Saturday, August 10, 2019

Fox River Picnic Grove (Amusement Park) in Fox River Grove, Illinois. (1900 to Mid-1970s)

In the 1850s and early 1860s, Indian tribes camped in the rolling hills south of the Fox River. The women traded beadwork and purses with local settlers, and the men trapped muskrat and mink and sold the pelts in nearby Barrington. The men also made fenceposts for local farmers in exchange for being allowed to camp on their land during the winter. When spring came, they packed up their belongings on sleds and traveled north on the frozen river to their summer lands in Wisconsin.

In 1869, Frank Opatrny purchased 80 acres of land on the southern shore of the Fox River. In the 1870s, city dwellers from Chicago began to discover the pleasures of hunting and fishing along the Fox River, and the region developed a reputation as an ideal vacation spot. Cottages and small resorts were built, and many people who came to the area during the summer enjoyed it so much that they became full-time residents.

Frank's son Eman Opatrny bought the land from his father in 1900. The area's resort trade was booming and country picnics were very much in fashion. Eman decided to transform the family homestead into a pleasant picnic area, and the Fox River Picnic Grove was born.

Eman Opatrny built several cottages and a restaurant near the shore. He installed boat docks, set up a picnic area with shelters, and planted 2,200 trees. He built a railroad spur track directly to the park, hired a promoter, and convinced the railroad to run special excursion trains from the city. 
In 1902, a luxury hotel was built on the hill. Known as the Castle Pavilion and Resort Hotel, this building featured windows displayed during Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.
The Castle Pavilion and Resort Hotel.
It contained the area's first player piano, as well as a dance floor where dances were held regularly. According to a 1914 guidebook published by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, the Castle Pavilion had accommodations for 60 guests.
The Grove Dance Pavilion.
Many improvements were added to the picnic grove during the 1900s. They included a large restaurant, six bars, and numerous refreshment stands. Recreational items included a shooting gallery, dance platform, bowling alley, boathouse, photo gallery, rowboat rental, horse track, steam-powered excursion boat, and baseball fields. During the 1910s, motion pictures were shown in the Castle Pavilion. The 1900s were peak years for the picnic grove. It was a popular destination for company picnics and weekend visitors from the city. The spur track brought as many as 22 trainloads of visitors each weekend.

Many of the buildings in the Picnic Grove were destroyed by fire in 1918, but the Picnic Grove remained open through the 1920s and 1930s. The spur track was removed and with most of the attractions that visitors enjoyed in the early 1900s were no longer present, it remained a popular spot for picnics. During this time, the park was referred to as Opatrny's Woods and Opatrny's Grove.
Opatrny's Grove from the opposite shore. 
Built in 1923 and first known as the Fox River Grove Pavilion and Cernocky's Pavilion before finally being named the Crystal Ballroom was an eight-sided dance hall adorned with a flashing electric sign at the top, showing a golden pheasant with many colors.
The Crystal Ballroom at Fox River Grove.
The spur track was removed, and although most of the attractions that visitors enjoyed in the 1900s were no longer present, it was still a popular spot for picnics. Visitors also enjoyed swimming, boating, baseball, and dancing at the pavilion. Cottages were available for longer visits.

In 1939 a fire of suspicious origin broke out in the ballroom so a night watchman was placed on guard while the fire was being investigated. A week later, six men came during the night, and while four of them saturated the ballroom with kerosene, the other two abducted the night watchman and a visiting fire marshal at gunpoint. They fled in their cars and drove towards Barrington, Illinois while two bombs were detonated in the ballroom. The captives were released near Palatine, Illinois. The resulting fire from the explosions gutted the ballroom but didn't damage the roof or the adjoining shops. The interior of the ballroom was repaired, but the ballroom never reopened for dancing.
Motor Boats.
The Grove Belle.
In 1942, the Picnic Grove land was purchased by Louis, Jr., and Clara Cernocky. Louis was a successful local businessman and Clara was the daughter of Eman Opatrny. Cernocky improved the Picnic Grove with the addition of amenities including a dance pavilion and air-conditioned cocktail lounge, refreshment stands, outdoor fireplaces, a bathhouse, restrooms, a baseball diamond, and a 300-foot sand beach. Also added was a kiddie park called Funland, featuring a 10 seat Ferris wheel, their major attraction, and a handful of carnival-type kiddie rides. The "Tunnel of Love," was a favorite for couples of all ages. The "Krazy Movie Pop Corn Stand" also sold snacks and beverages. Louis dubbed the park "40 acres of paradise." 

