Since it was settled more than a century ago, the shore of Bangs Lake has lured Chicagoans looking for a summer escape. Wauconda has changed plenty, but one things remains constant: the allure of the lakefront.
If you were to walk down Main Street in Wauconda and ask anyone what makes the village special, you’d hear a few common answers.
Good food could top the list, with diners rattling off restaurant names such as Lindy’s Restaurant and Marina, Docks Bar and Grill, Bulldogs Grill, Middleton’s on Main, Slyce Coal Fired Pizza Company – to name a few.
The quaint downtown, with a coffee shop, bakery, barbershop and other specialty shops, could be next, followed by any number of events the Lake County village hosts, such as Wauconda Fest, the Wauconda triathlons, the IPRA Championship Wauconda Rodeo or Wauconda Street Dance.
But there’s one response you’ll always hear: the lake.
Wauconda’s gem is Bangs Lake, a 300-acre glacial lake that has drawn visitors and residents alike for more than 100 years, says Neville Carr, 75, a fourth-generation Waucondan and local historian. The lake is named after Wauconda’s first resident, Justus Bangs.
“The lake draws people for some reason. They love to look out on water,” says Carr. “I’m not even sure it’s a conscious thing – ‘Let’s go to Wauconda by the lake and have dinner.’ But that’s why they’re here. That’s what makes Wauconda unique.”
Brittany Barth agrees. She’s manager of Lindy’s Restaurant and Marina, a Bangs Lake fixture for more than 50 years.
“The lake is a big part of our business,” says the 36-year-old. “Even in the wintertime, people come in and want to sit by the window and look at the lake frozen over. It just has a different effect, a different ambiance.”
Other communities have lakes, of course, but not all of them are accessible.
“When we made the decision to tear down and rebuild our restaurant in 2007, one of our motivating factors was our desire to share our property with the community,” Barth says. “Other communities have closed in their lakes. We’ve got the Park District, Lindy’s, Docks, Wauconda Boat – people can enjoy the lake. It’s not blocked off. We share our lake with the community.”
Lindy’s offers a small swimming and beach area that patrons can utilize, and they can order lunch and dinner from the beach.
The Wauconda Park District, meanwhile, operates a boardwalk with a small interpretive area, two fishing piers and a canoe launch with the same thought process: the lake should be enjoyed by everyone.
“We offer that free to residents and nonresidents who just want to go out and enjoy the lake,” says Tim Staton, superintendent of recreation for the park district.
The importance of the lake can’t be understated, says Linda Starkey, a lakefront resident, Wauconda business owner and village official. She understands the role the lake plays in the local way of life.
It draws business to the village; it offers a great place to relax; and when she watches the sun set over the water, she’s right where she wants to be.
“Somebody told me once, ‘There’s nothing quite like living on the lake,’” Starkey says. “I live, work and play in Wauconda. I love this town.”
Wauconda, Then and Now
You have to know a little of Wauconda’s history to appreciate what it is today, says Carr, whose grandchildren are sixth-generation Waucondans.
“Going back as far as the turn of the last century, Wauconda has been a spot that people have come to – mainly from the city, back then – to refresh and cool off over the summer months,” he says.
In the early 1900s, wives and their children from Chicago started to vacation at Wauconda’s summer hotels, often utilizing the now-defunct Palatine, Lake Zurich & Wauconda (PLZ&W) Railroad. Fathers would join their families on the weekends.
“Sometimes, the wives would stay no more than a week, but some stayed for several weeks. And the lake was the draw,” Carr says. “Before air conditioning, people just enjoyed the water.”
As early as 1926, Wauconda became widely known as a beach community, with Phil’s Beach, Sunny/Honey Hill Beach and Cook’s Grove becoming some of the half-dozen beaches popular for their water slides and swimming platforms.
It was the beaches that drew actor John Belushi to Wauconda; his fondness for the town led to several scenes of “The Blues Brothers” being filmed on Wauconda’s beaches in 1979.
The beaches remained popular into the early ’80s, but as liability insurance skyrocketed, they started to close, one by one, Carr says. By the early ‘90s, the last of the original beaches had shut down.
In the midst of the slow beach collapse, the business community in Wauconda languished as well, Carr says. Local shopping centers – Hawthorn Woods, Gurnee Mills and the like – sucked business away from Main Street. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that downtown slowly came back to life.
