Woodstock, about 90 minutes from the Loop by train (Chicago & North Western) or by car (Northwest Tollway and Route 47 north), is proud of its all-American heritage. Situated in the exact center–geographically and perhaps ideologically–of McHenry County, it became the county seat eight years after McHenry established its independence from Cook County in 1836. Around that time its name was changed from Centerville to Woodstock, after the Vermont town that had been home to some of the early settlers. While mindful of its tradition of hospitality, some locals are quick to stress that their town–home of the Claussen pickle and Mustang plating–is not about to be turned into a darling of the tourist trade like Galena. As one native puts it, “The ideal is to have people come here, spend their dollars, then leave. This way, they don’t strain our infrastructure.” The kind of unbridled growth and crass commercialism that has blemished neighboring Crystal Lake also worries many Woodstock residents, even those who are resigned to the inevitable march of urbanization. An economic development plan that deals with these issues is about to be released, but years of debate are likely to precede its implementation. For the time being, Woodstock is not prepared for hordes of weekend invaders. So the best way to enjoy what it has to offer is to take a daylong excursion and be home by midnight.
The centerpiece of Woodstock’s midwestern Americana is the spotless, well-preserved cobblestone town square that looks like a model for Disneyland’s Main Street. Prominent inside the iron-fenced park are reminders of an earlier, more leisurely era: an ornate gazebo, a grand bandstand, and a WW I statue of a sentinel commemorating Woodstock’s soldiers. The square was designated an Illinois historic district in 1985. Woodstock’s chamber of commerce (136 Cass St., 815-338-2436) schedules a cornucopia of free tradition-ridden events–arts-and-crafts fairs, bake sales, fireworks, Christmas lighting–in the square all year round. This summer the second annual Dick Tracy Days will take place June 19 to 23–in honor of the local boy, Chester Gould, who achieved fame and fortune as the creator of crime stopper Dick Tracy. Celebrants, Woodstock VIPs included, will parade around the park–where Gould was a fixture–dressed as characters from the strip to the accompaniment of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. All proceeds go toward the establishment of a Chester Gould memorial museum, to be located in either the old courthouse or prison (where, incidentally, Eugene Debs was confined for preaching socialism in Woodstock). Another highlight of the summer months (every Wednesday evening in June and July) are the concerts by Woodstock’s City Band, which serve up medleys of Sousa marches and Broadway show tunes along with tons of homemade ice cream.
The Woodstock Opera House, on the square’s southwest side (121 Van Buren St., 815-338-5300), is rightfully the town’s crowning architectural jewel and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Described as “a real, old honest-to-horsehair . . . rustic and rusticating thing” by Orson Welles, it is the only such structure designed by Smith Hoag. On the outside it resembles Dearborn Station. Inside, the horseshoe auditorium on the second floor deliberately recalls a riverboat salon: its ceiling is beautifully stenciled, and its stage sports a proscenium right out of Show Boat. Most of the comfy 429 seats, divided almost evenly between the main floor and the balcony, have plaques with the names of donors who contributed to the restoration of the building in 1977. (Another feat of voluntary labor of love is the vintage North Western train station, which was impeccably restored in 1980.) “Entertainment for the community” can well be the opera house’s motto; its stage is never empty on any weekend of the year. The opera house, which first opened its doors in 1890, showcases celebrated performers and visiting lecturers; its most popular attractions, however, are the ingeniously mounted local productions of Broadway musicals and the homegrown Judith Svalander Dance. During the summer the Woodstock Mozart Festival (815-338-1104), under the direction of Charles Bornstein, is a magnet for classical music lovers in the surrounding counties. Its latest edition will take place over four weekends in August. Among the Mozart works scheduled for performance by the excellent festival orchestra and (mostly European) guests are Cosi fan tutte, excerpts from his choral music, and the Jupiter Symphony. Most events cost less than $20. In another corner of the square are the newly restored courthouse and jail complex. There are plans to house museums and restaurants in them, but right now only the gallery of women’s artwork (815-338-4252) on the second floor of the courthouse is open to visitors.
