The charming Woodstock Square is a reminder of the town’s heritage and a centerpiece of its cultural scene. Meet some enterprising leaders who are spreading the word about their hometown’s top assets.
Woodstock is a city that’s rich with culture.
Take a walk around the city’s charming Square and right away you’ll notice the cobblestone streets, the Victorian architecture and the small-town friendliness of local business owners. Just 47 miles northwest of Chicago, Woodstock is home to 24,800 residents, 389 businesses and 25 churches – including a Buddhist temple.
The restaurants, bars, retail shops, theaters and festivals provide metropolitan amenities, yet the pastoral countryside is just a stone’s throw away.
In 2015, a public-private partnership called “Promote Woodstock” was formed to grow tourism, increase economic development opportunities and create a stronger sense of community. John Harris, principal of a5 branding and digital, has been working with the partnership to create “Real Woodstock,” a branding campaign that tells the city’s story.
“This is a true Midwestern town,” Harris says. “The Real Woodstock brand and campaign shows how the city is charming – it shows how the residents are independent and creative. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the Victorian architecture and rural countryside. There are apple orchards and pumpkin patches just five to 10 minutes away from the square. Woodstock is a city that just seems frozen in time, yet it has a progressive, creative and independent streak that keeps it moving forward.”
What’s On the Square
Woodstock’s historic square is full of cute shops, delicious restaurants and creative characters that keep the city interesting.
With a Metra stop right off the square, it’s easy and convenient for visitors to reach the city.
“Being on the train line allows residents easy access to the city in a little over an hour, and it also allows people in the city, maybe tourists who come from elsewhere, to get on at the Ogilvie station and step off the train to shop, eat, go to a movie, go to a play and have a good time,” Harris says. “Especially in this day and age, when people are looking for experiences, it’s both an easy drive and an even easier train ride.”
One of the most unique, must-visit shops in town is Read Between the Lynes, a combination bookstore, coffee shop and candy store.
“It’s also the town visitors center,” says Rodney Paglialong, business owner with Promote Woodstock. “Arlene Lynes, the owner, is a perfect example of someone who embodies the creative, independent feel of Woodstock.”
From cute stationery and bestselling books to tasty treats, Read Between the Lynes has plenty of items that make great gifts. It’s also a place to easily pass time, Paglialong says.
Right next door, Dave’s Woodstock Music provides visitors with the opportunity to have jam sessions on a regular basis. Owner Dave Schmidt sells acoustic guitars, banjos, ukuleles, mandolins and harmonicas, along with a plethora of accessories for these instruments. People are welcome to see, touch and play the instruments in a cozy environment.
“When you buy a guitar, you want to get one that speaks to you,” Schmidt says. “There’s an emotional connection involved. We have a laid-back, comfy atmosphere so people can jam and figure out what works for them.”
Dave’s Woodstock Music started as a web-based company, but Schmidt moved to the square about three years ago when he saw a renaissance of people wanting to buy from local businesses.
“Woodstock is a heavily artistic area with a vibrant music scene, and the square is the heart of all of that,” Schmidt says. “There are always concerts indoors and outdoors, covering all genres. That’s why we enjoy being here.”
Just a few doors away, the wafting smell of chocolate draws you to Ethereal Confections. Co-owner Mary Ervin is proud to run the only small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Illinois.
“That means we buy cocoa beans, hand sort them, roast them to the perfect temperature, crack them open and grind the cocoa nibs into chocolate,” Ervin says. “We use that chocolate to make all our confections and desserts. It’s a pretty cool thing to have that right here in Woodstock.”
The atmosphere of Ethereal Confections is comfortable and cozy, where people can meet with friends and family or have business meetings. Besides confections, the chocolate shop has an attached cafe where patrons can enjoy tea, coffee, hot cocoa, cocktails, wine, beer, desserts, chocolate and small plates.
Every month, Ethereal Confections picks a spirit, wine or beer to pair with its chocolates. There’s also a bean-to-bar class coming up this January and March, and a confections-making class just before Valentine’s Day.
“People love coming to our store to get something that is made right here in Woodstock,” Ervin says. “The fact that something is chocolate makes it even better. I love the community in Woodstock, plus, what’s a charming square without a hometown chocolate store?”
New to the square this year, Burseth Farm connects city and country with its line of goat milk products. The shop carries 47 varieties of soap, in addition to lotions, scrubs, cremes and goat-based dairy products for those who are lactose intolerant.
Brothers Derek and Gavin Burseth hand-make the goat-milk soap in small batches at their nearby farm. They use a recipe they developed themselves.
Their mom, Cheryl Burseth, helps out in the store.
“Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers,” Cheryl says. “There are so many people with skin conditions who come here saying they’ve tried everything else. It’s important to us to make nice products that moisturize your skin. And, even though you can order our products online, people come from great distances just to smell all the soaps.”
There’s also a little boutique in the corner of the store where Cheryl purposefully maintains a small selection of items. Lacey shirts, ponchos with sleeves – it’s important to Cheryl that nothing looks ordinary.
Swinging around to the next side of the square, Green Box Boutique has a wide selection of eco-friendly and fair-trade items. Being “green” isn’t just a trend for owner Connie Citarelli. She’s been an advocate of protecting the environment for many years, starting with her own organic herb garden.
Citarelli sources items both locally and internationally, with a mission to find products that are stylish, purposeful and thoughtful, whether it’s clothing, accessories, home decor or wine.
“In selecting our vendors, we hold true to our standards,” Citarelli says. “We are committed to fair trade, organic and affordable products.”
The list of trendy, exciting places to explore continues on and on. Woodstock Harley Davidson is a big attraction located a few miles south of the square, while Classic Cinemas, which owns the Woodstock Theater just off the square, shows films old and new in a fully restored architectural treasure.