In the mid-2000s, a new subdivision built on the north side of town, Liberty Lakes, brought an i
nflux of families who were quick to support the community, says Nancy Burton, who has been director of parks and recreation at the Wauconda Park District for two decades.
Young business owners took a chance investing in property on Main Street, and it paid off. Today, specialty shops thrive, and on the weekends, restaurants have three-hour waiting times.
It’s good to see the village reliving its heyday, albeit in a different way, Carr says. People still come because of the lake, but it’s no longer to swim. Instead, it’s to dine on the water, feel the downtown atmosphere while shopping, or simply enjoy the beautiful views.
“When I was growing up, I lived right across from Phil’s Beach,” Carr says. “Cars would start lining up at 7:30, 8 in the morning, and the beaches didn’t open until 10 o’clock. There was a beehive of activity around Wauconda because of the lake. Now, here we are in 2016, and that old excitement is back.”
If the lake is Wauconda’s top draw, then good food and drink take a close second.
Restaurants have always been part of the village, and some have been around for ages, like Lindy’s.
What started as a little fishermen’s hideaway bar and marina in 1965 has grown into a full-fledged restaurant, bar and marina, with a clothing boutique tucked inside.
Some patrons come to belly up to the bar; some come for the broad menu of American cuisine; some come for the live entertainment on the weekends. While Lindy’s withstood the downturn of the ’80s and ’90s, newer dining and drinking establishments helped to put Wauconda back on the map, particularly in the downtown area, says Carr.
“I believe Maria Weisbruch, [former owner] of Bliss Wine and Gifts, was the catalyst for this,” Carr says. “Bliss Wine would serve wine, and Maria got together the businesses that serve food right around there – Bulldogs Grill, and other restaurants – so that you could have hamburgers brought in to her place. For the first time, that kind of cooperation brought people in. That has grown now to the point that we have several well-known restaurants.”
Bliss has remained a popular wine shop, while Bulldogs, located just across the street, is known for its hand-packed gourmet burgers, including choices such as the Scarlet Johansson: a half-pound burger with cream cheese, fresh jalapenos, bacon and apple barbecue sauce.
It’s a favorite of manager Tony Vazquez, who says the cream cheese is either a deal breaker or game changer for those who dare try it.
But as popular as Bulldogs has become in the six years it’s been open, the restaurant chose Wauconda as much as Waucondans chose it.
“We picked Wauconda because it really is a community for its own community,” says Vazquez, who moved to Wauconda to live with his parents and chose to stay when they left. “You go to other towns and they put on their Fourth of July celebration. But Wauconda does so much for its community.”
Community support is what prompted Barth and her mother, Laurie Barth, to expand beyond Lindy’s and open Slyce Coal Fire Pizza Company in 2010. This past November, Barth and a partner opened Side Lot Brewery right next to Slyce.
Putting Wauconda on the Map
Tim Kovac hasn’t just invested in Wauconda – he’s built a business whose appeal reaches far outside his hometown.
The 49-year-old, who grew up in Wauconda, has fond memories of going to Bangs Lake and visiting local businesses. In 2010, when he decided to start his own business, he thought Wauconda was an ideal location.
“I like the people of Wauconda,” he says. “They are warm and supportive of each other; it’s a true American, small-town vibe. Wauconda businesses don’t compete with each other; they help to promote each other, which has been instrumental to our success and our loyalty to the town.”
Kovac and his partners started Small Town Brewery in a two-room establishment on the top floor of the old Chicago Cutlery warehouse off Bonner Road, personally delivering handcrafted brews to local restaurants. It was the crafting of Not Your Father’s Root Beer that truly put this hometown producer on the map.
People flocked to Wauconda for the alcoholic root beer, and by 2012, Small Town was selling kegs to Binny’s Beverage Depot, a liquor store with 31 locations around the Chicago area. Soon, Not Your Father’s Root Beer became a household name.
In June 2015, Small Town Brewery signed an exclusive distribution agreement with Pabst Brewing Co. to distribute Small Town products on a national scale.
The brewery now has three nationally distributed products: Not Your Father’s Root Beer (six-packs are the third-largest beer SKU, or stock keeping unit, in the U.S.); Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale; and Not Your Father’s Vanilla Cream Ale.
Despite the national attention, Kovac plans to stand by one of his original goals: to support the community. Proof of that commitment is at the new Small Town Brewery taproom, which opened last fall at 1000 N. Rand Road in Wauconda.
“I love Wauconda, and I hope to continue to do business here for a long time,” Kovac says.
