Aqua Barn owner `Happy Jack' Riley `a real colorful guy'

"Happy Jack" Riley, the booted and fringed former television cowboy who co-owned Maple Valley's Aqua Barn recreational ranch for 50 years, lived for the limelight.

Full of yarns and wisecracks, yet not afraid to tote that bale when the ranch provided more than 200 horses for hire in its heyday, he offered family entertainment with a down-home feel for several generations of locals and tourists.

Invariably, whenever someone would ask, "Where can we rent horses?" the response would be, "The Aqua Barn."

Mr. Riley and his wife of 50 years, LaVerne Riley, built the recreational ranch on her family's turn-of-the-century dairy farm, and visitors came by the thousands, for swimming classes in the indoor pool, stagecoach rides, and horse riding and dancing lessons. They also came for country cooking, arcade games, mini-train rides and, in recent times, driving lessons and church services.

The horses are gone, and much of the pasture. But Grandma Riley's Ranch Corral Cafe still is open, along with the RV park. Mr. Riley had negotiated with developers to sell the remaining section of the ranch, including his 1888 farmhouse built by Arthur Denny.

And Mr. Riley, whose cutout likeness greets visitors on a "Howdy Partner" sign out front, was still known to pop in for Tuesday and Thursday night country-fiddle jams in the recreation hall.

Mr. Riley, 77, suffered a heart attack and died Wednesday (July 5) at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He had just returned from a cruise on the North Sea.

"Jack goes out in a blaze of glory. He always did do everything in a big way," said a close friend, Bernice Mayes. "He liked being center stage, and he wasn't quiet about it. I don't know anybody that didn't like him. He was a real colorful guy."

Born in Maytown, Thurston County, he grew up in Carnation, where his father held jobs with the railroads and the county.

Mr. Riley attended the University of Washington and worked as a boat builder. He also taught social-recreation activities, such as dancing, at Seattle Catholic schools. He served as an Army paratrooper in the Pacific theater during and after World War II.

Back in Seattle, he bought a barge, moored it on the west side of Lake Union and turned it into a floating dance hall with a western theme: the original Aqua Barn.

He met his future wife while teaching square-dance lessons.

In 1951, the couple moved the Aqua Barn business to her family's property on old Renton-Maple Valley Road and began holding square dances. They added rental horses, campgrounds, a pool and train tracks, pressing existing buildings into service.

Mr. Riley was in his element, later saying he considered it more a playground than a business.

"We really prevailed," he said, recalling the 1960s heyday when his Renton business had 240 horses on more than 100 acres and a barn full of people country dancing every night.

During the 1950s, when children's shows were big on local television, Mr. Riley enjoyed a brief fling on the small screen. He was "Happy Jack," comedic sidekick of KING-TV's western-movie emcee, Sheriff Tex.

"Dad did enjoy being on TV, and ad-libbing when Sheriff Tex forgot his lines," said Mr. Riley's daughter, Janette Carr of Renton.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Riley's survivors include four brothers, two sisters and two grandchildren.

Services are at 1 p.m. Monday at the Assembly of God Church at the ranch, 15227 S.E. Renton-Maple Valley Road. (Highway 169). The public is invited to a country reception at 3 p.m. that day at the Aqua Barn.

Donations may be made to Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center, P.O. Box 7371, Seattle, WA 98105.

Carole Beers' e-mail address is