14 Short Stories Along Route 14

We all know our little section of this thoroughfare, but it’s easy to forget we see just a glimpse of this road that ends at Yellowstone Park. Here are 14 things you never knew about Rt. 14.

US Route 14 spans some 1,445 miles and five states. From its starting point at Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood to its end at Yellowstone National Park, this roadway reveals a true cross-section of America, from city to suburb to small town and rural outpost. Each community is filled with compelling stories you’d never know if you simply drove past. Here are just a few of those stories, collected from our region’s own stretch of U.S. Rt. 14.

(Gerry’s Cafe photo)

Arlington Heights: Have a Cup of Joy

While you might recognize this city’s busy downtown, you might not know Gerry’s Café, a local coffee shop with a heartwarming business model.

The brainchild of restaurateur Amy Philpott and special education teacher Natalie Griffin, the idea for the cafe brewed for some time before its debut last August.

“Students who are identified with extra needs are given the opportunity to go to school to age 22, where they are prepared through internships and job interviews. They’re ready to work,” explains Griffin. “But I noticed that when my students left school, no one was hiring.”

Gerry’s ensures some 42 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities can find meaningful work, from the cashier to the kitchen staff.

“One of our employees has watched YouTube videos and worked hard to learn how to create the special heart that goes on the lattes,” says Griffin. “I knew they could do it from the beginning, and they have surpassed all expectations. Our employees are truly shining stars.”

The fact that Gerry’s Café is fully staffed tells Griffin there’s a need for more. While opening new branches is part of her and Philpott’s plan, the current goal is visibility. Griffin encourages anyone who’s interested in Gerry’s Café to learn more at gerryscafe.org. In the meantime, she is inspired by her employees and the community’s response.

“It’s been amazing,” she says. “Every person who comes in leaves with a smile.”

(Opera in Focus photo)

Rolling Meadows: Where Puppets Hit the High Notes

This corner in northwest Cook County balances idyllic and city living, and it’s a great place to take in a bit of culture – with (almost) no strings attached.

Opera in Focus is the oldest puppet theater in the Chicago area, having staged its first show in Chicago 66 years ago. It moved to Rolling Meadows in 1993 and continues making its mark, in part thanks to lifelike rod puppets.

“We’re the only theater in the world that makes and uses this specific type of puppet,” says Justin Snyder, artistic director and principal puppeteer.

A typical show is a mix of melodies, ranging from Wagner operas to Broadway numbers. The majority of musical selections are audience suggestions.

The Opera in Focus theater, located in the Park District building, is as unique as the performances. Built to resemble a miniature opera house, the venue has puppet figures in tiny opera boxes, a puppet prompter in the orchestra pit and Maestro Tosci, the company’s mini conductor, waving his baton.

Most shows run Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, though the theater is also open for special group bookings.

Palatine: Rest in Putts

Passionate mini-golf players are dying to stop in Palatine. That’s because Ahlgrim Family Funeral Services, which has been in business since 1892, is home to the most unique mini-golf course.

Back in 1964, funeral home director Roger Ahlgrim built a nine-hole course in the business’ Palatine basement. Originally meant for private use, the haunted house-themed course became the stuff of local legend. Now open to the public, it’s a frequent star on screen and in print, and it was even featured in the 2011 edition of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

The course is strictly closed during funeral services, so call before you drop in.

Inverness: Legend or Myth?

The steep-roofed village hall, surrounded by imposing stone silos, is a standout that’s worth seeing, and not only because there are rumors it was a hideout for Al Capone.

Alas, village staff say there’s no evidence Capone stayed here, even though Chicago’s famous gangsters readily traveled Route 14 between the Windy City and Wisconsin.

Perhaps this legend is all in the name. After all, Scotland’s own Inverness is just a short drive from the Loch Ness Monster.

Barrington Hills: A Hive of Activity

Be on the lookout for flying insects as you pass through this pastoral suburb, where the majority of properties are at least 5 acres. Located 40 miles northwest of Chicago, Barrington Hills is the bee’s knees, not only for its proximity to the city and its wide-ranging property freedoms.

The village was abuzz in 2019 when board members made Barrington Hills an official Bee City USA. The designation reflects communities that protect bee populations through conservation, advocacy and pesticide reduction.

To earn this distinction, the village established bee-friendly habitats filled with plants to help the bees thrive. There’s also a honey tasting contest during the annual The Hills Are Alive Festival, held every fall.

Barrington Hills is one of only four Bee City USA affiliates in Illinois. The others are nearby in Port Barrington, Hawthorn Woods and Franklin Park.

(Catlow 1927 Foundation photo)

Barrington: Catlow Preps for its Closeup

When the city’s beloved Catlow Theatre cinema closed in 2020, Brian Long swooped in like a Hollywood superhero.

“My son’s first job was working at the Catlow Theatre, so I already knew the owner,” says Long. “I made him an offer and we ended up cutting a deal.”

The owner of Long & Co. Jewelers of Barrington, which sits kitty-corner to the Catlow, was up for the adventure, but Long quickly realized he’d need some help. So, he established a foundation to help restore the old theater.

Built in 1927, the Catlow was designed by Alfonso Iannelli, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright who also designed the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, which is just down the road on Rt. 14.

“You can see his work, including hand-painted wood carvings,” says Dylan Nelson, director of the Catlow 1927 Foundation. “It’s really impressive.”

