Anyone living in Woodstock will likely share Phil Connors’ sentiment about this lovely Northern Illinois town, a train ride away from downtown Chicago on the Metra Northwest Line, and a short 20-minute drive to the city of Lake Geneva.
As drivers pass through Woodstock, they naturally slow down when reaching Woodstock Square’s cobblestone streets. Life’s frantic pace slows down as one takes in the Victorian buildings, the stately Opera House, and the interior park with its inviting lawn and familiar gazebo. This is the town’s front yard, the site of weekly traditions and much-anticipated fairs and festivals.
On Wednesday evenings in the summer, the city band strikes up Illinois’ state song as friends and families relax on the Square under the twilight sky. Every Tuesday and Saturday, from May through October, Farmers’ Market stalls line the sides of the Square and dot the interior, filling the area with aromas of fruit, vegetables, cheeses, meats, and freshly cut flowers. On the night after Thanksgiving, families gather here to join Santa Claus as he counts down the seconds until Miss Woodstock throws the switch, illuminating thousands of twinkling lights that make the Square glow throughout the Holiday season.
Embracing its Groundhog Day reputation, Woodstock hosts a four-day festival, drawing out-of-state and even international visitors to what Groundhog Days Chairman Rick Bellairs calls “just a few days of light-hearted fun.” The gazebo in the center of the Square is where Groundhog Day’s prognostication scene is re-enacted every February 2nd.
Today, few small towns can support such a lively and varied cultural scene. Woodstock’s 25,000 residents treasure their town’s reputation as an entertainment destination and its crown jewel, the Woodstock Opera House. Erected in 1889 and restored in 1977, the Opera House hosts concerts, community plays, an annual Children’s Theatre production, and the Creative Living Series, the longest-running lecture series not connected with a college or university in the nation. Orson Welles, Paul Newman, Judy Collins, and Jeff Daniels are just some of the well-known performers who have graced the Opera House’s stage.
Playing a large role in its cultural scene are the various independently-owned restaurants dispersed throughout town, featuring American, Italian, Vegetarian, and Mexican cuisines, as well as a few establishments that offer al fresco dining.
Patrons are invited to shop and marvel at the many unique stores around the Square. In fact, one could easily spend an entire afternoon doing just that! Among the highlights are: Interiors Anew for retro furniture and decorations; Read Between the Lynes for books, souvenirs, and ice cream; the Swiss Maid Bakery for doughnuts, cakes, pies, and other sweet treats; Ethereal Confections for handmade chocolate and specialty teas and coffees; The Backdrop for offbeat gifts and one-of-a-kind jewelry; and the Thoughtfulness Shop for cards and collectibles.
Woodstock’s charming appeal extends beyond its picturesque downtown. Located just minutes from the Square is Emricson Park, offering a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Several playgrounds, sports fields, a 1.6-mile walking/jogging trail, and two ponds occupy the rolling grassy expanse. In the summer months, children delight in a visit to Woodstock Water Works, a community aquatic center that features a recreation pool with a double-flume slide, an eight-lane lap pool with two diving boards, and baby pool.
The character that distinguishes Woodstock’s downtown is reflected in the neighborhoods that radiate from the Square. With a history that dates back to 1852, Woodstock boasts a wealth of housing styles that can be found lining the streets throughout town. From rambling Victorians, turn-of-the-century four squares, bungalows, kit homes from Sears and Montgomery Ward, to mid-century moderns, loft apartments in the former Emerson Typewriter Factory, and even new construction options.
Those wanting to live in the peace and quiet of the country can do so while still being a short drive away to downtown. Along the country roads of Woodstock are large tracts of farmland where rolling hills make for the perfect setting for large country estates and old farmhouses.
Before Hollywood cast Woodstock as an icon of small-town charm, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized as a Distinctive Destination by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and named a Preserve America Community by the White House. As stated by City Council member Mike Turner, these accolades only confirm “what we as residents already know about Woodstock.”
But be warned… If you choose to live here, you might never want to leave!
By: Sue Murray
Photography by: Matt Haas