The notable eateries around the square strive hard to be cosmopolitan, Chicago-like. The Tapestry Restaurant (113 S. Benton, 815-338-0113), which fronts the square, wouldn’t look out of place at Halsted and Armitage; its fairly extensive menu lists quasi-French items, from baked escargot to seafood brochette. The food–especially the homemade desserts–is quite good, even by big-city standards. Since owners Dennis and Jaclyn Altergott–he’s the maitre d’ and she’s the waitress–have to look after their construction business during the day, the place is open only in the early evening and on weekends. The restaurant’s building, constructed in 1901 to house a dry-goods store, still has the original pressed-tin ceiling. To enhance the Victorian ambience, the Altergotts have added period furniture and memorabilia. In the lobby sits a canopy loge couch. The oak bar in the lounge is said to have come from one of Al Capone’s speakeasies. The fluted Ionic columns used to grace an Astor Street house. And Flemish tapestries adorn the walls (hence the name). If the Tapestry exudes an air of Lincoln Park elegance, then Uncle Dan’s (in the basement of 126 N. Benton, 815-338-4450) offers a strong whiff of a Lincoln Avenue pub. In fact, proprietor Dan Terlikowski, an ex-cop and hairstylist, is a north-side expatriate. The burly and grizzled Uncle Dan is unabashedly Polish. (His menu is full of sophomoric Polish puns.) He’s likely to amble over to your table and regale you with a ribald tale or two. Or he might show off the mementos–baby shoes, old daguerreotypes, Chester Gould originals–left to him by generations of Woodstockians. And if you get on his good side, he might even pull out his anatomically enhanced Barbie and Ken dolls. In any case, be sure to try the house specialties–tomato Florentine soup and sweet-onion salad dressing–concocted by his wife Sandy. Angelo’s, also with a view of the square (117 Van Buren, 815-338-0180), is a bustling coffee shop that serves the kind of hearty breakfasts familiar to patrons of Lou Mitchell’s. It’s here that the latest town gossip is traded. Joey T.’s Cafe Italiano (228 Main St., 815-337-0015) is an upscale joint frequented by Woodstockians on their nights on the town. Within five minutes’ drive from the square are a couple of ethnic options. Deeter’s (15105 Route 14, 815-338-6550), run by the German-born Max Deeter, is like a roadside version of the Berghoff. Its predominantly central-European fare includes a delicious sauerbraten. And, as at the Berghoff, the waiters are paragons of snootiness. La Niagra (118 First St., 815-338-9881) is as south-of-the-border as you can get in McHenry. It may not be better than any of its cousins in Pilsen, but I’m told that a folk-dance group from Mexico gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. All these restaurants are moderately priced ($5 to $20 per person).
Should you want to stay overnight or longer–as several honeymooners, two businessmen from Thailand, and a Florida man tracing his family genealogy did in recent weeks–Woodstock boasts two of the finest (and least-known) bed-and-breakfasts in the state. On the square is the Concorde Country Inn (112 1/2 Cass St., 815-338-1100), with seven spacious, newly refurbished suites. The rooms in front face the park, and all rooms have four-posters and other Victorian accessories. Marilyn Ohrt, the longtime Woodstockian who manages the inn, lives on the premises and bakes the breakfast goodies. The Concorde also rents out a country home hidden in the woods a few miles from Woodstock. Within walking distance of the town square is the Bundling Board Inn (220 E. South St., 815-338-7054), owned and operated by Barb and Rich Helm. Shortly after they relocated their woodshop business to Woodstock in 1983, the Helms bought the dilapidated 1910 house and spent a couple of years renovating it. Being connoisseurs of antiques and handicraft, they’ve stocked the six turn-of-the-century guest rooms with furniture, vanities, and quilts purchased at estate sales.
The Helms are heavily involved in civic affairs, and over breakfast you can usually get one of them to give you an opinionated briefing about what’s right and wrong with their adopted town. Both bed-and-breakfasts are quite similar in ambience and rates (not more than $50 per day per person), with the Bundling Board having the slight edge in the coziness category. A Days Inn (990 Lake Ave., 1-800-325-2525), five minutes’ drive from the square, just had its grand opening. Managed by three Greek brothers, who also own the Greek eatery next door, this 44-room hotel offers, as they say, the latest in lodging conveniences. The fact that it has an indoor heated swimming pool is mentioned with awe by some locals.
