Many folks say autumn is their favorite season, for good reason. Here are 12 tried and true ways to celebrate it in traditional Midwestern style.
1. Visit an Apple Orchard
It wouldn’t be fall without a trip to an apple orchard or pumpkin patch. Every child, adult and grandparent can find something to enjoy, from warm apple pie to the thrill of a petting zoo.
Among the many great picks in our area is All Seasons, an apple orchard, with a pick-your-own pumpkin patch and 10-acre corn maze in Woodstock, at 14510 Route 176. The Apple Picking Grand Opening is Sept. 3-5 and the orchard grows 12 varieties on 11,000 trees.
“Many of our visitors come from the city, so we try to have enough going on that they can really spend the day here,” says Alana Wonneberger, manager. “Along with the pick-your-own apples, we also have a petting zoo, an apple cannon, a jumping pillow, and our Country Kitchen, which serves doughnuts and apple cider, as well as hamburgers and hot dogs.”
All Seasons also stages weekend events, like an antique farm show and a model train exhibit. Check allseasonsorchard.com for a full list of dates and events.
For a list of other area orchards and patches, go to pickyourown.org.
2. Be Festive
Nobody does autumn quite like the Midwest, with our sprawling fields of orange pumpkins, tractor and horse-drawn hayrides and intricate mazes carved into endless cornfields. Half the fun is seeing how local communities put their own creative spin on the season, often through big, imaginative festivals.
St. Charles revels in hosting its annual Scarecrow Festival on the west side of the Fox River in Lincoln Park, this year Oct. 7-9.
“It’s definitely a very popular event with families,” says Jenny O’Brien, marketing manager and Scarecrow Festival liaison. “We’re going on our 26th year, so we’re seeing people who came to the festival as kids bringing their own kids now.”
Before and during the festival, families, businesses and non-profit groups construct hundreds of scarecrows, each with its own personality. The scarecrows are proudly displayed at the festival, and visitors vote for their favorites; winners are announced throughout the weekend.
Along with live entertainment, there are taste treats galore at this festival, but don’t expect to wash your food down with a drink stronger than apple cider. This event is alcohol-free, making it ideal family fare. Organizers also had wee ones in mind when they designed kid-friendly attractions such as a model railroad, petting zoo, story-telling sessions and their biggest draw, the build-your-own scarecrow corner. Admission and parking are free.
“There are also a lot of other things to do in St. Charles, so the festival is a great excuse to come enjoy the city,” says O’Brien. “We offer hotel specials on our Web site, if you’re looking to make it a weekend stay.”
Mark these other fall festivities on your calendar:
Festival of the Vine, Geneva, Sept. 11-13
Vintage Illinois Wine Festival, Utica, Sept. 17-18
Naperville Wine Festival, Sept. 18-19
Long Grove OktoberFest, Oct. 16-18
Sycamore Pumpkin Festival, Oct. 26-30
3. Explore Your Heritage
Because so many of our ethnic traditions revolve around autumn harvest, this is a great time to get in touch with our roots. One of the best ways to do this is by visiting a living history museum, where costumed educators demonstrate the ways our ancestors once lived.
In September, at Old World Wisconsin (OWW) in Eagle, Wis., for example, we can learn how various waves of immigrants harvested crops, made pickles, plowed fields, chopped wood and otherwise prepared their homes and farms for winter. At nearly 600 acres, OWW is the largest museum in the world dedicated to the history of rural life.
Closer to home, we’re fortunate to have 12-acre Naper Settlement in Naperville, 523 S. Webster St., a living history museum that tells the story of how life changed between 1831 and 1907, from the pioneer to the Victorian era, for communities in northern Illinois. Recently closed for construction, the museum re-opens the weekend of Sept. 30. Its Oktoberfest celebration on Oct. 1 is an excellent time to learn about the city’s wave of German immigrants from the Alsace-Lorraine region of what is now France.
“And our Oktoberfest is just a whole lot of fun,” says Donna DeFalco, spokeswman. “There are beer gardens with live German music and local rock bands, and during the day there are all kinds of family-friendly activities.”
Another fun time to visit is Oct. 21-22 for the All Hallows Eve event, “based on the darkest literature and events of the 19th century,” best suited for children ages 10 and up.
