America’s Heartland encompasses beautiful natural surroundings and history dating back to before the founding of the United States, making it a perfect spot for meeting planners to find unique venues to give their events added flair. From well-preserved woods and historic mansions to a former open pit iron mining operation, here are a handful of off-site venues that offer more than just meeting spaces.
Joslyn Castle and Gardens
Completed in 1903, Joslyn Castle got its start as a 35-room Scottish Baronial mansion on the outskirts of Omaha. It was built by George and Sarah Joslyn. George was in the newspaper business and counted the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Hearsts among his friends. He was the richest man in Nebraska when he passed away. After Sarah died in 1940, the mansion served as administrative offices for the Omaha Public Schools for 45 years and was later owned by the state.
Since 2010, the mansion has been managed by Joslyn Castle Trust. Meeting planners can rent the first floor for smaller meeting, banquets, weddings or receptions of up to 80 guests. The second floor is available for additional dinner seating. The facility has Wi-Fi, a sound system, and a large television for presentations or slide shows. Larger groups can use the first floor of the mansion and put up tents on the grounds.
The trust is raising money to repair the conservatory and redo the basement and hopes to turn the third-floor ballroom into an archive area to display furniture, photos and artifacts that once belonged to the Joslyns.
Tours are available, and special themed events are held there throughout the year, including murder mystery parties; a program called “A Little Dinner Music,” which offers a fancy dinner and live music; and “Speakeasy,” where guests sample different kinds of liquor paired with hors d’oeuvres. Another program called “Unlocked” offers a tour of the entire house, even locations typically closed off to the public, along with a nice dinner.
Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods
Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods is nestled in 565 acres of preserved woodlands in Lake County, Illinois. The center was founded in 1984 to support preservation of the woods following transfer of the property from Edward and Nora Ryerson and several neighboring families to Lake County Forest Preserves.
The nonprofit works with community partners to offer art and nature programs. Meeting planners can rent rooms in or rent the entire former vacation home for meetings or events. Surrounded by pristine woods, the site is perfect for getting out of the corporate boardroom and into nature. Guests to the preserve can kayak, canoe, hike or go bird watching.
Every room in the home offers beautiful views of the surrounding woods, and the Des Plaines River is only five minutes away. Groups of up to 400 people can rent the entire house. Cocktail receptions with hors d’oeuvres set up in different rooms can accommodate 80 to 200. There are three smaller rooms in the house that can be used for groups of six to 65 people. The Education Room can accommodate up to 30 lecture-style, while the Great Room can host groups of 48 seated at tables for a corporate meeting. Larger groups that want to use the space can set up tents in the parking lot area and garden.
The center markets itself as a place for wellness retreats. Staff can assist groups in developing wellness programs, such as yoga or meditation, or put together custom classes that nurture creativity, such as writing, exploring literature, nature journaling, painting or other art forms.
In Wisconsin, Kemper Center sits on the grounds of a 17.5-acre Kenosha County Park overlooking Lake Michigan and includes a 10-room Italianate Victorian mansion, a fine art gallery, a conference center and an observatory. The mansion was built for Wisconsin’s first U.S. senator, Charles Durkee, during the Civil War era. He sold the property in 1865, and it was expanded to serve as an all-girls school for 100 years.
Now it is a conference center. The original mansion is open for tours part of the year, with much of the original building preserved, and groups of 50 to 150 people can rent different rooms in the house. Simmons Auditorium can seat up to 150. It has hardwood floors, a large stage and murals dating to the 1800s. Founders Hall is a two-level area with a brick patio that can accommodate 115. Ambrose Hall and the former Study Hall are additional small meeting locations.
Because of its location on the water, many groups choose to host private outdoor events in tents. The Kemper Grounds can accommodate 250 for an outdoor event with lake views, and Anderson Arts Center Grounds can host up to 500. Kemper Chapel, which was built in 1875, has beautiful stained-glass windows and detailed woodwork. It can seat 150. Groups can add on a guided history or architecture tour of Kemper Hall, Durkee Mansion and the grounds. Tours normally last about 90 minutes.
Old Cowtown Museum
Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum is a Western attraction that is also available for small meetings or large events. The museum, which opened in 1952 on the banks of the Arkansas River, features buildings from 1865 to 1880 that were brought to the property from Wichita and Sedgwick County for preservation. Designed to look like an Old West town, the facility features both residential and commercial buildings, including the first home built in Wichita, a blacksmith shop, 1880 working farm, dressmaker shop and a cowboy camp.
Every building houses period artifacts. Groups can take guided tours of the 23-acre site with a costumed interpreter, explore the town on their own or set up special tours of different shops to see how they operated in the 1880s. The visitor center has a great room that can seat 150. When paired with the outdoor patio, it can seat 200. For receptions, the
combined space can accommodate groups up to 300.
The First Presbyterian Church, an authentic wood-frame church built in the 1870s, can seat 49. Fritz Snitzler’s Saloon can seat 68 guests at tables, and Turnverein Hall, a Victorian hall with stage, piano and kitchenette, can seat 82. Groups that want to rent out the entire museum after hours can accommodate groups of any size and add on wagon rides, gunfights, saloon or Victorian dancers, or music for entertainment.
Minnesota Discovery Center
One of the most unique museums in Minnesota, Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm is situated in an area of the state with a 125-year history of open-pit iron mining. The miners dig deep holes in the ground that fill up with crystal clear water from the aquifer, lending themselves to all sorts of recreational activities. Visitors can kayak in the pits or mountain bike in Redhead Mountain Bike Park.
The museum has beautiful views of the surrounding area and several meeting venues to choose from. A trolley system that used to connect many of the small towns in this part of the country now takes visitors along the edge of a mining pit to a former mining location where they can walk around and explore the buildings that are left, including a homestead, a boarding house and train station.
The museum includes information about the geology of the region, Native American History and immigration. A three-season pavilion outside the museum is enclosed in glass and has a stage. It can seat 240 people at round tables. Taconite Square can seat 135, and the theater, library and restaurant are also available as breakout spaces. Groups that rent out space in the museum can explore the exhibits as part of their event.