Old and carefully preserved houses in Woodstock are regarded with respect and fondness by the residents. Close to 50 have been honored with bronze plaques bearing the names of their first owners. The chamber of commerce provides visitors with a map for self-guided walking tours. One mansion of note is the old Todd School for Boys (at McHenry and Seminary), where Orson Welles first demonstrated his flair for the theatrical. The building, now for sale, was most recently used as a Masonic temple. You can also go on a vicarious jaunt to the villlage of Bull Valley, which is only ten minutes east of the town square by car. An exclusive (and discreet) enclave of lavish and unusual estates, Bull Valley has been home to some of the wealthiest Chicago lawyers and executives. The Chester Gould compound, for instance, was recently purchased by an heir to the Walgreen fortune. As grand as they are, Bull Valley’s best can’t rival Don and Eunice Mast’s home (528 E. Calhoun St., 815-338-0011), only a few blocks from the opera house. The Masts–who are Mennonites, teachers, and folksingers–used to live in a multiracial Evanston commune. In 1972 they moved to Woodstock to raise their kids, and three years later they bought their Victorian-type house. Since then they’ve metamorphosed it–using discarded building materials–into a charming space, full of nooks and crannies and bric-a-brac donated by friends. In 1980 the Masts invited some buddies from the Old Town School of Folk Music for a sing-along in the vast, multibalconied room in the back of their house and began a tradition. The coffeehouselike event now draws about 150 people per session and has acquired a word-of-mouth reputation. It begins at 7 PM every Saturday (except January, February, and March, when the Masts vacation in California). No admission is charged, but a donation is welcome.
Foremost among the recommended side trips is the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, about 20 minutes from Woodstock by car (1-800-244-7245). Besides its large collection of railway equipment–from a horsecar built in 1859 to the oldest diesel locomotive in the U.S. to a steam engine–the museum operates two one-mile lines. You can take a nostalgic ride on a steam train or electric trolley (or both). Also on display are several generations of Chicago streetcars. A few blocks away is the McHenry County Historical Museum (6422 Main St., 815-923-2267), a repository of household artifacts, agricultural implements, and memorabilia that offers glimpses into the past 200 years in the county. The Seven Acre Antique Village & Museum, also in Union (8512 S. Union Road, 815-923-2214), features an unusual assortment of phonographs and other musical merchandise. For antique shoppers, it’s a good place to gawk; for amateur World War II historians, it has an authenticated copy of Hitler’s diary. A few miles south of Union in Hampshire is Shireland (708-683-4300), a pastoral playground for kids distinguished by the presence of tall shire horses (bred in medieval times for knightly jousts). The tents of Shireland also shelter an old-fashioned carousel ride that turns to the strains of calliope music. About ten miles northeast of Woodstock is the village of Spring Grove, where the renowned Story Telling Festival takes place (in the village park on Main Street, 815-648-2039) every summer–July 27 to 28 this year. Many of the best storytellers from across the country gather to exchange stories and play old-time music on the banjo, fiddle, and guitar.
For outdoorsy types, Woodstock is within hiking distance from two of the most gorgeous parks in the state. Moraine Hills State Park (914 S. River Road, Ringwood, 815-385-1624) has one of the few unspoiled glacial lakes around, Lake Defiance. And Glacial Park (6512 Harts Road, Ringwood, 815-338-1405) is rich with ancient wetlands and creeks, as well as patches of prairies and savannas; it also has a big barn for sing-alongs. Both parks have extensive trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.
Back in Woodstock, there’s Golf & Games (South Route 47, 815-338-7990), only five minutes’ drive from the opera house. In the shadow of a tot-size fairy castle and amidst the mini-waterfalls and other minute hazards one can indulge in the guilty pleasure of a game of miniature golf. A fitting way to conclude a trip to a neatly maintained microcosm of a kinder, gentler America.