As she awaits the arrival of her new pontoon at the Ericson Marine dock, Amy Bland tells why Algonquin is where she and her husband, Steve, chose to put down roots.
"We live within walking distance of the pool, K-through-8 schools and the library," Bland said of the 1980s tri-level they bought. "We have all the shopping and restaurants we need on Randall (Road), but within our neighborhood it's quiet and friendly. Lots of kids and dogs. Our mini schnauzer is happy."
Their new boat, Bland said, will mean splitting their weekends between fishing, relaxing and tubing on the Fox River and touring the 36 miles of bike paths that embroider this northwest village of 30,482 people. "Steve enjoys biking, and I enjoy trying to keep up with him," Bland said.
Settled in 1834 and incorporated in 1890, Algonquin was a magnet for day-tripping Chicagoans in the 1800s. They took the railroad (now the Fox River Trail) to Algonquin to swim in the Fox River. When "motoring" was a spectator sport (only the rich had these "horseless carriages"), they came by the thousands to the Algonquin Hill Climbs (1906 to 1912). Riverfront hotels filled, retailers advertised "automobile apparel" for women and automakers touted their winning of the Algonquin Cup. "Imagine 25,000 people descending on a town of 600 with one lonely constable," said Jeff Jolitz, chairman of the Algonquin Historic Commission.
Algonquin remained a snug river town until the 1970s, when its population multiplied. "History repeated itself," said Jolitz. "They came for the same reasons — to get away from the congestion and noise of the city, but this time they came for good, not just for the day."
Algonquin is not named for the American Indian tribe, but for a ship owned by early settler Samuel Edwards. "Good thing for us — 'Algonquin' is easier to spell than 'Potawatomi,' the name of the Native American people who did live here," Jolitz said. While many other Chicago suburbs have antecedents on the East Coast or across the pond, Algonquin is the only town of its name in the U.S., said Jolitz.
Curious characters who sprouted from Algonquin's history include horseman Silas Jayne, best-known for hiring a triggerman to kill his brother, and Ray Dvorak, who is credited with "inventing" the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek mascot while he was the school's assistant band director.
Now downtown Algonquin, which centers at the intersection of Illinois Highway 31 and Algonquin Road, consists of a handful of historic houses, the iconic Port Edward Restaurant (accessible by car or boat), a new row-house development and a cluster of parks that attracts walkers, bicyclists and fishermen.
Like many downtowns, Algonquin's was in the midst of a revival when the recession hit, so it includes an extra-large, belly-up condo complex that stalled midway through construction.
Reaching one mile east and four miles west from downtown are Algonquin's newer neighborhoods. Instead of cornfield subdivisions, though, these are dairy-farm or spent-quarry subdivisions, built on rolling hills that spill into creeks and man-made lakes. Split between Kane and McHenry counties, most of the village's growth has been on the McHenry side.
"The high-end houses are in the subdivisions with lakes or they are the custom houses right on the river, which have replaced the old summer cottages," said Jean Botts, a longtime resident and Realtor with Century 21 Roberts & Andrews in McHenry. "East of the river, prices tend to be lower."
Recent home sales in Algonquin range from a $73,000 fixer-upper foreclosure to a $610,000 new house. "But more typical are single-family houses in the $290,000 to $325,000 range," said Botts.
Finding undeveloped land for custom homes is no longer easy in Algonquin, added Botts. The Village's Future Land Use Plan includes a residential parcel on its far western tip, but that area is not yet annexed. Boundary agreements with its neighbors mean Algonquin can predict its built-out population, though, at about 50,000 people.
"If you haven't been to Algonquin for a while, it seems like we grew overnight," Village President John Schmitt said. "But we've been very careful to control the growth, work closely with the schools and preserve the environment." When commercial residents arrive, they must abide by Algonquin's strict architectural and signage rules, he added.
Algonquin is a quiet community "where you feel safe at night to walk your dogs," said police Deputy Chief Ed Urban. "People have to go to work in the morning, so they are tucked in at night."
Urban said Algonquin has had only about five homicides since the 1890s. But as the village has grown, so has the property crime rate. Urban attributes the rise to retail growth.
"When there's an open field, there's nothing to steal," he said. "When you have 88 stores, including all the big boxes, there's theft. The Randall Road growth has affected the crime rate."
Like other Fox River towns, Algonquin struggles with its limited bridge access. Cars queue on Algonquin Road to cross the only bridge in town. The Illinois Department of Transportation's schedule includes the 2012 completion of an Illinois Highway 31 bypass that will steer some north-south traffic around the current bridge intersection.
Through its "Eco-Algonquin" program, the village leads by example with conservation programs. They range from making Village Hall paperless to using recycled vegetable oil to fuel public works vehicles.
"The only problem is, you follow one of our lawn mowers and you get hungry for french fries," Schmitt said.
The village's tree preservation code is strict, added Schmitt. "Not many towns this size have a forestry department," he said.
Algonquin is split between Community Unit School District 300 and Consolidated School District 158. High-schoolers attend Jacobs High School, Huntley High School or Dundee-Crown. Private schools include St. John's Evangelical Lutheran School and St. Margaret Mary Catholic School, both prekindergarten through eighth grade.
Instead of a park district, Algonquin has its Events and Recreation Department. It oversees 660 acres of parks, a public swimming pool, ice-skating rinks, sledding hill, tennis courts and enough ball fields to host dozens of weekend baseball and soccer games. And it holds a summer concert series, farmers market, art show and a full roster of youth sports programs.
The annual Founders Days festival in July includes a carnival, competitive run, fireworks and parade. During the festival, Ericson Marine sponsors a cardboard boat race on the Fox River. Each team gets 180 square feet of cardboard, a knife, three rolls of duct tape and two hours. The first three teams to make it to the middle of the river and back win.
The bicycle is a key mode of transportation in Algonquin, where the village has encouraged developers to link neighborhood paths to existing ones. The Fox River Trail follows the river into town from the south, then veers north and becomes the Prairie Trail. It carries a steady stream of locals and out-of-towners who can take this trail to Wisconsin.
"Everybody doesn't know everybody's name anymore, but the opportunities for kids have grown," Botts said of the town she watched grow. "We've added parks and programs we didn't used to have like girls softball. It's gone from a quiet to busy bedroom community, but the people haven't changed."
Old-timers still remember Algonquin as the town with the sign that said, "Welcome to Algonquin, 850 Happy People, Still Growing." That was before developers added 40-plus subdivisions. Stop the dog-walkers, stroller-pushers and bicyclists in those subdivisions, though, and they will tell you they are happy to be here too.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun