Before 1914, what’s now Crystal Lake was two fiercely competitive rival communities. When they joined forces, they sparked a century of incredible growth. See how today’s residents are celebrating.
Nunda. That’s what downtown Crystal Lake was called when Grandpa Heisler opened his shoe store in 1908. Back then, Nunda (pronounced Nun-day) was a railroad town, and a fierce rival of its neighbor to the south, the town by that crystal-clear lake.
Heisler started with a leather-working bench in the local hardware store, repairing shoes and making harnesses; his family has been in business downtown ever since. Today, Heisler’s Bootery is operated by 73-year-old grandson Jim Heisler, a lifelong Crystal Lake resident who has witnessed phenomenal changes in his hometown, as it’s grown from a rural community into the very edge of suburbia.
“It’s a great place to live, and it was super growing up here in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” says Heisler. “We really boomed starting around ’64 and ’65.”
Now a city of nearly 41,000, Crystal Lake has much to offer: family-friendly neighborhoods, top-tier schools, ample green space and a wealth of locally owned businesses in a thriving downtown. This city in southeast McHenry County is a place where locals still wave to each other and socialize downtown.
This year marks one century since Nunda and Crystal Lake became one city, and residents are rallying behind a year-long centennial celebration that kicked off in September 2013. It doesn’t take much effort to get them to talk about why they love their hometown.
“It’s still quite a nice place to bring up the family, and it’s a nice variety of styles of living,” says Heisler. “You can be a farmer, or you can be a commuter, or you can run your own business here.”
Mayor Aaron Shepley moved here as a kid, and returned to raise a family.
“If I were to sum it up, Crystal Lake is a community that has been and is the best of both worlds,” says Shepley, who’s held office since 1999. “We have great schools, access to open space and countryside, and easy access to the city of Chicago.”
Sue Dobbe, the owner of a marketing business, also loves her home of 23 years. “Residents here talk to each other,” she says. “That kind of communication is too often lost in other growing communities. For example, I know the people who run the schools, not because of my involvement in the community, but because we talk to each other and we know each other.”
Centennial events kicked off with a festival at the Three Oaks Recreation Area and will end with a bang on Sept. 14, when part of downtown will be blocked off for a big, one-day party. Meanwhile, all kinds of special activities are ongoing, from history lectures to art projects.
“It’s a great opportunity to toot our own horn,” says Dobbe, a member of the city’s centennial celebration committee. “It is a great city. It has a lot of history. We’ve retained a lot of our buildings and original architecture, and what a great way to build up for the future.”
A Citywide Celebration
Planning for the centennial celebration began more than two years ago, when Shepley gathered leaders from all areas of society: schools, churches, business owners, nonprofits, artists and more.
“A lot of people have a lot of pride in Crystal Lake, so they’re proud to be here, and they’re excited about the events that are going on,” says Liz Maxwell, a city planner who’s worked with the Centennial Committee. “We had a great turnout for the kickoff and for Winterfest, even with the cold weather. People are really happy with what’s going on.”
The Crystal Lake Historic Preservation Commission has sponsored lively, well-attended lectures about local history. Businesses have joined in, decorating and displaying commemorative paddles. A map of these paddles is available at City Hall through August.
Elementary school students have learned some local history and painted their own paddles, exhibiting them at City Hall. The city’s three high schools are involved, too.
“I met with the schools because they have an English class that focuses on marketing,” says Maxwell. “Students are told to market a fake widget, but this year, they’re marketing the centennial. There were two really great TV commercials that came out of Prairie Ridge High School. From Crystal Lake Central, one group came up with something called ‘100 Years, 100 Stories.’”
Maxwell incorporated the students’ concept into a social media campaign, creating a platform for residents to share what they love about the town. There’s also talk of burying a time capsule, to cap off the celebration.
The centennial geocache coin challenge began as a volunteer effort from one clever committee member who enjoys this treasure-seeking hobby.
“We have these nice metal coins for prizes, and they have the city logo on one side, and the centennial logo on the other side,” says Maxwell. “There are 12 caches hidden around the city, and you find them with your GPS device, so one clue takes you to the next. Once you enter them all into our system, you’ll receive instructions for how to pick up your coin.”
Events have been widely popular with the community, even during Winterfest last December, when cold temperatures couldn’t keep families from playing ice-related games at the city’s Lakeside Legacy Park. Historical lectures, too, have brought standing-room-only crowds.
“Centuries are a big milestone,” says Shepley. “For some European communities, it’s just a drop in the bucket, but in the U.S., 100 years is a long time. It’s certainly an occasion to celebrate.”
Two Towns, One City
Crystal Lake has been settled much longer than a century. First, there were American Indian tribes, who built trading routes along what is now U.S. Route 14. The lake’s first European settlers came from New York in 1836, after native peoples were forced westward. Beman and Polly Crandall arrived with six of their children and built a log cabin east of the lake, about where the Tommy’s Red Hots restaurant stands today. Other settlers joined the Crandalls in forming Crystal Ville, so named for the lake’s sparkling waters.
“They were the only settlers here for about 20 years,” says Diana Kenney, director of the Crystal Lake Historic Preservation Commission and executive director of the downtown association.
With the arrival of the railroad in 1856, a neighboring community sprang up quickly. In 1868, the new city was renamed Nunda, after a city in New York from which many early settlers had migrated. Despite Nunda’s separate identity, a sign just above the railroad depot called this the Crystal Lake station.
“There were a lot of arguments between the communities,” says Kenney. “So, I’m sure it sat in the craw of the Nunda-ites that they called it the Crystal Lake station, even though it sat in the town of Nunda.”
