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.|
|The Grove Dance Pavilion.|
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.|
|The Crystal Ballroom at Fox River Grove.|
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.
|The Grove Belle.|
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.|
|Fox River Grove, Illinois, Chicago & Northwestern R.R. Depot. 1961|
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