“The interior and ceiling of the theater are pretty spectacular,” says Mike Turner, council member with Promote Woodstock. “And, Harley Davidson is all about being independent, which fits quite nicely with the independent streak of the city.”
Shopping and dining go hand-in-hand, and the square has an assortment of delicious dining options. Taqueria La Placita is a top choice for quality Mexican food, while D.C. Cobb’s, a restaurant and bar, is renowned for its inventive burgers.
One of the more unique options is the Public House of Woodstock, a stylish restaurant that recently moved into the former jail in the city’s historic courthouse.
“You can actually eat lunch and dinner behind bars,” Turner says.
The menu spans from filet mignon and prime rib to sandwiches, wraps, gourmet burgers and homemade soups. Owner Kathryn Loprino is grateful to be in Woodstock and thankful for the loyal customers who support the restaurant.
“The square provides a beautiful backdrop coming to work every day,” Loprino says. “I think Woodstock is the quintessential Midwestern town.”
The Woodstock Opera House
The crown jewel of the city is the Woodstock Opera House. With 417 seats, the theater is configured in such a way that the farthest seat is only about 50 feet away from the stage.
Built in 1889, the opera house was originally used as a town library, council room, justice court and fire department, with a second-floor auditorium.
“It was very fashionable in the late Victorian period for government buildings to have an auditorium,” says John Scharres, managing director. “They didn’t build auditoriums in high schools back then, so people graduated on this stage and were recognized by the community.”
Many celebrities have graced the Opera House’s stage, including Paul Newman, Tom Bosley, Betsey Palmer, Geraldine Page, Shelley Berman and Lois Nettleton. Famous actor, director, writer and producer Orson Welles made his theater debut at the opera house.
“This is the kind of place that they would have hired Mark Twain to come in and tell his stories,” Scharres says.
However, anyone from the community can rent the historic building for private use – whether it’s for a wedding, memorial service or education seminar.
Scharres has been involved with the Opera House for almost 40 years. One of his fondest memories occurred when actor Ed Asner was in town.
“He did the voice for the elder man in the movie ‘Up,’” Scharres says. “We took Ed out to dinner, and there were kids at another table who recognized his voice from the movie and ran over to talk to him. Ed impersonated the character for them and you should have seen how much the kids laughed. It was great to have him in town.”
Scharres believes the Opera House adds to the quality of life for Woodstock residents. Two resident community theater companies, a community dance company and a fine arts association utilize the stage for artistic pursuits.
Visitors have the opportunity to see a great example of period architecture while enjoying entertainment.
“We’ve put a lot of effort, time and money into preserving the structure,” Scharres says. “The community is very supportive of this facility. Some are even quite passionate about it.”
What’s Going On in Woodstock?
Visitors and residents alike can experience a long list of unique and exciting events in Woodstock.
The city enjoys kicking off the holiday season with one of its most popular annual events: the lighting of the town square. Nearly 5,000 people gather to witness the moment when the lights come on.
“This tradition occurs every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving,” Harris says. “The carolers are out, hot chocolate and apple cider are served, the restaurants and stores are open, and then, when it gets dark, the entire city counts down as the mayor flips the switch to light the square. It’s that quintessential old-time community celebration.”
Once the square is lit, Woodstock has no shortage of holiday events. Through Dec. 16, artists from across McHenry County bring their best holiday gingerbread houses to display at the Old Courthouse Arts Center. Throughout December, visitors can stop by the Woodstock Opera House to see some of the biggest and brightest Christmas trees in the area, or catch a performance of Judith Svalander Dance Theater’s production of “The Nutcracker.” Free horse-drawn carriage rides happen in the square every weekend in December.
Come the first weekend in February, Woodstock goes all out to celebrate Groundhog Day.
“The film ‘Groundhog Day,’ with Bill Murray, was filmed here about 25 years ago,” Harris says. “To remember that, the city has a celebration across a couple of days. People get dressed up in the old top hats – they look like they just stepped out of the movie. There are people who re-create scenes, there are tours of where scenes were shot, and, of course, they bring a groundhog out to see if it sees its shadow.”
Woodstock’s Winter Farmer’s Market occurs twice a month at the nearby McHenry County Fairgrounds. Fresh produce, baked goods, handmade arts and crafts, and unique vendor items all contribute to make the market one of the top-ranked in Illinois.
Discover more information on city events at realwoodstock.com.
With a thriving arts and cultural scene established, Woodstock’s next priority is to increase its population.
“The population is around 25,000 residents, and we’d like to see it grow to 30,000 or 35,000 in a responsible manner,” says Maureen Larson, council member with Promote Woodstock. “We’re in McHenry County, so we don’t need to get too big too fast. There’s a rural culture here, a small-town community feel, a sense of history, charm and place, so we want to grow, but do it at a steady pace.”
As property values and sales tax revenues increase along with the number of visitors, Larson feels hopeful that Woodstock can reach its goal. In the past year, new projects have infused more than $32 million into local businesses, with about 15 new businesses opening and an estimated 164 new jobs created. Equalized assessed values are also up in Woodstock for the first time in about six years.
“Homes are affordable and there’s a great mix of housing stock,” Larson says. “You’ve got homes that are newer, and then you’ve got homes that were built in the 1800s – beautiful, old Victorian homes in classic neighborhoods. There are terrific schools, terrific arts programs, and it’s all very close to the square.”
More than anything, it’s the creative, artistic people that Larson finds striking about the city.
“Whether it’s writing, film, photography or music, there are a lot of creative people out here,” Larson says. “This city is rich with wonderful opportunities.”