from Colorado. "I used to drink and chase women," he said. "Now I've got this (amusement) park as a hobby. I've never made a nickel on it."
Jorja Merrick called her father "an energetic man who loved life."
Hard-working is how Merrick's son, Garth, of Amarillo, Texas, described him. "He lived his life the way he wanted to live it."
Klompmaker said his boss "was a very caring guy," who "obviously loved children and liked the idea of providing a spot where families could come and enjoy themselves and not have to spend a lot of money."
Merrick found himself involved in a controversy in 2005 when a DeForest woman settled a race discrimination complaint against him involving rental housing. Her $80,000 judgment remains the largest settlement ever reached by an individual client of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council and its satellite, the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison. At the time, Merrick did not comment on the matter in the press.