4. Bring Home the Harvest
A good farmer’s market is a joy to both body and soul, and late summer/fall is the best time to visit. Does anything taste better than just-picked fruits and vegetables? We’re not talking about flaccid or wax-covered grocery store vegetables that seem never to rot in a natural manner; we’re talking about vibrant veggies with actual flavor and nutrients, picked fresh in the past day or two and transported from just a few miles away.
Fresh produce to watch for in late summer and through the fall in northern Illinois includes apples, arugula, basil, beets, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, edamame (soy beans), eggplants, figs, garlic, gourds, grapes, green beans, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, most mushrooms, okra, onions, parsley, parsnips, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radicchio, rosemary, rutabagas, sage, shallots, spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips, zucchini and other types of squash.
Check out the “Eat Local” section at simplesteps.org to find a farmer’s market near you. For example, the Barrington Farmer’s Market is in progress every Thursday from 2 to 7 p.m. on Park Avenue. Its vendors not only sell fresh vegetables and fruits, but also flowers, meats, cheeses, honey, breads and pasta. Bring your dull kitchen knife to have it sharpened while you peruse the market!
5. Explore Natural Wonders
With trees exploding into radiant color, nature is the true star of autumn, and going for a hike can be a breathtaking experience. A truly precious asset of our region is the number of high-quality state and local parks that “we the people” own, so why not enjoy them?
One example is Starved Rock State Park, only 54 miles from southern Kane County, with 18 beautiful canyons, white sand trails made from disintegrated sandstone, and gorgeous views overlooking the Illinois River from tall bluffs – including the rock itself, named for a band of Illiniwek Indians, besieged by bands of Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians. The tribe took refuge atop the rock and eventually starved. The park offers all kinds of interesting historical information at its visitor’s center, because so many important human events occurred in and near it, dating back 5,000 years.
Starved Rock is among only a few Illinois state parks with a guest lodge and restaurants. It hosts all kinds of activities and special events, as do neighboring Matthiessen and Buffalo Rock state parks.
This year, Starved Rock’s annual Fall Color Weekend is Oct. 15-16. Each day from the lodge, visitors can take a trolley ride and guided scenic walk, or a guided hike to take in the park’s spectacular fall colors. Go to starvedrockdstatepark.org for more events. For a full listing of Illinois’ numerous parks, go to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website.
6. Update Your Planters
Sure, many summer plants have grown lanky and unattractive by now, but don’t give up on your flowerpots just yet. Instead, supplement containers with some hearty fall picks. Here are a few tips from The Gardens of Woodstock, 5211 Swanson Road.
“Start a long life container with a focal point such as a rosebush, Japanese maple or a perennial, and even add a grass or two,” recommends Gwen VanSteen, nursery manager. “Make sure that a vine such as sweet potato or English Ivy is cascading downward. In the summer, I like to fill my containers with a multitude of color and a variety of annuals. Some annuals, like the Calibrachoa, Geranium ivy and Scaevola, will look nice through fall, if pruned throughout the season.”
When using a Japanese Maple, stay away from plants that require too much water, lest the maple drown. She suggests annuals such as Coleus Red Trailing Queen, Ipomoea, Ivy and Oxalis.
“Once the summer is over, you can incorporate a mum or even some dried millet, natural lotus pods, oak leaves, broomcorn, or bittersweet to your summer container,” says VanSteen. “By adding just a few touches of fall dried plants, your summer container can move easily into the fall months.”
7. Go to the Zoo
Some activities are more pleasant in cool fall air than steamy summer air, and we think going to the zoo is one of them. The kids will be less tired and whiny and, let’s face it – those beautiful animals will be much less stinky. A zoo trip is an excellent reminder that humans aren’t the only inhabitants of our planet.
Check out Brookfield Zoo, a short drive from any suburb. With 20 separate exhibits, there’s always something new.
Visit the Seven Seas Dolphin Arena to watch the bottlenose dolphins put on a show. Head over to the Australia House to visit western gray kangaroos and the southern hairy-nosed wombat. Drop in on a rare okapi and some Red River hogs at “Habitat Africa! The Forest.” Admire the African lion and watch tigers prowl their turf inside the Big Cats exhibit.