In 1947, dances were held at the pavilion every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.
These images are from a circa 1960 brochure.
In the 1960s, the Grove Belle Showboat was available for excursions on the Fox River. Groups of 40 or more could hire the boat for private two-hour trips. Music, dancing, drinks, and food were optional.
Grove Belle Showboat.
Additional acreage was purchased in the early 1960s. A ski hill was established, complete with two rope tows, a vertical drop of 145 feet, and a ski shop. This came to be known as the Barberry Hills Ski Area. The two ropes and the ski shop are gone, but the hill is still a popular winter destination as a sledding hill.
Fox River Grove, Illinois, Chicago & Northwestern R.R. Depot. 1961
The Grove Marina opened in 1961. This building featured a restaurant, cocktail lounge, live entertainment, boat launch, marine supplies, and boat slips for rent. Lifeguards were always on-duty.
Louis Cernocky retired from the picnic grove business in 1966. He entered into an agreement for deed with a developer doing business as Barberry Hills Inc. The park, ski hill, and marina retained their names and continued much as they had before. Operation of the Grove Marina lounge and restaurant was taken over by Wilbert Hanke and Eldon Chewning, who had recently opened the Branded Steak House in Crystal Lake.

The new developer planned to build a hotel on the property, and the agreement stipulated that a major hotel chain such as Hilton or Holiday Inn would make a suitable tenant. However, these plans fell through.

The ski hill and picnic grove remained open until the early 1970s when they fell into disuse. The Grove Marina stayed in business until being destroyed by fire in the mid-1970s.

The land changed hands several times between 1976 and 1993 but remained unused. In 1987, a proposal to build a Holiday Inn on the property and rename it Holiday On The Fox stalled when the developer passed away before plans could be completed.

In 1994, a state grant and an agreement with a new developer made it possible for the village of Fox River Grove to purchase 40 acres along the river. The rest of the land was sold to Picnic Grove LP and became the Picnic Grove Subdivision. The plat was recorded and the first lots were sold in 1995.

Today, the 40 acres owned by the village are known as Picnic Grove Park. It is one of the last remaining public areas on the Fox River. It contains a playground, picnic shelter, gazebo, boat docks, boat launch, grills, picnic tables, and a sledding hill. The only traces of the park's former life are the original roadways and a concrete slab where the Grove Marina once was located. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor, Lisa Cummings


  1. I spent many days here with family and picnics in the 50's. thanks for the memories.

  2. I grew up there as a kid, we lived next to the Picnic grove thru 5th grade and what a riot. We'd jump the fence and head over to the carnival rides and play all day finding tickets on the ground and picking up trash to get tickets for rides. We hung at the marina where I had a monster crush on Linda Weber and Linda ? happens now. But we cleaned and gassed up free rides in the fast ones for cleaning them. We delivered papers to the Mob guys in the pavilion and guest picnicking and picked up trash. During the winter we skied and suicide tobogganed the the hills before there were lifts....hall ass down and if you didnt hurt to bad after the crash at the bottom ....walk back up and do it again all day and night and head home... man we got beat up at times....Fun Times!!! Thanks for posting this article it brought back some great memories!!

    1. It was 1960 and my parents who were racetrackers (my dad was a jockey) rented a cabin at The Grove for the race meet. A few of the other racetrackers also rented cabins. I remember when the Park closed at night the big gate would be locked and we had keys to get in. So, in other words we lived inside of the Fox River Grove picnic grounds. We walked out our front door of the cabin and just across the grass to the amusement park and evenings after the races were over my parents would have cocktails and dance at the nightclub. I was 10 and it seemed like a magical place to live. ❤️

    2. Are you Maria Cassidy? My parents ran the restaurant in the Pavillion and sold Broasted Chicken! We spent the entire summer there in 1960. What a fun time. We lived in one of the cabins also. I remember that we had company every weekend that entire summer. I remember those great Chris Craft mahogany runabout boats racing all over the river.

    3. I delivered the local paper to L. Cernocky at the picnic grove, always good for a nice tip.


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