Firmly rooted in yesteryear, Long Grove wants to stay that way — at least in outward appearances. The affluent village, some 35 miles northwest of the Loop, strives to retain its rural character and preserve its historic downtown.
Buildings frozen in a vintage time warp cluster around the intersection of Old McHenry and Robert Parker Coffin roads in the heart of town. Near the crossroads is a water wheel and pond. Farther along is a covered bridge, the iconic image of Long Grove.
But this is no museum of aging architecture. These structures bustle with some 60 shops and restaurants. Downtown Long Grove has evolved into a popular tourist attraction.
It didn't used to be that way. The sleepy village in Lake County grew up in an area settled mostly by German farmers in the mid-19th century. The rural community languished for years. But in the 1950s, Long Grove's leaders had a vision to preserve the past.
After the village incorporated in 1956, it declared the area around the four corners formed by the intersection of Old McHenry and Robert Parker Coffin roads a historic district. Strict ordinances and codes aim to keep it that way.
"When I was growing up in Long Grove in the 1950s, many of us had horses. I would ride to friends' houses and also ride to get candy at the general store," said longtime resident Jeri Monroe.
"Everybody used to know everybody else back then. Not as much now," she said. Over the years, she has noted changes: "The village moved from country houses to country estates to suburban estates. The idea was to preserve open land, and the village has done that quite well."
Commenting on the lure of Long Grove as a retail magnet, village President Maria Rodriguez said: "People don't want to live in the 19th century, but they love to visit there."
Even the village hall is historic. "The two-story village hall formerly was the Drexler Tavern, an old roadhouse. It was moved to the present location in the 1970s," said Angie Underwood, president of the Long Grove Historical Society.
Long Grove attracts shoppers with its quaint charm, but it takes work — and money — to look old. Rodriguez said she would like to see improvements to the historic district, including burying the overhead power lines and adding old-fashioned streetlights.
Already, a new parking lot has opened and space has been allocated for up to four new stores. "We hope to energize downtown with new stores that are larger than existing ones. We would like to have a boutique hotel or maybe an Irish pub. We're poised for prosperity," she stressed.
Part of that prosperity will come as a result of two new mega-stores: A 165,400-square-foot Menards opened last year, and a 48,000-square-foot Sunset Foods will open at the end of this year or early 2011. Both are outside the historic district, which is only a small part of the 12.4-square-mile village.
Sales tax revenue generated by the new stores is seen as a major boost for Long Grove, which levies no property tax.
Rodriguez explained that Long Grove did not start out as an affluent suburb. "At first, it was a rural community with modest homes on large lots. But then larger homes were built, and today we have more of an estate look."
She described Long Grove as an oasis of open space. "Every homeowner has to donate to a land conservancy that creates open space, scenic corridors and helps with drainage."
Away from downtown, the residential streets reflect a rural ambience. Houses are far apart because of the average 2-acre zoning. Unlike most of suburbia, there are no sidewalks, curbs or streetlights. Wells supply water. About half the village is on septic sewer systems.
"No cookie-cutter subdivisions have been built in Long Grove, " said village planner James Hogue. He added that vacant land for future development is scarce, but some tracts are still available, mostly on the periphery of the village.
"Long Grove went green long before green was trendy," Hogue noted. One of the ways residents enjoy the outdoor greenery is by walking the village's trail system. Some of the paths are covered with wood chips, while others are asphalt for multiple uses.
Other large green spaces include the three private country clubs in the village — Hillcrest, Twin Orchard and Royal Melbourne.
Hogue, who calls Long Grove a "destination town," explained that the historic look of downtown has been preserved by village codes that spell out what is called Long Grove style. "Buildings must be compatible with what was there before, the original historic downtown."
Residents take solace in the safety and serenity of the tree-lined streets. Crime is "very infrequent," said Rodriguez. "Occasionally, there will be house break-ins and vandalism by young people." The village contracts with the Lake County Sheriff's Office for police protection.
Long Grove students excel in the top-rated schools. Children attend Kildeer Countryside Elementary School, Country Meadows Elementary School and Woodlawn Middle School in the village and Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.
The community is a short drive from Metra train stations in Buffalo Grove and Arlington Heights, which provide service to Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center in downtown Chicago. Driving to the Loop takes about 45 minutes in light traffic, but an hour and a half during rush hour..
Long Grove has not escaped the bad economy. "In the last two years, housing prices are down 25 percent to 30 percent, and we've had our share of foreclosures," said Bobbie O'Reilly, broker/owner of Weichert Realtors/McKee Real Estate.
But O'Reilly maintains that the allure of Long Grove as a place to live is still strong for the area's more than 8,000 residents. "This is a close community, private but friendly. It offers quiet and a place to decompress."
O'Reilly said some 160 homes are on the market priced from about $300,000 to $3 million. Home sizes range from 2,500 to 12,000 square feet, with the average about 4,000 square feet. She added that recent sales prices have averaged $600,000.
The recession has resulted in several store vacancies downtown, including empty retail spaces on three of the four historic corners.
However, John Maguire, executive director of Long Grove Business and Community Partners, is quick to point out that a new store, Cigars & More, is slated to open soon near the covered bridge. He added that festivals throughout the year — including the Apple Fest in October and the June tribute to strawberries — continue to draw thousands of visitors.
"What you won't find in downtown Long Grove are chain stores," Maguire said. "What we do have are some 60 diverse shops that are all independently owned."
They run the retail gamut — women's apparel, fine arts, gifts, home furnishings, jewelry and specialty stores. Maguire added that the trend is toward more contemporary and upscale merchandise. "We're trying to keep up with the times. And because the downtown is very photogenic, it's also a setting for a number of weddings."
Rachel Perkel, a Long Grove merchant, predicts a brighter future: "Long Grove will bounce back faster and healthier because of its name. Property owners believe in Long Grove and investing in their stores."
She added that one advantage of Long Grove is that shoppers get a lot of personal attention because the owner may be behind the counter.
Perkel and her husband, Tobin Fraley, own Trillium, Woodland Grove Gallery, Trio Boutique, Prairie Smoke Clothing and Artistic Gardener.
North of downtown on Old McHenry Road is the Reed Turner Woodland nature preserve. Perkel calls it Long Grove's best-kept secret, but it is no longer a secret. Her photographer husband has just published "36 Acres," a photographic portrait of the nature preserve's beauty in every season.
New restaurants may be in Long Grove's future, but one from the past still exists. The Village Tavern, a family-owned restaurant, has been a "watering hole" here since 1849.
While not nearly as old, the Long Grove Cafe offers views of the Mill Pond and invites patrons to visit its ducks (on the lawn, not on the plate).
When leaving Long Grove, prepare for an immediate culture shock. As the 19th century fades away in the rear-view mirror, the familiar appearance of chain stores is a reminder that this is the 21st century.