Patch Passport: Venture Out to Woodstock
Top 10 things to do in historic Woodstock Square.
Woodstock Square has been a gathering place since the mid-19th century. Residents of that era, mainly farmers, used to gather in the square to shop for groceries, clothes or other necessities.
Today, residents and visitors from throughout the region still gather at the square. The square offers culture, historical beauty and special events in every season. In the summer, shoppers can buy local food at the Farmers Market on both Tuesdays and Saturdays.
A town square is unusual in Illinois.
“The founders of Woodstock set the square aside to provide a restful place in town and a nice pastoral setting,” said John Scharres, managing director of the Woodstock Opera House, one of the town’s most notable buildings since 1889.
“Other towns that do have a square usually have a courthouse in the middle,” Scharres said.
The town square was platted in 1844, even before the proposed town was named Woodstock in 1845. Prior to 1839, McHenry County’s boundaries stretched to Lake Michigan. When the area was split into two counties, Lake and McHenry, residents wanted a more central county seat, said Woodstock historian Don Peasley.
“This is the geographic center of McHenry County,” Peasley said.
Woodstock Square has wide appeal. Here are the top 10 ways to enjoy Woodstock’s Square.
- Music and Theater. Built in 1889, Woodstock Opera House is one of the square’s architectural anchors and displays a Victorian beauty. Owned and operated by the city of Woodstock, the Opera House is host to international music acts as well as local theater. “We’re one of the oldest, continuously operating theaters in United States,” Scharres said. The first performance was in 1890.
- Art. The Greek-revival courthouse was built in 1857. Today, it is the home of Old Court House Arts Center which includes galleries and artist studios. The five large galleries offer rotating exhibits.
- Shopping. The square is home to numerous shops offering distinctive art and crafted items. Shari Gray, executive director of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce, believes Woodstock’s shops offer a distinct shopping experience that is unlike other suburban downtowns.
- Music. There are a wide variety of musical performances in various genres at the Opera House as well the adjoining Stage Left Café. That is also the venue for monthly storytelling hosted by nationally noted storyteller Jim May. The City Band performs in the square every Wednesday through June and July, as they have for 127 years. “The free concerts are in conjunction with an ice cream social. It’s a big slice of hometown Americana,” Scharres said.
- Festivals. Woodstock’s festivals are an attraction through every season. There are music festivals, including the Mozart Festival, Jazz Festival and Folk Festival, seasonal events and parades. The most well-known event is Groundhog Days. Longtime Woodstock residents love to share stories about 1992, when Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day was filmed on the square. Peasley said the winter scenes actually were filmed when there were leaves on the trees. “They were laying down snow all over the square. It was interesting to see how they overcame the difficulties,” he said.
- History. History buffs will find plenty to spark their interest in Woodstock Square. Woodstock has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. The 19th century structures are a reminder of the past, and there are plenty of historical notes of interest. In November 1895, 10,000 people filled the square when railway union activist Eugene Debs was released from the Woodstock jail; he was sentenced for his activity in the historic 1894 Pullman strike. Jane Addams and Leo Tolstoy spoke at the Opera House. A young Orson Welles performed at the Opera House, as did Goodman School graduates Paul Newman, Tom Bosley and Geraldine Page in the 1940s.
- Relaxation. Relax and enjoy the park in the square. The square creates a distinctive ambiance, unlike other towns in northern Illinois. “There’s a little bit of a European ambiance on the square. You feel like you could be somewhere else,” Gray said. Peasley said the square is his favorite place to photograph weddings. Peasley said the square’s comfortable ambiance is created by the many trees, evergreens, flowers and benches. The walkways crisscross making it easy to navigate the square.
- Lodging. Plan an overnight trip to Woodstock and stay at one of the rooms at the Town Square Inn, a boutique hotel that overlooks the square. Or stay at a one of the bed and breakfasts within walking distance of the square.
- Dining. There are many places to stop for a bite to eat or a drink. “One of my favorite places is La Petite Creperie. It’s like being transported to France without leaving the country. The Public House is like being at an English pub,” Gray said. La Petite Creperie offers dining al fresco, weather permitting. The restaurant is situated in a vintage building next door to the Old Courthouse. Download the Visitors Guide for a full list of restaurants.
- Farmers Market. From homegrown, organic vegetables and fruit to locally grown meat to wine, cheese and handcrafted items, shoppers can find it all at the Woodstock Farmers Market. It runs May through October, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The market stays true to the community’s agricultural roots. It is a producers market, allowing only products that are grown or produced locally. The market offers a festive environment with entertainment and educational opportunities.