Each city incorporated in 1874, and each continued to grow. Despite the rivalry, residents recognized their mutual need to cooperate on municipal services. “They pooled their resources and formed the Union School, ‘union’ meaning the joining of the two towns,” says Kenney. “It was located near the place where Husmann Elementary School is today.”
Just as they needed a new place for educating children, they also needed a new place to rest their dead. Consecrated in 1840, Crystal Lake Cemetery, now known as Lake Avenue Cemetery, was filling up.
“The two towns came together and bought land off Woodstock Street,” says Kenney. “There were snippets of cooperation through the late 1800s, although they were still at loggerheads.”
Despite the growing presence of municipal services, the rivalry persisted. In 1908, Nunda was renamed North Crystal Lake, a first step toward merging. But residents remained deeply divided on whether to merge the towns. In vote after vote, one town would approve the merger, only for the other to reject it. Finally, on April 28, 1914, both sides agreed, by a thin margin. The new city was chartered on Sept. 23.
“They were starting to get into sewer and water, fire departments – a million things,” says Kenney. “Together, as one municipality, they were better able to handle those services.”
As Chicago grew, so did Crystal Lake and its many industries. In Nunda, the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co. made drain tiles for farmers, before becoming a major producer of architectural terra cotta. The company once worked with Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.
In the days before refrigeration, ice was harvested from frozen Crystal Lake and shipped into Chicago. The job was perfect for an immigrant like John Heisler, who came to the U.S. from Germany’s Black Forest and started Heisler’s Bootery.
“He went into the leather business when, like many folks, he was let go after the ice went bad for the season,” says Jim Heisler, current owner and grandson of John Heisler. “He was smart enough to save up some money so he could purchase some tools, and he rented a bench from a local hardware store.”
Eventually, that hardware store was purchased by German immigrant Ben Raue; his daughter Lucille would later donate more than $2 million to restore the city’s 1929 vaudeville palace.
In the 1860s, wealthy Chicago trader Charles Dole built an elegant mansion within view of the lake. He loved to entertain there, and famously built a spur line from the railway tracks to accommodate guests for his daughter’s wedding. The home was sold in 1922, to a company whose vice president was the widow of the oldest Ringling brother. It was used as the city’s country club, and eventually became a boys’ seminary. Today, Dole’s mansion is a nonprofit haven for artists, offering gallery displays, performance space and regular events.
Following World War II, the city began a 60-year growth spurt, as commercial opportunities sprouted along Route 14, and subdivisions crept toward neighboring towns. Kenney and husband Bill moved to town in 1986, from Lake in the Hills.
“I wanted sidewalks and curbs, and this is where our church was,” says Kenney. “We had kids and were thinking about schools and things like that, so we moved to Crystal Lake and never left it.”
Mayor Shepley moved with his family from nearby Cary, in 1972. Despite the community’s growth, it hasn’t lost its character, he says.
“When my family first moved here, it was maybe 15,000 people, and that had doubled from just a few years earlier,” he says. “Since that period, we’ve hit 40,000, and we’ve managed to maintain the small-town feel that people gravitate toward. People want to know their neighbors, and here, they do.”
Plenty of Pride
Today, there’s much for the city to be proud of. Its three high schools – Central, South and Prairie Ridge – are some of the top-ranked schools in the state. In 1999, American Libraries ranked Crystal Lake Public Library among the nation’s top libraries for communities this size.
Crystal Lake is also a popular place to play. The Three Oaks Recreation Area, opened in 2010, is a former stone quarry that’s been transformed into a retreat for outdoor activities like fishing, picnicking, hiking, biking and swimming.
On the shores of Crystal Lake, the Main Beach welcomes swimmers all summer, and its band shell hosts local acts on Tuesdays, June through August. This June, the beach also hosted the 30th annual Cardboard Cup Regatta, in which competitors craft boats from cardboard, then race them in the lake. Come January, the frozen water is transformed into a golf course for the park district’s Doc Haznow Chili Open.
The downtown business district is filled with boutiques and family-owned restaurants. The Raue Center for the Arts hosts both big-name acts and community theater. Travelers can catch a Metra train toward Barrington, Arlington Heights and Chicago. A park hosts regular farmers markets and weekend concerts. Thanks to the city’s aggressive efforts to promote local businesses, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a vacant storefront downtown.
“It isn’t an accident that there isn’t much space to rent in downtown Crystal Lake,” says Dobbe, who’s involved in the downtown association, the chamber of commerce and the Rotary Club. “We have a couple of stores that are retiring, but we already have people interested in filling those spaces.”
The Next 100
The future looks bright for Crystal Lake. Where its first century was mostly a time of development, city leaders believe the next century will be a time of maturing. Suburban growth is likely to slow, as the city pushes against its neighbors’ borders – Prairie Grove to the north, Cary to the east, Lakewood to the west and Lake in the Hills/Huntley to the south. This family-friendly community is setting its sights on the future, while honoring its past.
At Heisler’s Bootery, Jim Heisler’s son Jason is helping to operate a second store off Randall Road. Shepley expects to run next spring for his fifth term as mayor. Dobbe, who raised her family here, expects her city to remain a welcoming place to live.
“This is a community that has a culture,” she says. “We’re accessible by car, bike, train – or you can even jump into your plane and fly into the Lake in the Hills airport,” she says. “I was just having lunch with a colleague who’s in her 30s and is very focused on values-based buying, versus economy-based buying. She says, ‘I want to buy from local people, even if it means paying a little more.’ We have just about everything you need right here in Crystal Lake.”