Autumn Drive Showcases Rural Living

The Woodstock area’s one-of-a-kind fall festival is back for its 28th year, with more than 23 rural destinations. Check out what’s in store for this year’s event and find out what you can discover along the trail.

In the quaint countryside surrounding Woodstock, houses and farms are separated by rolling fields and long, narrow roads. But during the third weekend of October, residents within a 3-mile radius open their barns and studios up to fun-seeking visitors — some 12,000 of them. They come in search of specialty goods like antiques and artwork, family entertainment, fresh harvests and fall fun.
This year, the 28th annual Autumn Drive will be Oct. 16-18. It offers 23 stops to explore, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., over the three-day weekend. All 23 stops are between Kishwaukee Valley Road and Route 176, and Deerpass and Dean streets. A festival map, available online and at every stop, can help attendees to locate stops by number and type. The map also includes a description and exact address for each location.
Robert Blue, the festival’s lead organizer, has been participating since the first year. His home and Blue Eagle Pottery studio, run with his wife Susan Galloway, a pottery artist, are located near the geographic center of the festival, at Garden Valley and Franklinville roads.
“I like to say the show is not an art fair, it’s not an antique show, it’s not a music festival, it’s not a farmers market – it’s all of them at once, in one spot,” says Blue. “And I think seeing the variety is part of the joy of it.”
Once confined to just Garden Valley Road, the festival has seen strong growth during its 28 years. Participating residents choose what will be offered on their properties, from art, tasty treats and other goods to activities like pumpkin launchers and corn mazes.
“We have the great advantage of living downwind of the popcorn guy,” says Galloway. “He has the best kettle corn in Northern Illinois, and we get the smell of it all weekend long.”
Many residents host exhibitors like entertainers and nonprofits, thereby expanding their stop’s offerings.
“One of the things we like about the show is that it’s not only neighbor helping neighbor, but we also try to give back to the community,” says Blue.
At the Blue Eagle Pottery stop, Blue and Galloway host outdoor booths for other crafters and nonprofits such as Helping Paws and the Woodstock High School Dance Team. This gives the nonprofits a chance to fundraise and promote their causes.
The festival highlights one type of vendor each year; this year’s theme is antiques.
Joe and Lois Grasser, the husband-and-wife team behind the festival’s largest antique vendor, have been renovating furniture and other antiques for almost 40 years. Every year during Autumn Drive, their 5,000-square-foot barn brims with renovated furniture, jewelry and trunks, some dating to the 1800s. A “Kitchen Corner” includes a collection of 1940s and ’50s kitchenware and cookbooks. This year, Grasser plans to prepare more than 125 pieces to sell.
“It’s a great festival,” says Grasser. “It started with a lot of Chicago patrons visiting, but now we’re seeing more local residents come out.”
There are seven antique vendors selling a variety of antiques, such as car memorabilia, niche decor and collectibles.
The festival has become so popular that organizers are forced to turn down interested vendor participants living outside the current boundaries. Blue and Galloway often encourage others to start their own neighborhood collaboration or ask one of the current Autumn Drive participants to host them on their property.
“We’re about as big as we want to get,” says Blue. “It’s a lot of traffic for a little rural town.”
The festival was started in 1987 by local watercolorist Fran Stake. Inspired by other neighborhood garage sales, she brought together residents on Garden Valley Road to show off their talents for a neighborhood weekend studio show and yard sale. Although the festival has evolved since then, the purpose has remained the same.
“When Fran started this, it was a wonderful way to meet all the neighbors,” says Blue. “And the more I met the neighbors, the more I liked the neighborhood.”
The annual festival has become a group effort, requiring several planning meetings throughout the year to prepare for each year’s changes and improvements.
“New people come in all the time,” says Galloway. “It’s very amorphous. People will move on, but other people will take their place so that every year there’s at least one or two new neighbors coming in with new things to offer.”
As a nearly 30-year tradition, Autumn Drive has transformed this small part of McHenry County into a community celebration for visitors near and far to enjoy every fall.
“The philosophy is still the same: neighbor helping neighbor, pooling our resources, coming together to show off our talents and having a really good time,” says Blue. “Not only with ourselves as a group, but showing the public a good time as well.”