Once the family estate of a Chicago newspaper magnate, then a Presbyterian camp and retreat center, Stronghold Castle now prepares to enter a new era as its own independent entity.
For almost 90 years, Stronghold has been a landmark on the banks of the Rock River, the castle on the hill, full of history and mystery. Since 1962, it has served as a church camp and retreat center, mostly for Presbyterians. But plans are afoot to transform the wooded site into a nonprofit organization, able to sustain itself without underwriting by the Presbyterian Church, open to all.
“We will still be a Presbyterian camp and retreat center, that’s our heritage,” says Dr. Danny Pierce, executive director at Stronghold. “But we’ll have a new board of directors, including members from the community who are interested in joining our journey. Stronghold is about to move into its third life cycle.”
According to Pierce, many churches nationwide have dwindling and aging populations, so they don’t have the financial resources to continue to support camps. When the separation at Stronghold occurs, all property, buildings, equipment and furnishings will belong to the nonprofit. The separation allows Stronghold to seek grants unavailable to the Church, and it also separates liability should the Church be sued for any reason.
Pierce is a former college professor at Maryville College in Tennessee who was brought to Illinois in 2016 to manage the transition from private to public institution.
“When people question my decision to leave a college professorship to come here and do this, I tell them it’s because they offered me the keys to the castle!”
The Strong Legacy
Walter A. Strong was born in Chicago in 1883. His parents separated when he was 13, so he and his brother, Ralph, moved into the West Side YMCA where they lived until 1900. After school and during summers, Walter worked for the Chicago Daily News, which was owned by Victor Lawson, the husband of Walter’s father’s first cousin. Lawson looked after Walter and his brother when they were homeless.
Following high school, Walter earned an engineering degree from Lewis Institute before attending Beloit College, graduating with the class of 1905. While at Beloit, he participated in several extracurricular activities, including journalism and athletics. In fact, he organized Beloit’s first basketball team, and later became a trustee of the College.
In 1930, Walter proposed that his alma mater build an athletic stadium, and showed his fellow trustees a scale model of his idea. In 1934, Strong Memorial Stadium was built in his honor, with funds provided by his widow from his estate.
Strong’s newspaper career started in 1905, when he went to work in the business and marketing departments of the Daily News. In 1913, he married Josephine Webster, daughter of the founder of Webster Manufacturing Company, and together they raised five children: Walter Jr., Jonathan, Robert, Anne and David, while living in Winnetka, Ill. Strong swiftly rose through the ranks, and after Lawson’s death in 1925, he assembled a group of investors to purchase the paper for $14 million – the highest ever paid for a newspaper at the time.
To mark the transition in leadership, Strong initiated the construction of a new Daily News building in 1927, located over the Northwestern Railroad tracks next to the Chicago River. The building was 26 stories high, and featured an art deco design. Today, the building is known simply as 2 North Riverside Plaza. During dedication ceremonies in 1929, President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington, D.C., that started the presses rolling in Chicago.
During his tenure as publisher, Strong and his newspaper supported efforts to elect Chicago officials who would pursue and convict corrupt politicians and underworld criminals, including Al Capone. Capone’s eventual arrest and conviction was in part the result of Strong’s personal appeal to President Hoover. Capone’s trial ended two months after Strong’s death in 1931.
Strong’s guiding principle, as stated in 1926, was, “Tell the people all the facts truly and impartially, and abide by the results.”
In 1928, Strong bought 360 acres of wooded property along the west bank of the Rock River just north of Oregon, Ill., with the intention of constructing a summer home for his growing family. The property was just south of Bee Tree Farm, where Josephine’s family often summered. Her brother, architect Maurice Webster, was asked to design the buildings.
“The original building concept was to resemble a large barn and silo – the curved roof still reflects the barn,” says Pierce.
Influenced by Strong’s visits to Europe, construction soon took on the characteristics of a French or Tudor castle. From the crenellated rooflines to the suit of armor in the castle entryway, Strong’s interest in the age of chivalry and mystery is apparent throughout the building. Limestone from two quarries on the property was used to construct the walls and the massive fireplaces within.
The Strong family dedicated the property with a lavish party at Thanksgiving in 1929, but construction was not completed until the following summer, for a cost of $85,000. The castle complex consists of three interconnected buildings and originally contained 16 bedrooms, nine baths, eight fireplaces and several secret passageways.
The north wing was originally the carriage house, with a garage below and servants’ quarters above. The south wing was the guest house, and later a favorite getaway for the Strong boys. In addition to bedrooms, the main building contains a Great Hall modeled after a medieval banquet room where meals were cooked over an open hearth.
“To simulate age and usage, Mr. Strong had the wood paneling stained with coffee grounds and the library fireplace hood beaten with rusty chains,” says Pierce.
The library contains a secret entrance behind a bookshelf, which leads to a chapel over the guest house. The chapel remained unfinished while the Strong family lived there, but was finally completed in 1975 by members of the Middle Creek Church of Winnebago.
