ROCHELLE — In the 1960s and 1970s, the site on which Hickory Grove and the Comfort Inn currently sit was called the Vagabond Inn.
“It was quite the place and resort,” Former Rochelle Mayor Chet Olson said. “Busloads of people from the city would go there from Chicago to enjoy it. For a town of 10,000, it was a big resort.”
John W. Tilton purchased the 5-acre property for $80,000 earlier in 1954 when it was a motel and a separate restaurant. Tilton constructed a building over the two to connect them, but in 1970 a fire destroyed the restaurant. In 1982, the building had another fire, which started in the attic area that quickly spread through the roof and ceilings.
“Long story short, the owner went bankrupt and it was dormant for years,” Olson said. “The bankers that were invested took over the hotel part. For the Hickory Grove section, a group was created to develop a civic center in March 1984.
Olson was added to that group and it started raising money. It applied for a $2.5 million grant, but the City of Rochelle wasn’t large enough for the board to accept the grant through. It was able to accept the grant through Ogle County, a larger governing body. That grant made the board able to renovate the Hickory Grove building into what it is today.
In Feb. 1986, the board was certified for the grant, the money for which came from state race track revenues. The facility was renovated and the board oversaw the project. The county created the Ogle County Civic Center Authority board after that, which would oversee the Hickory Grove building until the city bought it for demolition in 2020.
Olsen continued as part of the OCCCA board. The OCCCA board had no taxing authority and its volunteer board members got tenants for the building to bring in revenue. The building was named Hickory Grove after a previous name the City of Rochelle went by.
Different tenants came and went from the facility. For a time, the hotel operators next door ran the health club, restaurant and Hickory Grove. After that, a company called Southpoint ran it for 10 years. The Flagg-Rochelle Community Park District ran the health club for a time after Southpoint and Abraham’s Bar & Grill came into the facility as a tenant until Hickory Grove closed.
Robin Baldwin Gounaris started managing the Hickory Grove facility in March 2005. In her time, it included three floors with four banquet rooms, a dance room, wine bar, a regular bar, kitchen and restaurant plus a tiki bar.
With the building’s deterioration, Baldwin Gounaris dealt with issues including plumbing, appliances, heating and air conditioning and leaks from the roof. The only money that OCCCA (the landlord) received came from the rent she paid. Every penny the board received went back in to try and improve Hickory Grove.
Olson said there was “just never enough” money to keep up with the building’s problems. Grant money dried up and the OCCCA board applied for, but never got more.
Baldwin said her “entire focus” in 2010 became how to save Hickory Grove.
“I voiced my opinion quite a bit,” Baldwin Gounaris said. “The town thought that I owned the building because it had become my home. My blood and tears are on those walls, as I went after everything I could think of. I was the first bar in town to carry slot machines, as I knew it would help financially. It was hard trying to make people understand that I was inside a building that no one wanted.”
After spending 15 years trying to save Hickory Grove, Baldwin Gounaris couldn’t keep up with the costs of the deteriorating building. When the city stepped in to buy the building to demolish it, she knew it was time to say goodbye.
“I do not miss the issues I dealt with on a daily basis but I do miss the people of this town,” Baldwin Gounaris said. “I’d like to remember Hickory Grove as a place where I met a lot of amazing people who I now call friends. I will apologize to Hickory Grove when she is brought down, but I did my best to save her and will toast to a new future in her spot.”
Around the time the city purchased Hickory Grove, it had an engineer come in and look at what it would take to save the building. It would have cost between $4 million and $5 million to get everything back in shape to be open for another 20 years or so, Olson said.
“We weren’t able to raise that kind of money,” Olson said. “It could’ve been saved if somebody wanted to step in and pay all that. But it just needed so much work.”
Despite Hickory Grove being a “tough project to keep afloat,” Olson said putting in his time over the years on the building was “very enjoyable.” He thanked all of the tenants over the years like Baldwin Gounaris for their efforts and treating it like a home. The OCCCA board held on to the building as long as it could, the former mayor said.
Olson will remember Hickory Grove as a focal point in Rochelle. Before places like The REC Center, the facility was the only place with an indoor pool and health club not just in town, but in the nearby area. Olson thanked the city for what it’s doing now with the ongoing demolition,
“It will be a sad day when it comes down,” Olson said. “There’s a lot of sweat, tears and money in that facility. It’s time. It’s a building that aged out.”