Lifelong Memories, Lasting Friendships

Biltmore Country Club celebrates 90 years of Family Fun

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story by Melanie Kalmar | Photo: April Graves

High atop a hill, overlooking the quiet waters of Honey Lake, is Barrington’s best kept secret—Biltmore Country Club—a place for families to get away and play without having to leave town. Steeped in tradition, Biltmore has something for everyone: upscale dining, golf, swimming, tennis, a private beach with its own “crown jewel” of a beach club, fishing, and themed parties that can bring out the playful side of its members.

On this, Biltmore’s 90th year in business, Quintessential Barrington looks back at the history with a little help from the people who experienced it, Biltmore’s long-time members and dedicated staff.

Biltmore looks much different today than it did in 1926, when Clifford Leonard, a director of the First National Bank of Chicago, took the 800-acre Grace Farm he purchased from English cabinetmaker William R. Grace and transformed it into Biltmore Estates and Country Club in North Barrington. The recreational opportunities—fishing, hunting, riding—and the golf course designed by renowned architect Leonard Macomber were supposed to be the big draw.

After all, it was Leonard’s dream to build a family country club. But many prospective members had other ideas in those days. They joined to drink, not tee-off on the expansive greens. It was the height of Prohibition and word spread that Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan, millionaire beer makers and distributors, were supplying Biltmore with liquor. Quick to fire a shotgun, the two men were lieutenants of infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone. In fact, the notorious Druggan was portrayed by James Cagney in William A. Wellman’s 1931 film “Public Enemy”.

Biltmore’s history was recanted in “The Biltmorean,” a newsletter from Biltmore’s early days that the club recreated for members in honor of its big milestone. Printed on yellowed paper, it featured reprints of ads from the era, minutes from Biltmore’s board meetings, human interest articles, and a menu from the restaurant. It also explained that by the late 1980s, Biltmore’s original buildings were decrepit and in the process of being torn down. In 1992, its new clubhouse and facilities opened and by 2010, the new beach house debuted with its locker rooms, indoor and alfresco dining, and full-service bar.

Lifelong Members

If he were alive today, Leonard would be happy to know that, aside from those questionable Prohibition years, Biltmore has always been exactly how he intended it to be, a family club where members can relax and recharge with outdoor activities and social events that foster friendships. “If you have a smile and extend a hand and say, ‘Hi, my name is…you’re in for life,” said William Duy, the club’s manager. He said most of the club’s 335 families are young and live within Barrington’s five- to seven-mile radius.

“About half of our members are 45 years old and the other half go all the way up to our oldest member, who is 97,” he said. “We have quite a few third-generation members. I think the comradery keeps members here for so long. The people you meet at the club, you become lifelong friends with. Throughout the years, you experience your children growing up together. Some members are here for 60 years. It’s a long time to be committed to a club.”

Margaret Orbesen still has a party favor from Biltmore’s 75th birthday celebration, a chocolate disc with a picture of the country club on it. “It was our social life,” said Orbesen, 92 and now living in Florida. “That was it. The club and the people who were members of it. It was a wonderful life.”

Fond of golf, Orbesen and her late husband Robert were a young married couple with three children when they joined Biltmore in 1958. “The golf course was always hard,” she said. “There were lots of bushes and all kinds of things to get your ball in trouble.” She was surprised that none of her kids liked to golf. They preferred swimming with friends and taking their small sailboat out on Honey Lake. “We had no pool, no fancy clubhouse, just a beach with a raft in the water,” she recalled. Life was simpler then. There wasn’t a lot of programming at Biltmore. She said to pay for Fourth of July fireworks, members dropped donations into a jug on the front porch of the clubhouse.

“We used to fill the dining room on Tuesdays and Thursdays with bridge players after golf,” she said. “God forbid you got in a foursome that didn’t play bridge. That was a bum day.” She doesn’t play golf much now. It’s not fun anymore, she said. But she does visit Biltmore, when she’s in town, to catch a game of bridge and dine with old friends.

To this day, members recognize Connie Blomquist, 75, from all the years she participated in “Biltmore’s Follies,” the club’s annual variety show, written and produced by members. A nurse by trade, Blomquist performed as zany characters in half a dozen skits. “It was a lot of fun,” she said. “Sometimes people still come up to me and say, ‘I remember when you were Martha Stewart.’ You really got to know people well. But then it stopped. I’m sure they haven’t done it now for 10 to 15 years. It’s a big undertaking for someone to write. There was music, skits, sometimes inside jokes.”

She and her late husband Jay joined Biltmore in 1973 after moving to Barrington from Park Ridge and meeting a lot of people from Tower Lakes who, unlike them, had a place to go for recreation. She and Jay owned boats and liked to race every weekend. “We joined for the beach,” she said. “We’d go in the morning and I’d go back at 4 p.m., bring a book and watch my kids play in the sand. Julia Rock, a Barrington historian, would come down every day in her swimming cap and old-fashioned swimsuit. I thought it was charming.”

Sometimes, she and Jay would eat dinner at the club without the kids. On those nights, someone usually brought out the jukebox after dinner and everyone danced for hours. She always kept a bunch of cheese soufflés in her freezer in case the party ever moved to their house.

