Caroline Wolf, and her husband, Hank, feel at home in Ottawa.
They own and operate Heartland by Hand, a custom frame and gift shop at the corner of Main and Clinton streets.
As soon as the doors unlock at 10 a.m. and the business opens on a typical day, regular customers begin to roll in looking for more than bully dog treats, home decor items or to pick up their frames at the shop – they seek conversation and friendship.
Caroline said it is common for customers to sit at the bench placed near the back of the store and chat over a warm glass of tea, and of course, receive a welcome from Lincoln and Carson, the Wolfs’ dogs.
After living in 29 different towns and moving across the country growing up in an Army family, Wolf, a U.S. Military Academy at West Point graduate and Desert Storm veteran herself, finds comfort in this lifestyle.
She met Hank three decades ago in the Chicago suburbs when they were working together on the same project. The couple would make frequent trips from Orland Park to Ottawa and pass the vacant, corner storefront with its turret, envisioning what could be.
The Wolfs bought the nearly 120-year-old building, giving themselves four years to rehab it – doing most of the work themselves – with the help of Hank’s cousin. They opened the store in May 2021.
“We had so much fun working on it, all the different parts of it,” Caroline said. “It was a lot of work.”
Caroline said her time at West Point and 6 1/2 years serving in the military, including time operating a maintenance unit in the Persian Gulf War, prepared her to be a business owner.
“You have to learn how to do everything yourself,” Caroline said. “I’m still learning so much about running a business. How to stock shelves, for example. You have to be able to pick up things quickly, because there’s a lot that goes into running a small business. Sometimes it’s going on YouTube and watching a video to figure it out.”
Caroline graduated West Point in 1986. A highlight of her time there was interning in the executive office of the president alongside former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. She said the school was physically demanding and academically challenging, but she was glad she attended.
“They encouraged graduates to take a variety of classes, introducing students to a lot of different subjects,” she said. “I received a rbroad education and was introduced to a lot of things.”
In the military, Caroline spent a year serving in Korea and a year in the Persian Gulf leading a mobile maintenance unit. The unit repaired vehicles and machinery, and many times that meant ordering new parts and swapping them out, giving her further experience in problem solving.
At Heartland by Hand, Caroline runs the gift shop, which is in the front of the store, and Hank operates the custom framing business, which is in a workshop in the back of the store.
“People come in with all sorts of requests for items they want framed, from T-shirts, to concert tickets, to maps, to family photos,” Caroline said. “We really get to be a part of preserving special moments in their lives.”
Caroline prides herself on the gift shop’s flexibility, featuring items for all ages and different interests at prices mostly less than $20.
“I really want it to be a welcome shop, somewhere where anyone can find a gift for anybody,” she said.
The Wolfs also take pride in the details of the restored building, which once housed Sherer and Gleim Flour and Feed. Most of the renovations were made with repurposed materials, customized by the couple themselves.
Heartland by Hand has four part-time employees, but Caroline and Hank handle all the management, keeping up with bills, repairs, inventory, etc.
“It’s not a 9 to 5 job, it’s a seven days a week, 10-hour work days, and more of a lifestyle than a job,” she said.
But she and Hank enjoy the routine and are rewarded by the camaraderie.
“A lot of our customers have become our friends,” Caroline said. “They come in to shop, but they start talking. Or a husband and wife comes in, and it’s the husband who ends up going back to see Hank, and disappears back there for an hour.”
Caroline said she likes the role the shop plays in downtown Ottawa, which attracts Starved Rock tourists regularly and “turns into a Hallmark movie” during Christmas time.
“I feel like we’ve found a home in Ottawa.”