So Much to Do
While it’s true that the town stays active all year long, summer is its busiest season.
The village and Wauconda Area Chamber of Commerce host a variety of events, including a farmers’ market every Thursday on Main Street; the Wauconda rodeo – the only IPRA-sanctioned rodeo in Lake County; and the annual Street Dance, a September evening when Main Street closes for a night of live music. An independent committee organizes and sponsors monthly cruise nights that attract 500 vehicles at each event.
If that wasn’t enough, the park district partners with the Wauconda Area Public Library to host a summer concert series for families. Even homeowners’ associations plan events open to the public, as fishing tournaments (and in winter, ice fishing tournaments) are hosted by numerous private and public entities.
“We’re never at a loss for something to do,” Starkey says.
There aren’t many small communities that are able to host annual triathlons, says Burton. But the lake affords that opportunity to Wauconda, which welcomes more than 500 participants in the kids’ triathlon, sprint triathlon or Olympic-distance triathlon each July.
“We hear from our triathletes that they think Lake County in general is just a great place for triathletes to train,” says Staton. “We see a lot of people, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, in groups; bike riders roll through town. They may stop in the downtown area and have a cup of coffee or lunch and then hit the road again. We have a lot of those little shops in the downtown area that, in my time, have been revitalized and are more trendy.”
Wauconda Fest is the park district’s biggest event of the year, attracting 20,000 to 25,000 people in one weekend in late June.
The four-day fest features carnival rides, a beer and wine tasting tent, car show, 5K/10K race, kickball tournament, water fights, live music and much more.
“It’s just an awesome event,” Burton says. “We’ve heard a lot of comments that people plan their vacations to come back for Wauconda Fest.”
Old-Fashioned Main Street
When you hear names like Whippletree Farms Antiques, Honey Hill Coffee Company, Frank’s Karma Cafe and Whisk Bakery and Coffee Shop, the distinct names let you know you’re somewhere special – and that’s Main Street, Wauconda.
Not everything is old; not everything is new. Will Tremonte’s Barber Shop has been on Main Street for more than 35 years; Threads opened three years ago. The boutique clothing store caters to men and women, without the boutique sizing or pricing.
“We have fun fashions at a reasonable price point,” says Starkey, who owns the shop. “When people hear boutique, sometimes they think tiny little expensive clothes. We’re not that. We carry extra-small to extra-large; we try to be mindful of what the majority of real women are looking for: fashionable stuff for a night out.”
Threads is just part of Main Street’s historical vibe. Middleton’s on Main embodies downtown’s historical vibe better than any other Main Street stop. Constructed in 1847, the building has been reborn time and again, from a stagecoach stop to a brothel to a hotel to the gastropub it currently houses.
That history draws people in, just like the lake.
“Young people of today are coming to Wauconda for the history, whether they know what it is or not,” says Carr, whose great-grandfather was a guest at the hotel in 1849. “They come to Middleton’s on Main. They don’t know when it was built, and they don’t care, but it’s old and it’s worn and not perfect. You go upstairs and the ceiling is slanted, and they love that.”
While most everything in Wauconda seems to point back to Bangs Lake, the village wouldn’t exist without its residents.
And the people are hands-down one of the best features of the community, says Vazquez.
Bulldogs has become a popular meeting spot for locals and out-of-towners alike, and that’s exactly what the restaurateur wants to see.
“I love getting conversations going on, having one table talk to another table,” Vazquez says. “But that’s kind of Wauconda. At the gas stations, the clerks are all friendly.”
While some towns may find it difficult to recruit volunteers, that’s not the case in Wauconda, Staton adds. For every triathlon and Wauconda Fest, new volunteers work alongside veteran volunteers to help the park district events.
“Just because everyone has such pride in the community, they want to put on a good event and they want to make it fun for everyone,” Staton says.
For all the things Wauconda offers, Burton believes a trip to Wauconda is like coming home.
“You walk down the sidewalk, and people are going to say hello to you, and I think that’s the connection people are looking for,” she says.
Barth agrees. It’s a standing joke amongst her fellow Wauconda High School classmates – who, as students, wanted to leave their small hometown – that Wauconda sucked them back in. Barth is happy it did.
“I think a lot of people on the weekend say, ‘Let’s go to a neighboring community, or Lake Geneva,” says Barth. “The people who live in Wauconda stay in Wauconda. They don’t have to go anywhere.”