Crystal Lake, A Good Place To Be

I largely grew up in a rural village called Bull Valley, Illinois which was close to Crystal Lake, a city approximately 50 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. Crystal Lake was (and is) the largest city in McHenry County, though the county seat is based in Woodstock. While I was growing up (roughly the years 1972 to 1987) Crystal Lake was the principal shopping, movie theater, and restaurant destination in the county. Situated on the Union Pacific Northwest rail line and bordering Cook County (McHenry County borders Cook County, albeit by a few miles), Crystal Lake is most definitely part of the “Chicagoland” and is largely regarded as a suburb of the city. However, unlike the other four “collar counties” bordering Cook, McHenry does not have a major interstate highway running through it (except for around 10 miles of Interstate 90 on the County’s southwest border). Nevertheless, proximity to Chicago fueled economic development and population growth, with population growing by 70% between 1990 and 2010 (growing from 183,000 to 309,000 people), a trend expected to continue.[1]

Crystal Lake seems like a typical American community, so in many ways I think a study of Crystal Lake would reveal a reflection of the changes the United States went through in its history. Obviously that history began before European settlements in the US, where what would become McHenry County was the territory of migratory and semi-sedentary indigenous tribes including the Ottawa, Miami, Menomonie, Winnebago, Mascouten, and Potawatomi.[2] Following the formation of Illinois as a state, settlers from the east began making claims in northern Illinois. The area was primarily settled by farmers. Crystal Lake made its first steps as a town after the Crandall family settled in 1836 and the Beardsley family settled in 1837. Economic growth was driven by the railroads that connected the area to Chicago. As population grew the town went through a number of different divisions and names—Crystal Ville, Nunda, Dearborn, and North Crystal Lake. In 1874 the villages of Crystal Lake and Nunda were formerly incorporated as municipalities under Illinois law. In 1914 the two towns were combined under Crystal Lake’s city government.[3]

As one would expect, the town’s name comes from its small freshwater lake, also called Crystal Lake, which takes up approximately 250 acres. While Crystal Lake’s topography is mostly prairie, the area has several forests, small hills, shallow valleys, as well as smaller lakes, ponds, and streams.

Crystal Lake saw a great deal of expansion during the Progressive Era, mostly in its downtown business district around the train station. The El Tovar Theater was built in 1929, a movie theater for the “talkies” that has been sweeping the nation. Designed in a Spanish Mission style by Elmer Behrns (who also designed DeKalb’s Egyptian Theater near my alma mater NIU), the theater operated until the early ‘90s. I visited that theater dozens of times growing up–if memory serves, I believe I saw Star Wars: Return of the Jedi at that theater in 1983. The theater is still in operation as a visual and performing arts center. Nearby is the Beatty Building, a Beaux-Art style building built in 1917 housing a women’s clothing shop. Finally, within a block of the Beatty Building is the Teckler Building which was built in 1910 by a local real estate tycoon named Charles L. Teckler. The building was used as a meeting space and banquet hall and later contained retailers and office space.[4] These buildings are in Crystal Lake’s central business district which was mostly built before the Depression. At the end of my time in Crystal Lake, (I graduated from Crystal Lake Central High School in 1986 and my family moved away from the town the following year), I remember a good deal of downtown vacancies as most commercial activity was on Route 14 and centered around a small regional mall (Crystal Point Mall) and several shopping centers. This was typical of the time as the old central business districts had mostly relocated to shopping centers off of 4-lane highways. However, typical of today, recent visits to Crystal Lake have indicated a revival of the downtown area with several new boutique shops, restaurants, and bars (and, ironically, a number of empty “big box” stores on Route 14).

Unfortunately, Crystal Lake offers little of historical note between 1900 and 1929. Like Lake Geneva, it was regarded as a resort town for upper class Chicagoans but, based on the homes built in Lake Geneva, Crystal Lake not nearly as an attractive or prestigious destination. The small lake provided the opportunity for ice production, which was a thriving industry for nearly sixty years, lasting until 1914 when a fire destroyed the remaining operating ice houses.[5] Crystal Lake participated in the US industrial expansion of the Progressive Era. The most unique industrial concern is the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company which expanded its tile and pottery manufacturing operations during this time.[6]

In conclusion, I remember doing a “history of Crystal Lake” project when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and all I can remember was the railroad and the ice makers. Crystal Lake and the rest of McHenry County are like thousands of other communities that tell us the American story. As I’ve become more educated as an historian, I recognize the value of Crystal Lake’s history will come from its social and cultural sources.

Bibliography

“Early History,” Crystal Lake Historical Society. Accessed November 21, 2020. https://cl-hs.org/local-history/early-history.

“Historic Structures.” Crystal Lake Historical Society. Accessed November 21, 2020. https://cl-hs.org/local-history/historic-structures.

“Local History.” Crystal Lake Historical Society. Accessed November 22, 2020. https://cl-hs.org/local-history/street-scenes/dole-avenue.

“Local History.” Crystal Lake Historical Society. Accessed November 22, 2020. https://cl-hs.org/local-history/businesses/american-terra-cotta.

Lurie, Rochelle, Sara Pfannkuche, M. Catherine Bird. “The Archaeology of McHenry County.” McHenry County Conservation District. July 9, 2006. https://files.mccdistrict.org//publications/Brochures/Archaeology%20of%20McHenry%20County.pdf.

“McHenry County 2040.” McHenry County Division of Transportation. March 2014. https://www.mchenrycountyil.gov/home/showpublisheddocument?id=30468.

Notes

[1] “McHenry County 2040,” McHenry County Division of Transportation, March 2014. https://www.mchenrycountyil.gov/home/showpublisheddocument?id=30468.

[2] Rochelle Lurie, et al. “The Archaeology of McHenry County,” McHenry County Conservation District, July 9, 2006. https://files.mccdistrict.org//publications/Brochures/Archaeology%20of%20McHenry%20County.pdf.

[3] “Early History,” Crystal Lake Historical Society, accessed November 21, 2020, https://cl-hs.org/local-history/early-history.

[4] “Historic Structures,” Crystal Lake Historical Society, accessed November 21, 2020, https://cl-hs.org/local-history/historic-structures.

[5] “Local History,” Crystal Lake Historical Society, accessed November 22, 2020, https://cl-hs.org/local-history/street-scenes/dole-avenue.

[6] “Local History,” Crystal Lake Historical Society, accessed November 22, 2020, https://cl-hs.org/local-history/businesses/american-terra-cotta.