Driving north toward Wisconsin, McHenry says you are almost there. But it is more than the roadside sunglasses hut and signs offering wintertime boat storage — it's the Wisconsin-like essence.
Fifty-five miles northwest of the Loop, this is a town where lakefront or riverfront property is what you aspire to have. Where Riverside Bake Shop's doughnuts ease the pain of getting up early enough to catch bluegills. Where you know the meaning of a "two-pole limit."
Once primarily a summer resort town, McHenry after Labor Day in the early 1900s was "as quiet as a tomb," says Nancy Fike, administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society. One development at a time, it grew into a year-round city that attracts families who enjoy its river and lake amenities, its distance from Chicago's crowds and its proximity to major employers.
"My parents met at a dance hall here," says Barb Gray. "My husband, Bill, and I both come from families of river rats where you learned to swim when Dad threw you in."
Now, the Grays spend weekends on their pontoon boat. "We go out to breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants on the water. Thursday nights, we watch the boat races on Grass Lake. In the fall, we do the coffee cruises; everyone bundles up, brings coffee and watches the trees change color. When the river freezes, we snowmobile." Like many residents, the Grays live on the Fox River, giving them access to the Chain o' Lakes.
While ushering McHenry into the 21st century, the city was careful not to take the McHenry out of McHenry. It added big-box retailers, hatha yoga and Starbucks but retained its original storefronts, fishing derbies and mom-and-pop taverns. It is completing a mile-long river walk along Boone Lagoon and the Fox. It bought the 1836 Petersen Farm and opened it to the public for special events, including an annual festival each June. It built a community pool but kept its public beaches.
To keep its neighborhoods tidy, the city of about 27,000 residents added its Adjudication Court, which allows officials to enforce ordinances without offenders being tied up in Circuit Court. To address drug-trafficking crimes, it launched the Street Crimes Unit, though this is a city with a low crime rate, where residents stroll the river walk by moonlight and kids head to Happy Jack's Submarines for ice cream.
Major employers include Centegra Health System, Follett International and the schools.
McHenry is a Character Counts! community. "We promote the six pillars of character — responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship, trustworthiness, respect — through monthly events at the schools and in the community," said Mayor Susan Low, a native who was a lifeguard as a teen.
"McHenry is a good place to raise a family, then stay," said Gray. "For the seniors, why move to Florida when your family and friends are here? We're too old to water-ski now, so we love sitting on our dock, watching the boaters go by. If someone runs out of gas, you give them some. Everyone waves, everyone's friendly. People are that way here whether you know them or not, but often you do."
McHenry predates the county of the same name. In fact, when it was settled in 1836, this was part of Cook County. Named for a War of 1812 and Black Hawk War officer, it was a vacation destination in the 1800s and early 1900s. While tourists swam and lounged here, the locals worked at McHenry's boatbuilders or harvested ice from Mill Pond, which covered a good chunk of the city until it was drained in 1929, after the advent of "artificial ice."
Because Mill Pond once divided the city, McHenry has three tiny downtowns — Main Street, Green Street and Riverside Drive. "I remember when each had its own hardware store, grocery store and dime store," said Low. Now they are a blend of restaurants, offices and boutiques.
McHenry was the county seat until 1844, when it was supplanted by Centerville, which became Woodstock. But it remained the destination for people from area farms and the hamlets that still ring McHenry, like McCullom Lake and Prairie Grove.
Things to do
In June, families gather for the Kids' Fishing Derby, the Kiwanis All-American Soap Box Derby and the Miss McHenry Scholarship Pageant. Each July, they compete in the Plywood Boat Challenge.
Natives plan their class reunions around the annual Fiesta Days in July, which includes a music festival, ice cream social and 5K run. Or they put the July 2 fireworks on their calendars. Crowds come to McHenry for Cruise Nights every Monday night June through mid-October.
There are three public beaches on McCullom Lake in the city of McHenry and one in the village of McCullom Lake. Knox Park has the community's swimming pool plus tennis courts. Just east of McHenry are Moraine Hills State Park and Volo Bog State Natural Area.
Shopping includes boutiques in the old sections of town plus the big boxes on the edges of town. McHenry still has a downtown movie theater plus a drive-in.
Scattered within McHenry's original grid is an enviable collection of 19th- and early 20th-century houses. On the south side of McCullom Lake are modest 1950s and '60s ranches. The 1990s housing boom brought several more subdivisions to McHenry on former farm fields.
At the high and new end of McHenry's housing stock is Martin Woods, on its northwest side, where custom houses sit on woodsy, generous lots. You can still buy a lot in this development for $42,000.
The plum housing location for river folks is Riverside Drive, which runs alongside the Fox north of Illinois Highway 120 and reappears at the south end of town.
Newer developments include William Ryan Homes' Park Ridge Estates, where houses start at $182,990, and Gerstad Builders' Liberty Trails, where they start at $190,990. Both offer ranch and two-story models.
Crisscrossed by state routes, McHenry offers links to employment hubs in McHenry and Lake counties. Weekends, residents share Illinois Highway 31 with Illinoisans heading to and from Wisconsin.
Pace buses chart a triangular route that connects McHenry, Woodstock and Crystal Lake. McHenry is near the end of Metra's Union Pacific/Northwest Line, so the commute to downtown Chicago takes more than an hour.
McHenry has separate elementary and high school districts. Elementary and middle school children attend schools in McHenry School District 15. High schoolers attend the homes of the Warriors — the east and west campuses of McHenry High School.
Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock serves the area too.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times