“They raised the funds, had church pews constructed proportional to the room, and installed the stained glass window,” says Pierce. “There’s also a door with a fold-up stairway under the carpet, which we hope to open up again. Stronghold is going to be featured in a new book called ‘The Secret Passages in Great American Homes,’ by Dr. Tom Mahl. He’s already visited Stronghold and taken photos.”
Mr. Strong insisted that his dining room table be constructed entirely from one tree. The final dimensions, 20 by 6 feet, required that the east wall of the dining room remain unfinished until the table was installed. Its weight of more than 1000 pounds caused the floor to sag, so installation was delayed until the basement ceiling could be reinforced.
The five-story tower contains a cantilevered spiral stairway leading to an observation room at the top. There, windows reveal spectacular views up and down the Rock River. Loredo Taft’s “Eternal Indian” statue across the river from Oregon was visible when the tower was built, but now is hidden by trees.
“A flagpole used to sit on top of the tower,” says Pierce. “When the Strongs were home and welcomed guests, the flag was flown. When absent or wanting to be left alone, the flag was taken down.”
The Strong family’s first summer in their new home in 1930 was also Walter’s last – he died in May 1931 from a sudden heart attack. Josephine and the children continued to spend their summers at Stronghold for the next 30 years. A classic theatre group from Chicago often came to the castle to perform Shakespearian plays in the authentic setting. A young Charleton Heston was a member.
In the summer of 1932, Josephine Strong hired an unemployed Russian artist from Chicago named Nicholas Kaissakoff to decorate parts of the castle. He created a fresco on the walls of the tower depicting Grimm’s fairy tale about Rumpelstiltskin, and incorporated the faces of Mrs. Strong, Maurice Webster, himself, and several family pets into the painting. He also decorated the ceiling of the library in a mock-medieval style.
“I just got an email from Dr. John E. Bowlt, professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Southern California,” says Pierce. “He is doing research on Russian artists who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century, and asked about our murals.”
Enter the Presbyterians
After Josephine’s death in 1961, the Strong children, by then scattered throughout the country, decided to sell the property. The Presbytery of Blackhawk of PC (USA), an association of 75 Presbyterian congregations throughout north and central Illinois, purchased the property in 1962 for $125,000, and by the next summer, a new Stronghold Camp opened up the castle and grounds to nearly 100 youths.
Originally just a summer camp housed almost entirely in the castle, Stronghold has grown during the past 56 years into a four-season retreat and camping center. During this time, the Presbyterians constructed five modern buildings and 12 rustic cabins to house guests, provide dining and meeting spaces, and offices for staff.
In addition to the castle, which can accommodate 56 overnight guests, there are six other retreat houses with sleeping quarters for six to 36 persons, including the bunkhouse (former guest house) and the carriage house. Some buildings have kitchen facilities. The Heritage Lodge contains hotel-style rooms and sleeps up to 32 persons. The Brubaker Center houses administration offices, meeting spaces, a complete commercial kitchen and a dining hall/multipurpose room with seating for up to 200 people.
“We just hired an executive chef,” says Pierce. “In addition to improving our menu for banquets, luncheons and weddings, we plan to begin a catering service in the near future.”
The camping season runs for six weeks, from June 7 through July 28 this year, and contains a variety of programs for kindergartners through high school students.
“Our church summer camp is the heartbeat of Stronghold, and has been our ‘calling’ from day one,” says the Rev. John Rickard, general presbyter. “We will have around 300 campers here this summer. We also host Camp Chicago, an Episcopalian Camp, which will bring another 200 kids to our property.”
While Stronghold camps are open to youths from any faith group, there is a definite Christian component central to the programming, including Bible study and worship experiences. Participants are made aware of this during registration.
Intergenerational camps include Grandcamp, for grandparents and their grandchildren, and Family Camp, which includes all ages for a weekend experience.
A tiered pricing schedule allows parents to pay what they can afford for their campers. Four levels assure that most everyone can find a level right for their budget, and brochure literature assures that “all campers receive the same Stronghold experience, no matter what they pay.”
“We also run a Traveling Day Camp,” says Rickard. “We bring our curriculum and counselors to parishes throughout the region, both Presbyterian and others, and run our day camp at their site.”
“And we have a long history of bringing international counselors to work in our summer programs,” says Pierce. “It’s a great fit for people who want to come to America and work here in a safe environment.”
Many agree that Walter Strong obtained a beautiful tract of Illinois forest in 1928, and it has remained relatively intact since then. In 2013, Applied Ecological Services in Brodhead, Wis., conducted an environmental inventory. Led by Susan Lehnhardt, project director, the presence of hilltop prairie, oak savanna, a bog and natural springs was documented, among other features.
“We’re a transitional area for forests,” says Rickard, “since we’re located at the southern end of where Northern White Pines grow. Our environmental education program is called SOLAR: Stronghold Outdoor Learning Activities Resources. Last year it included a local naturalist, Tim Benedict, who conducted two mushroom forages in our woods.”
