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 Illinois Landmarks list of endangered buildings 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.
For 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.
Built in 1915, the Oakdale Tabernacle was constructed with steel beams so it would last and resist the fire 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 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 the groundskeeper. 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 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. The property was then owned by the Rock River Conference of the United Methodist Church but attendance had unfortunately declined. The complete property 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, 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, 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 schoolchildren 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 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 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. The Audubon Society holds outdoor events at Oakdale as the Tabernacle has been permanently closed for over 7 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. Until recently, a private outdoor education program for young children, Tinkergarten, had 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 the 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, a kitchen, and a 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 an 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 in 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. The building was 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:
• $258,000 to preserve the steel frame
• $762,000 to repurpose the building as an open-air structure
• $1,257,00 to restore the building.
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 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 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.
Written by Jennifer Kanosky
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