The importance of the Tabernacle to the region was perhaps not fully realized until a lightning strike destroyed the original completely wooden structure in 1915. The Tabernacle, as it looks today, rose from the ashes.
The original wooden Tabernacle's replacement was built by the United Methodist Church using steel bridge girder construction to ensure that the new Tabernacle’s internal structure would stand the test of time - and it has! However, the Tabernacle was included in the 2018 Landmarks Illinois list of Most Endangered Historic Places because of disuse and exterior deterioration.
The Oakdale Tabernacle is the last of its kind in Illinois, an octagonal building with an internal support system of steel girders. The Tabernacle’s interior has always provided every attendee an unobstructed view in one of the largest auditoriums in the region.
From a historical perspective, the current Tabernacle has been standing since these other world events took place:
A lot of history has been witnessed since the current Tabernacle was constructed.
The picture from the 50th Anniversary of the Bible Conference is one of the rare pictures of the current Tabernacle. It was taken in 1949, 34 years after it was built. It appears the sides at that time lifted up.
AFTER THE FIRE: Built in 1915, the Oakdale Tabernacle was constructed with steel beams so it would last and resist the fire that destroyed the original 1895 wood structure. The directors of the Oakdale Camp Meeting Association met the day after the fire on May 25, 1915, to decide how to accommodate the large crowds expected in August for that year's camp meetings. They acted swiftly and called for clean-up days on June 1 and 2. They then quickly approved the new design. Construction then began for the new Tabernacle to be ready for the August deadline. Many other structures already existed on the grounds including a large hotel and many cottages for families. There was also a residence for a groundskeeper.
WHAT IT WAS USED FOR: Tabernacles were common. We know of one similar in Lena, and another along the Pec River near the old VFW in the Arcade part of Freeport. But the Oakdale Tabernacle was one of the largest in this area holding over 2,000 people. It was used for August sessions of the United Evangelical camp meetings. Campers listened to sermons, lectures, and musicales. In 1932, in addition to the hotel, there was a dormitory and dining hall, and by 1971, the campground had approximately 15 buildings including the auditorium, hotel, cottages, and eventually a swimming pool. The property was then owned by the Rock River Conference of the United Methodist Church, but attendance had unfortunately declined.
PARK DISTRICT ACQUISITION: The complete property was sold to the Freeport Park District in May of 1971. 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, fluorescent lighting, an automatic fire detection system, revamped plumbing, drywall, and outdoor fire escapes. The kitchen was equipped with a 50-gallon per hour dishwasher, a 3-basin work sink, a large stove, three work tables, storage cabinets, and a small clothes dryer. A large pantry off the kitchen and a 12x20 foot cooler were included.
BILL GELWICK NATURE CENTER: 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 schoolchildren visited the Nature Preserve in 1973 with more expected in 1974.
EXPANSION OF THE FOREST PRESERVE: 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 include 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 programs 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. The Northwest Illinois Audubon Society holds outdoor events at Oakdale. The Freeport Parks Foundation (a separate entity from the Park District) holds an annual Fall Fun Run in early October as a fundraiser for ash tree replacement. Until recently, a private outdoor education program for young children, Tinkergarten, had been taking place at Oakdale.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: After being closed to the public for many years, Landmarks Illinois (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.”
In the Fall of 2021, the Freeport Park District leased the Tabernacle to a non-profit that was formed to save the building. This non-profit is Save the Tabernacle Inc. To learn more about the fight to save the building you can visit the website built at that time: https://savethetabernacle.com/
Freeport is home to a unique gem whose use could be optimized to attract tourism and special events to our community including church services, 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 appreciate nature for many more years to come.