And don’t forget about Great Bear Wilderness, where you’ll find not only grizzly and polar bears, but also bison, eagles and Mexican gray wolves. Last, but not least, watch the orangutans travel through the trees in Tropic World.
Among the special events this fall is the zoo fundraiser “Nights in the Wild – Good Home Cookin’,” featuring a ride on the Motor Safari to a cocktails & hors d’oeurves reception in Tropic World with the gorillas, where a zookeeper will be on hand to answer questions. It’s followed by an elegant dinner buffet at the zoo’s restaurant. Cost is $150 per couple.
If you’d prefer something more family-friendly, consider “Boo at the Zoo,” Oct. 22-23 and Oct. 29-30, an event with a crazy costume parade and pumpkin-carving demonstrations.
8. Brigten up Your Landscape
Autumn can be bittersweet. After months of tending bright summer annual plants, the first frost can turn them to limp, brown noodles. Instead of just giving in to the dull colors of winter, why not spruce up your yard with some fun fall color? Planting a few perennials that shine in autumn is a simple way to revive a fading landscape.
One relatively easy step is to plant some Narrow Leaf Blue Star Amsonia, which offers beautiful golden color in the fall, says Joe Runde, owner of Runde’s Landscape Contractors, 9N299 Route 47, Elgin. “During the summer, it offers beautiful blue blooms,” he says. “It was named the 2011 perennial plant of the year.”
Runde suggests giving thought to plants that combine well in your landscape, to provide autumn texture as well as color. Pair Autumn Joy sedum with ornamental grasses, for example. “For fall landscaping you need some plants that have a dried, upright texture,” he says. “Plants without that quality probably need to be cut down in early fall.”
Ornamental trees also offer great fall color. The Autumn Blaze Maple, for example, is a cross between a Red Maple, which gives it vibrant red color, and a Silver Maple, which makes it fast-growing.
“The Sugar Maple also adds great color to your yard,” says Runde. “It takes longer to grow, but has more color, with reds, yellows and oranges.”
Consider not only the color of the foliage, but also the color of the fruit, when selecting landscape plants. The American Highbush Cranberry, for example, has attractive, bright red berries in autumn. And, of course, there’s that classic vine with pretty, orange fall fruit that sums up the very nature of autumn: bittersweet.
9. Go Fishin’
The many beautiful rivers and lakes in our area make it easy to pull off a fall fishing trip. It’s a good way to take in the fall scenery while enjoying the company of friends or family.
“Fishing is a great activity for fall, because aside from there being fewer bugs, the fish are more active,” says Lora Petrak, community relations specialist at McHenry County Conservation District. “They’ll probably bite more because they’re trying to bulk up for the winter.”
By autumn, young fish that were once easy meals for predator fish like bass or walleye have grown too large to eat, leaving predators hungrier and with a smaller food supply – ideal conditions for the angler, but not the fish.
Also, in cooler temperatures, fish are more likely to venture into shallower waters, making them easier to catch, says Petrak. But that doesn’t mean you have to take home all of the fish that you catch.
“Catch and release is encouraged at all our sites,” says Petrak. “State regulations apply and some sites have specific ‘keep’ rules for possession, size or slot limit. Anglers should check the site visitor information sign for those specific regulations.”
Check out mccdistrict.org for a full list of fishing spots in conservation district sites. You’ll also find a list explaining what kinds of fish you’re most likely to catch, and where.
Fall trout season opens Oct. 16 in Illinois. Area lakes stocked by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources include Axehead, Belleau and Horsetail in Cook County; Silver, Pickerel and Grove in DuPage County; and Sand and Banana in Lake County.
10. Enjoy Seasonal Cuisine
Many foodies say that the flavors of autumn can’t be topped. We agree. There’s an abundance of freshly harvested produce, and after a season of cool salads, we revel in rich, hot meals and steaming stews again … perhaps beef tenderloin with roasted vegetables, or handmade butternut squash ravioli with maple butter sauce, or autumn chili pungent with cumin.
The spices of fall run toward the most flavorful: cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla, ginger. Think buttery apple crisp; cream cheese frosted pumpkin spice cakes and cookies; steaming hot apple cider donuts. It’s little wonder so many local chefs feel most creative and reinvigorated in fall.
