When Natasha and Nathan Pitcock were planning a move to Chicago in 2008, they were so taken with downtown Frankfort and its 1890s ambience that they decided to settle in an apartment just blocks from the town center. They quickly felt at home, being steps away from events, stores and restaurants. They joke with friends back home that they didn't move to a Chicago suburb, but to "Mayberry."
Once a sleepy farm community, south suburban Frankfort has experienced a population surge in recent years, jumping from about 10,400 in 2001 to nearly 16,500 residents today, with a corresponding boom in housing and retail. Yet, the village retains its small-town ambience.
Many residents say the town's appeal stems from the simple things: a quaint and historic downtown, large swaths of open land, corn fields and soybean crops, top-ranked schools and attractive homes on generous acreage.
The Pitcocks were looking for a home in Will County after Nathan landed a job as a coach at Chicago Magic Soccer Club in Frankfort, a youth club for elite players.
From their downtown perch, the couple has a choice of nearby events throughout the year, including Cruisin' Frankfort car show, weekly Frankfort Country Markets, a fine arts fair, an amateur rib cook-off and a fishing derby. Thousands show up for the village's Fall Fest, which features live entertainment, a carnival, artisans and food. This year, the festival ran Sept. 5-7. There is a tree-lighting ceremony in December and, in a nod to its early settlers, Frankfort hosts a German Heritage Celebration in May. Many events take place in the center of downtown on Breidert Green.
Among the village's early settlers was Frederick Cappel, who in 1850 named the town after his native Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfort was incorporated in 1879.
"People sit out on their front porches while their kids go around the neighborhood on Halloween. There's not many places that have that anymore," said Natasha Pitcock.
Natasha, an independent glass artist, is also a "play manager" at KidsWork Children's Museum, which opened in June and is the first children's museum in Will County. She helps supervise children and oversee interactive science, nature and art education exhibits.
On the way to work, she stops at Kernel Sweetooth, a popular ice cream and snack shop, for a $1 cup of coffee. The museum is housed in the Trolley Barn, a converted street car barn. The building is also home to the likes of Down Home Guitars, which offers guitar classes and concerts, and an art gallery and frame shop.
"I grew up in a Bohemian part of Louisville, so I was looking for that again," said Natasha. "I feel like it's [the downtown] starting to have a little bit of a renaissance."
Downtown Frankfort was once known as an antique shopping destination, but many of its stores have closed over the years, victims of the Internet age and its abundance of online antique shopping.
"Times have changed and we've had to change with them," said village manager Jerry Ducay. "We may no longer be an antique destination but we can be a restaurant and event venue."
About 15 years ago, with business dwindling, village officials began to "rework" downtown by revamping streets, updating street lights, adding street furniture, a fishing pond at Prairie Park and extending Old Plank Road Trail, a 20-mile bike trail, through the center of town. The idea was to create an infrastructure for a marketplace atmosphere, while working with the Frankfort Chamber of Commerce and Frankfort Park District to bring year-round events to the center of town.
"People come to enjoy the various events and the small town charm and while they're there they shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants," said Ducay, who lives in Frankfort with his wife and three kids.
The village also recently instituted a grant program in which new businesses can receive grants of up to $10,000 to upgrade their buildings. To help with population and housing growth, the village in 2008 completed a $13 million sewer system expansion and requires developers to leave wetland patches, rather than build detention ponds, to help with storm water management.
Mayor Jim Holland, a retired public relations executive who moved with his wife Stacy to Frankfort about 20 years ago, said they chose the village because of its schools and small-town atmosphere. They now have three grown children.
"We appreciated the family atmosphere, the children who could go from neighborhood to neighborhood on bike trails. There are a litany of children's programs, Lincolnway Special Recreation Association (a co-op of five park districts for people with special needs), neighborhood parties and village events. It's really a bit of an idyllic setting," said Holland.
Holland said the community is safe with four police cars out at all times to keep it that way.
The Frankfort Park District has programs for all ages and dozens of parks and facilities, including the large Commissioners Park, which includes a playground, walking path, tennis courts, a skate park, disc golf, ball and soccer fields, as well as a sledding hill, splash park and a dog park.
Though the village lacks a fitness center and pool, there is Founders Center, a converted grammar school that runs fitness programs, arts and crafts, and cooking classes as well as teen dances.
The village also boasts an impressive and diverse housing stock, ranging from ranches, Tudors, Georgians to custom-built estate homes. Some of the smaller historic homes are downtown, with the larger, newer homes in surrounding subdivisions.
Several of those newer subdivisions include Misty Falls with 120 ranch and two-story homes, and Sutton Dale, planned for 60 ranch and two-story brick residences, both being built by Flaherty Builders of Mokena. Light House Pointe Townhomes, with 104 town homes, is being built by Circle B Builders of Frankfort. Gander Builders' Olde Stone Village has 109 lots for high-end homes, with one luxury spec house, Tuscan Timbers, completed.
Denise Williams, a real estate sales associate at Remax Action, said home prices range from $150,000 for a foreclosed home to $885,000, with home values holding up better than in some areas.
"I think part of it is the community itself. There's a lot of value in the school districts, park district, activities in town and small town feel," said Williams, who has lived in Frankfort since the late 1980s. "The more I'm here, the more I love the town."