Revisiting the Roaring Twenties

On May 14, the dancing continued late into the night at Biltmore’s Great Gatsby-style 90th birthday party. Blomquist dressed up like a flapper girl from the Roaring Twenties, in a short, black dress with gold sparkles, a feathered headband and matching boa around her neck. “The band was great,” she said.

Members were taken back to Biltmore’s early days. Parked prominently out front were a 1931 Nash Rumble Seat Coupe, a 1930 Model-A Coupe and a 1937 pick-up truck. Guests posed for pictures in front of a “Happy 90th Birthday Biltmore” banner and walked a roped-off red carpet into the party room, where Membership Director Susan Avello, dressed as a cigarette girl from the popular print ads of the day, carried a tray and passed out candy cigars and bubble gum cigarettes. A big distillery was set up in the corner for members to get their “hooch.” Outside a game of croquet was organized on the greens. Guys were smoking cigars and holding vintage golf clubs, pretending to play an old-fashioned game.

Avello and her assistant mailed invitations to members that looked like a vintage theater ticket, with perforated edges to tear off and put in a drawing at the party for “dinner for eight” in the dining room. “We did a lot of research online,” Avello said. “We wanted to do something different. We didn’t want to blast it like a regular email. We wanted it to be special and make it more of an event.”

Of Biltmore’s 335 members, 150 showed up to the party. “We closed the whole club down, and we rarely close down for anything,” Avello said. “We wanted it to be the main event.”

A Festive Evening

The party started at 6 p.m. with cocktails, appetizers, and Roaring Twenties music played by a keyboardist and a 10-piece band. Guests helped themselves to an elegant buffet dinner, and afterward selected from a variety of desserts at the sweets table. The Swing Jazz, mixed with current tunes, kept everyone on the dance floor until midnight.

Blomquist thought about giving up her membership, as the kids are grown and she is alone, but then her granddaughter Dylan Jay, named after her late husband, came along and now a third generation of the family is enjoying the club. Dylan loves going to the beach and attending the club’s Easter and Christmas parties for children.

Golf and Social Memberships

Biltmore has three types of memberships: golf memberships that allow members access to all of the facilities, junior golf memberships for adults under the age of 40, and social memberships that give members access to everything but golf.

Duy said Biltmore’s restaurant is the backbone of the club, where everyone meets on a daily basis. Executive Chef Mike Battaglia has been with Biltmore for 16 years. His parents owned a banquet hall in downtown Chicago, in an Italian neighborhood, which explains the Italian/Mediterranean influence Battaglia brings to the food at Biltmore. Weekly, he plans a variety of different menus and comes up with ideas from scouring the internet, reading magazines and books, and visiting chefs from different clubs to see what they’re preparing. “A lot of it is mostly the seasons,” he said. “It’s not really hard. You get things emailed to you, different produce that’s in season, and you go from there and build a menu.”

Duy said Battaglia provides everything you see at trendy restaurants downtown while also serving the best barbecue ribs and fried chicken. “I think I found my niche in the clubs,” Battaglia said. “I like taking care of the members. It’s demanding. But I like the pressure.”

Everyone knows Battaglia by name. When they need a chef for a private party, they often hire him to cook at their homes. He always brings familiar faces along with him, including his cooks and sous chef from Biltmore.

A Golf Club with a Beach

In 2010, Biltmore redid its beach club. A separate property on Honey Lake, the beach club has a pool, full service restaurant and bar, beach activities, summer camps, and a swim team that competes against other area clubs. Honey Lake, full of bass, crappie, and bluegill, offers catch and release fishing. It’s open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. The club itself is an 11-month operation, open from February through December. Duy said the golf course, with its hilly terrain, narrow fairways, wetlands, and beautiful flowers, stays open “as long as mother nature allows it.”

Doug Bauman has been the head golf pro for 27 years. He’s won multiple events at the Illinois PGA and qualified for the senior open. Pete Casati, Biltmore’s tennis pro, has been with the club as long as Bauman. Well-known in the Fox Valley area for coaching teens who aspire to play in college, Casati’s women’s teams compete against other clubs in the Fox Valley. His classes for children and adults are held on Biltmore’s six new tennis courts, four Har-Tru Clay and two asphalt.

From black-tie parties for adults to kid-specific nights, Biltmore hosts from 80 to 100 social events each year, planned by its social committee made up of members and staff. They recently held an adult Halloween party for the first time, a Country Thunder-themed event, a cigar dinner, college-style tailgating with members dressed in their college’s colors playing bag-toss games, and gourmet wine dinners.

Each year on the last Friday in June, Biltmore hosts 1,000 members and guests for its “American Celebration,” a fun-filled day of carnival-like activities, games, and music that ends with a spectacular fireworks display.

Duy realizes that Biltmore will reach its 100th anniversary quickly and he’s concerned that some of the older members won’t be around to see it. The plan is to interview them and collect old photos and films for history’s sake, he said, and celebrate the centennial early, with everyone, before time runs out.

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Melanie Kalmar is a freelance writer specializing in human interest features and business. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two children.

Photographer April Graves is the owner of Light Drawn Studios. To learn more, visit lightdrawnstudios.com.