An abundance of festive home décor sets the scene for a beloved new tradition where shoppers can celebrate the season and stock up on unique gifts in a heartwarming atmosphere.
Situated amid the snow-dusted expanse of McHenry County’s Big Foot Prairie, there’s an annual tradition that intertwines holiday cheer and seasonal treasures within a charming setting.
Christmas on the Prairie draws visitors to Steel Heart Ltd., 10308 N. U.S. Route 14, in Harvard, for a month of gatherings that transport them to a winter wonderland. The scent of evergreens lingers while twinkling lights and classic Christmas tunes fill the air. Complimentary cookies, coffee and hot chocolate warm spirits.
“When you think of Christmas, it’s a warm feeling with family and friends,” says Gretchen Peczkowski, co-owner of Steel Heart Ltd. “When we started Christmas on the Prairie six years ago, we had a huge turnout. Now, people make a day trip out of it and bring relatives and friends just to talk and enjoy a cookie and a cup of coffee.”
Steel Heart’s barn, which was built in the early 1800s and played a role in the Underground Railroad, is a year-round setting for people who want to discover handmade metalworks for home and garden. But there’s something special about the atmosphere during Christmas on the Prairie.
Running from Nov. 24 to Dec. 22 this year, the event shows off an eclectic assortment of treasures in and surrounding the barn. Find Christmas and seasonal decor, local honey, serving platters, birdhouses and feeders, steel tree ornaments and products by 1803 Candles of Waterman, to offer just a sample. There are treasures that appeal to pet lovers, seasonal entertainers and much more.
Most of what you’ll find around the barn is designed by Gretchen’s husband, Steel Heart co-owner Jacek Peczkowski.
Foldable Christmas trees adorned with twinkling lights serve as a creative way to display Christmas cards while metal reindeer make for eye-catching garden art.
Every Christmas on the Prairie, the Peczkowskis bring in a different centerpiece to serve as a focal point for the event.
Previous centerpieces have included the Grinch and a silver sleigh filled with gifts and various small Santas.This year, the Peczkowskis are bringing back a focal favorite: the gnome home. This cabin, crafted by Jacek, is filled with hundreds of plush Christmas gnomes of all sizes.
Steel Heart is open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Fridays and Saturdays it’s open until 5 p.m.
While there’s much to explore around the barn during regular operating hours, it’s the special weekend events that really get people talking.
Kicking things off on Black Friday, the Peczkowskis transform the historic barn into holiday haven where Christmas lights hang from the rafters and evergreen trees stand tall. Ornaments and Santas hang from every nook and cranny while gifts and other seasonal treasures fill the shelves.
The first weekend event following Thanksgiving weekend comes on Dec. 2 with Ladies Day Out. It’s an occasion for moms, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers and friends to spend the day shopping. There are special sales with complimentary mulled wine to warm up the day.T
he following week, on Dec. 9, comes Shopping with Santa’s Elves, a day that’s designed especially for children under 12. Santa’s cheerful helpers arrive to help children select special presents for their loved ones. The elves are ready to help children stay on budget, wrap their gift and add a tag.
“When I was a kid, the local jeweler in Wauconda had a cabinet with items priced for kids,” says Gretchen. “I remember I got a brooch for my mom, and I paid a quarter. I liked that, and kids still look forward to it, so that’s part of Christmas on the Prairie.”
The men have their special day on Dec. 16, when the Steel Heart team is ready to help them choose and wrap unique finds for their loved ones. As a treat, male shoppers can enjoy complimentary whiskey and bourbon samples from Harvard’s Rush Creek Distillery.
Finally, as the big day draws near, Steel Heart hosts a Blue Light Special on Sunday, Dec. 17. Every 15 minutes, a new item goes on discount, while supplies last. It’s a mystery to shoppers where that blue light will pop up next.Christmas on the Prairie is cherished among holiday shoppers for its selection of unique offerings and Christmastime fun, but they also appreciate how the location adds to the atmosphere.
Just outside the historic barn lie the Steel Heart gardens, which invite leisurely strolls amidst snow-covered plantings, antique ornaments and hand-wrought metalworks. Nearby sits the Gothic Revival-style house where the Peczkowskis live.
Built in 1838, the House of Seven Gables holds its own secrets, including patio stones that were once Chinese washboards and a fossilized frog tucked away in a granite pillar.
Visitors also enjoy seeing the spaces where escaped slaves found refuge on the Underground Railroad. Beneath the bridge leading into the barn, there’s a dug-out area that was both a root cellar and a hiding place.
“When you point out things like that and tell people, it makes the entire experience even more special,” says Gretchen.
Those visitors are also amazed at the story behind the business that now calls this barn home. Jacek learned the metalworking trade as a child in Poland, where his grandfather was a blacksmith and his father crafted landscapes. He escaped the Communists’ control in the 1980s with little more than the clothes on his back and met Gretchen at a refugee camp in Austria.
The couple eventually made their way to the Midwest and started selling furniture and garden stakes in 1997. Demand grew, and so did their working space. They purchased their historic home and barn in 2007 and worked in Harvard’s Star Line Factory until buying the other 10 acres of property on Big Foot Prairie in 2021.
Shoppers who arrive this Christmas will still find handmade garden stakes – along with a variety of other treasures, not all of them true to the holiday theme. From daisy bistro sets with tables and chairs to rust-finished marquee arrows and twisted stake weather vanes, there are plenty of creative finds throughout.
The Peczkowskis put countless hours into preparing for Christmas, but perhaps what they most enjoy about Christmas on the Prairie is its ability to forge new relationships.
“Many of the people we’ve met who have come in as shoppers are now not only our friends – they’re like family,” says Gretchen. “We’re not guaranteed tomorrow, so for me, family is everything. That’s what makes this whole thing special.”