In recent years, Stronghold has joined a consortium of other camps in the region, including Lorado Taft Campus (NIU), White Pines Ranch, Lutheran Outdoor Ministry Center, Camp Lowden (Boy Scouts of America), Reynoldswood and Camp Kupugani.
“We each have our niche, but we support one another,” says Pierce. “We can share equipment, staff and booking information.”
The annual Confirmation Retreat has a long history at Stronghold. The weekend event invites confirmation class members from a wide area to join with other youths and church leaders to work on group projects, team-building and worship. This year’s event takes place Feb. 22 to 24.
Since the 1980s, non-Presbyterian and secular groups have occasionally rented the facilities at Stronghold for various activities, but such availability was not necessarily promoted. Administrators hope to encourage and expand this population in the future.
“Early on, you had to be a Presbyterian in order to use the property,” recalls Pierce, “but that’s no longer the case. We are open to serve the public.”
Administrators estimate that Presbyterians currently constitute about one-third of the visitors to Stronghold. Another third are non-Presbyterian religious groups and the rest are secular groups that utilize the facilities.
“Some families rent the entire castle for their own private Thanksgiving, Christmas or other family reunions,” says Pierce. “And some groups have been coming here for 30 years on the same weekend.”
“Last year, we started hosting weddings again and are already booked for 2019,” says Kristine Johnson Grogan, reservation coordinator, guest service manager and event planner at Stronghold. “We now have assigned weekends for weddings. It’s become a destination location, since guests can stay overnight on property while they attend the wedding celebration.”
One popular program for both secular and religious groups has been the Stronghold Challenge Course. Intended to promote team-building skills as well as individual self-confidence, the courses consist of the Leap of Faith, a Giant Swing, team-building elements, and the high ropes course, with platforms 30 feet above the ground to take the participants out of their comfort zone and experience success beyond their normal activities. The high ropes course concludes with a 450-foot zip line through the woods.
Stronghold has hosted a national rug-hooking convention, murder mystery dinners, Elderhostel programs and an “Axles at the Castle” bike race last year.
For more than 25 years, Stronghold has hosted an Olde English Faire, held the first full weekend in October, which coincides with Oregon’s Autumn on Parade festival.
“The Guild of St. George, a medieval reenactment group from the greater Chicago area, takes over the castle for the weekend,” says Rickard. “Food vendors, performers and other entertainers draw around 4,200 people, depending on the weather.”
While most outdoor activities take place in the warmer months, Stronghold has become a year-round setting for college, high school and family reunions, business banquets, senior center tours, holiday parties and retreats. Its total annual attendance is more than 12,000, and there are hopes of expanding that number as it becomes self-sustaining.
“We’ve had three films shooting out here so far, plus two TV commercials,” says Pierce. “John P. Tomasek of Distant Star Pictures from Chicago recently came out to work on a new film project utilizing the castle. It’s a unique place with great optics.”
In addition to year-round administration staff, Stronghold employs a maintenance staff and a food preparation staff, which fluctuates in size according to the level of activity present on campus. It also has developed a core of volunteers to help run, maintain and improve the property. This February, a restoration project to repair some of the buildings was organized. Local craftsmen were brought in to instruct and lead the process. Pierce is also seeking grants to finance restoration projects inside the castle.
“We’re always available for service groups looking for work, such as scouts, schools, people in need of community service hours,” says Pierce. “We can always use more volunteers.”
While its emphasis is catering to group activities and events, Stronghold is available for small group and individual tours of the castle and other facilities, by appointment, anytime it’s not rented.
And the Future?
Administrators estimate they probably need a 20 percent growth in attendance to become self-sustaining by 2020. In addition, Pierce is actively seeking to establish a network of donors.
“I think there’s an untapped potential of donors who are waiting to see if our transition is successful,” he says.
To that end, the Stronghold staff is hosting a public event on Saturday, March 9, to re-introduce the facilities to the local community. It will be a “small plate” affair, with hors d’oeuvres and several speakers, held in Brubaker Center.
“Walter Strong’s great-grandson, Howard Strong, will be one of the speakers,” says Pierce. “John Rickard will talk about the past 56 years as part of the Presbytery, and I will talk about the vision we have for the future.”
Also planned is a Mother’s Day Brunch on May 12, followed by a tour of the castle. People can sign up through the Oregon Park District.
“Every day, we have new people inquiring about us,” says reservation coordinator Johnson Grogan. “People need to know about us, why we’re here. We have a strong future.”
“It’s a common experience that something special happens to people who come here,” says Rickard. “They often come up with their own word or words to describe this place. So, we invite people to come here, discover what’s your word, whatever makes this place special for you.”
Pierce adds, “We are here, we are open, we are ready to serve. Stronghold will be faithful in being ‘Active, Green and Growing’ in this third stage of our life cycle. Come join us!”