Many restaurants update their menus to reflect the flavors of the season, but fresh bounty can arrive spontaneously, after the menu is printed. So when you’re out to eat at your favorite restaurant, be sure to ask about seasonal daily specials, because fresh fall fare, prepared by expert local chefs, is well worth the hunt.
Montarra Grill, in Algonquin, is one of many eateries that changes its menu seasonally, incorporating freshly harvested and locally-grown produce. Head chef Troy Grazes is already thinking up sumptuous dishes he wants to try this season.
“I live in Chicago, so I get a lot of our produce at Green City Market,” he says. “This fall I’ll probably try a stuffed baby pumpkin, as well as some hearty greens. And I’m also working on a dish that involves fresh squash.”
11. Bring Autumn Indoors
Ask interior designers what their favorite season is, and most will answer “autumn.” Maybe it’s the rich colors and scents associated with fall, and the endless inspiration provided by autumn harvest and nature itself.
“A great way to to ready your home for the season is to find ways to bring in color through fabrics, foliage, ambiance and comfort, “ says Stephanie Haas, of The Strawflower Shop in Geneva. “Try bringing earth tones into your home with transitional floral pieces. These can be created using wheat bushes, gourds, bittersweet and pumpkin.” Focus on earth tones and add pops of color, she suggests.
Table runners add dimension and are a good way to incorporate reds, golds and jewel tones associated with fall, says Haas. “Imagine rich silks, or cotton dupioni gracing your dining table, along with candlesticks.”
Speaking of candles, fall is a season for burning them brightly. Choose spicy, rich scents of apple and pumpkin, and consider buying Made in America soy or beeswax candles, like those sold at Strawflower Shop.
Those who don’t like the hazard of real flames may want to consider the burgeoning realm of battery-operated flickering candles. “These offer no-fuss candlelight and a worry-free solution in tight decorating spots,” says Haas.
For an added dose of “cozy,” toss a handloomed throw made with a soft, rich fabric over your sofa or recliner, and settle in for some peaceful autumn relaxation. After all, a much more frenzied decorating season is just around the corner.
12. Go Daytrippin’
daytrip or weekend jaunt is an excellent way to unwind after a busy summer, and there are plenty of enticing destinations within a few hours’ drive.
One is Galena, because half the fun is getting there, as winding roads take you past breathtaking vistas in scenic Jo Daviess County. Let’s face it, the hilly northwest corner of the state feels very different from the rest of Illinois and makes you feel you’re in another state – and era.
A stroll down Galena’s Main Street will remind you to slow down and appreciate the quaintness of simpler times. Once a bustling city full of lead miners, Galena abruptly lost much of its population during the mid-1800s, as opportunists sought gold-er pastures out West. This effectively froze in time its mid-century architecture, with all its Lincoln-era charm and splendor.
Galenians like nothing better than to host parties and special events for visitors most every weekend in autumn. Spend the night at a modern or historic hotel, or one of many charming bed & breakfasts, but be sure to book it in advance. A complete calendar of events is found at VisitGalena.org.
Here are just a few fall favorites.
Gather up your girlfriends and make a weekend of it Sept. 9 & 10 during the Galena Area Chamber of Commerce’s Girlfriends’ Getaway. Activities include wine tasting, jewelry classes, spa time, crafting demonstrations and a creative hat contest.
Sept. 24-25, the Galena Cellars’ Fall Harvest & Art Festival offers activities like pumpkin painting, grape stomping, vineyard tours and hayrides, in conjunction with an art show and auction hosted by the Galena Arts Alliance. The Fever River String Band performs on Saturday, Jon Conover on Sunday.
For a kid-friendly diversion, stop by Galena on Halloween weekend to enjoy a 2-hour parade on Main Street with floats, costumes, prizes, and fun for all ages.
A more adult-friendly weekend is planned Nov. 18-19, during Nouveau Wine Weekend. Spend your Saturday night at the Grand Tasting; from Albarino to Zinfandel, 200 varieties await you. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced wine drinker, you’ll be sure to learn something and enjoy the lesson. Winery tours are also an option. ❚