Built-in 1915, the Oakdale Tabernacle was constructed with steel beams so it would last and resist the fires that destroyed the original 1895 structure. The directors of the Oakdale Camp Meeting Association met the day after the fire, May 25, 1915, to decide how to accommodate the large crowds expected in August for the next camp meetings. They acted swiftly and called for clean up days on June 1 and 2. Large tents were used that year and the construction began for the 1915 building completion. Many other structures existed on the grounds including a large hotel and many cottages for families. There was also a residence for the groundskeeper. The tabernacle was one of the largest in this area seating over 2,000 and was used for August sessions of the United Evangelical camp meetings. Campers listened to lectures, sermons, and musicales. In 1932 there was, in addition to the hotel, a dormitory and dining hall and by 1971 the campground had approximately 15 buildings including the auditorium, hotel, cottages and a swimming pool. By this time the property was owned by the Rock River Conference of the United Methodist Church and was sold to the Freeport Park District in May of 1971. An extensive history of this era was compiled by Tyger Johnson and was placed in the History Room at the Freeport Public Library. Mr. Johnson was assisted in this effort by Faith United Methodist Church which retains many documents from this time period.
The Park District received a federal grant of $157,525 from the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation to purchase up to 406 acres of wooded land south of Freeport including Oakdale Park. Dr. Francis Tucker, Park Board President, indicated that they hoped to expand its holdings in the Oakdale area to create a major woodland park, left basically in its natural state. The plan was to use the area for nature and wildlife studies along with having a place for large groups to gather to take part in activities such as swimming, theatre studies and general recreation. Other uses, included an outdoor learning center for business workshops and seminars, summer theatre, art shows and hiking. It was to be the district’s “getting back to nature” park. In these early years the park imposed fees and reservations were required to use the facility. In 1973 the Lodge underwent a renovation of nearly $50,000 to bring it up to code so school groups could have groups spend the night for their new Outdoor Education programs. The 53-year-old building was equipped with new gas furnaces, florescent lighting, an automatic fire detection system, revamped plumbing, dry wall and outdoor fire escapes. The kitchen was equipped with a 50-gallon per hour dish washer, a 3 basin work sink, a large mail stove, 3 work tables, storage cabinets and a small clothes dryer. A large pantry off the kitchen and a 12X20 foot cooler were included.
In 1973, Mr. and Mrs. John Gelwicks donated $5,000 to develop a nature center in the name of their late son, Bill Gelwicks. The Park Board pledged to match, if not exceed, the donation. The Center was placed in the former Oakleaf Hall (Now the Stephen Mogle Nature Center) and had a weather station, special displays, a bird observation area with bird baths and feeding stations, and a self guided nature trail. Early plans also called for an apartment upstairs to house the Outdoor Education Coordinator. By September 1974, the Bill Gelwick Nature Center was dedicated. The former swimming pool was converted to an observation pond with frogs, turtles and fish for school children to examine. More than 2,000 school children visited the Nature Preserve in 1973 with more expected in 1974. In October 1988, The Jane Addamsland Park Foundation received a donation of more than 22 acres from the family of Harry Buss and his daughter, Kay Buss McNeil in honor of Ruth (Korf) Buss and Patsy Ann Buss. This addition, the former Mary Lamm tract, expands Oakdale to approximately 99 acres which includes the 50 acre former “Rotary Woods” recently acquired by the park district from the Edward Page Meyer estate. This new portion will make 20 acres of Rotary Woods, west of Crane’s Creek accessible by road.
Oakdale in October was held for many years bringing families from across the region to the Nature Preserve. Live animal demonstrations and nature activities were featured in addition to a pancake breakfast. Nature craft demonstrations were popular with many local artists showing pottery, fiber, basket weaving, spinning and dying and floral arranging. A full time Nature Specialist was reduced to part time and then eliminated entirely about 8 years ago. Few planned activities are held at Oakdale and none are sponsored directly by the Park District. The Audubon Society holds outdoor events at Oakdale as the Tabernacle has been permanently closed for over 5 years. The Park Foundation (a separate entity from the Park District) holds an annual Fall fun-run in early October as a fundraiser for ash tree replacement. Recently a private outdoor education program for young children, Tinkergarten, has been taking place at Oakdale.
In 2015 the Park Commissioners hired RATIO Architects, Inc. Applied Ecological Services to create Oakdale Nature Preserve Park Master Plan. This Plan is viewable on the Park District website. The recommendations for the “Central Area where the Tabernacle/Auditorium is located called for three phases of change and development. Phase one outlines Auditorium upgrades and removal of the lodge. The Lodge was demolished in Spring 2016. Phase two includes building a three-season shelter for 200 people including new restrooms, kitchen, and fireplace. Phase three recommends converting the three-season shelter to a four-season facility.
Maintenance of the Tabernacle had been eliminated entirely until holes in the roof were repaired in November 2017 and in 2018 boards were installed to cover the gaping holes in the sides. These repairs were done after outcry from the public. The exterior has not been painted in many years and the lightning rods are not grounded. The interior has an accumulation of animal (bat and raccoon) droppings on the floor and benches. No effort has been made to clean the interior for many years.
Dewberry Architects, Inc. was commissioned to “conduct community, staff and park board input sessions and develop concepts for the adaptive reuse of the Oakdale Auditorium”. The report completed July, 2018 is viewable on the Park District website. As part of the process, a structural analysis was conducted by Fehr Graham and showed that the building is sound but needs repairs to two of the main pilings where concrete supports the steel beams which determined to be in sound condition. The entire structure was deemed “a unique gem” by Daniel Atilano the Dewberry principal architect who wrote the “Oakdale Auditorium Master Plan dated July 17, 2018. Three options were selected by citizens and the Commissions as most desirable. The options were: * $258,00 to preserve the steel frame * $762,00 to repurpose the building as an open-air structure * $1,257,00 to restore the building.
Few planned activities are held at Oakdale and none are sponsored directly by the Park District. The Audubon Society holds outdoor events at Oakdale as the Tabernacle has been permanently closed for over 5 years. The Park Foundation (a separate entity from the Park District) holds an annual Fall fun-run in early October as a fundraiser for ash tree replacement. Recently a private outdoor education program for young children, Tinkergarten, has been taking place at Oakdale.
Landmarks Illinois (www.Landmarks.org) has placed the Oakdale Tabernacle on the 2018 list of Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois along with the Shelbyville Chautauqua Auditorium and the Waldorf Tabernacle in Des Plaines. According to Landmarks Illinois, “These structures all require maintenance and repairs in order to serve the community once again. They represent a unique part of Illinois’ history in the late 19the and early 20thcenturies, with large gathering spaces in natural settings for the public to hear sermons and educational lectures.”
Landmarks Illinois (http://www.landmarks.org) placed the Oakdale Tabernacle on the 2018 list of Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois along with the Shelbyville Chautauqua Auditorium and the Waldorf Tabernacle in Des Plaines. According to Landmarks Illinois, “These structures all require maintenance and repairs in order to serve the community once again. They represent a unique part of Illinois’ history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with large gathering spaces in natural settings for the public to hear sermons and educational lectures.” Freeport is home to a unique gem whose use could be optimized to attract tourism and special events to our community including: family and class reunions, parties, weddings, art fairs, exhibits and shows, concerts, music festivals, theater productions, flea markets, Scouting and 4-H activities, plays, summer camp programs, corporate functions, etc.) Few communities can boast of such historic places and this community is lucky to have the Tabernacle. We should cherish it, care for it and revitalize it so it can be used to gather, play, celebrate, enjoy and to appreciate nature.
Written by Jennifer Kanosky