To maximize their use of the facility, Long and Nelson plan to install a retractable screen.

“Not many people know this, but there is a beautiful stage that’s been hiding behind the screen,” says Nelson. “We’ll be able to host everything from concerts to comedians to plays and musicals.”
The pair also plan to upgrade the theater’s former diner into a catering kitchen and lounge, while adding a small museum of items that have been found on site.

“There is so much history here,” Long says. “We have signs and other items that were never thrown out that we’ll use to decorate the lounge.”

Long and Nelson hope to complete the project in time for the Catlow Theatre’s 100th birthday and a lineup of special events.

One thing that won’t much change is the Catlow’s distinctive marquee, where locals enjoy sharing personal messages.

“Right now, renting the marquee is the only revenue the Catlow makes,” says Long. “People really appreciate it. It’s a great piece of our town.”

Fox River Grove: Fit for a Castle

Before he immigrated to the U.S. in 1931, Theodore Bettendorf watched in amazement as an 11th century castle was rebuilt in his hometown of Vianden, Luxembourg.

When he settled in Fox River Grove, Bettendorf began building his own castle by placing stone veneer on his three-room house. Most of those stones he collected from farmers’ fields and quarries. After 36 years of expansions, Bettendorf Castle now boasts a working drawbridge, a water-filled moat, cone-roofed turrets and a wishing well.

The privately owned castle hosts tours, weddings and photo shoots upon request.

Crystal Lake: With Lakes Clear as Glass

It was the glassy water on this city’s namesake lake that drew vacationers from Chicago a century ago. Today, no vacationer’s visit is complete without a quick stop to the city’s other lakefront, at Three Oaks Recreation Area.

This acreage used to be a stone quarry for Vulcan Materials. Eventually, they reached rock bottom. Literally. After crews punctured the quarry’s water table, two deepwater lakes welled up from the ground. Locals dubbed them Vulcan Lakes.

When the quarry was deeded back to the City of Crystal Lake, city leaders decided to create a recreation area there. Three Oaks opened in 2010.

Visitors today can enjoy a 3-mile hiking trail, a cable wakeboard park and a beachfront that includes locker rooms, a restaurant and a children’s play area. To prevent the spread of invasive species, private watercraft are not allowed, so the on-site marina rents out rowboats, canoes, sailboats and paddleboats.

Woodstock: All Aboard the Historic Square

Keen-eyed movie buffs recognize the city’s Historic Square as the backdrop to the hit comedy “Groundhog Day,” but in reality, no day on the Square is exactly the same.

Matt Drennan, whose MD Trains has been on the Square for five years, enjoys the variety of people who frequent the Square’s businesses, farmers market, entertainment venues and festivals.

“The square is its own microcosm for businesses,” he says. “Places that wouldn’t survive in other locations thrive here because of all the wonderful historic tourism.”

Drennan builds on that enthusiasm with Rail Fest, a fall gathering that involves model train layouts in some of the shops, about 20 total last year.

For Drennan, a day on the Square is a day well-spent, with a huge variety of attractions – and the occasional Hollywood sighting – to keep visitors amused.

“We have everything from an anime shop to a beautiful bookshop and a chocolate shop,” he says. “Not to mention, a really good wine bar.”

(Starline Factory photo)

Harvard: An Artist’s Oasis

The Starline Factory is hard to miss, and not only because of its massive scale. It’s also Harvard’s epicenter of cultural activity.

The building’s roots date back to 1883 with a farm equipment manufacturer called Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Co.

“Hunt and Helm owned a hardware store on Ayer Street,” explains Lorette Dodt, Starline’s resident historian and the designer and first manager of the Starline Excursion Market. “They approached Henry Ferris, a farmer and inventor, to build his popular hay carrier in the basement of their hardware store.”

The hay carrier eventually made this company the town’s biggest employer. Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Co. moved to 300 W. Front St. in the late 1880s, and in 1931 the company became Starline & Co.
Chromalloy American Corp. took over in 1969 and stayed in town another two decades before abandoning the massive factory, which currently spans three city blocks.

Enter Orrin Kinney. The engineer and businessman moved to Harvard in the 1980s to work as a plant manager for Starline before branching out on his own. Around 2005, he purchased the factory and began transforming it into a hub for local businesses. When his son, Eric, pitched the concept of using it for artist studios, things really took off. It’s now home to more than 35 studios, art shows, local businesses and four event spaces.

“The first wedding there was in 2009,” recalls Dodt. “The bride was the great-granddaughter of Henry Ferris.”

Dodt and her husband were among the first artists to rent studios in Starline. Since then, Dodt has become coordinator for 4th Fridays, a monthly art show, and the Starline Excursion Market, where artists and vendors sell their wares.

The massive complex also hosts Stanchion Pub, whose kitchen doubles as the catering kitchen for events.

“I wish it was more well-known,” says Dodt. “The food is very good.”

Walworth: A Great Place to Brie

There’s no better welcome to Wisconsin than a cheesemaker, especially when it’s across the street from the state line. So, take the detour down State Line Road to Highfield Farm Creamery.

Operated by Terry and Denise Woods, Highfield Farm is the smallest milking parlor in the state.
“We milk into a jar, which is very common in Europe but not here,” says Terry. “It gravity feeds and passes into the cheese vat. There’s no pumping and our milk spends no time riding around in a truck.”

A computer engineer by trade, Terry purchased the farm in 1984 after selling his first company. He started another company, sold it and did freelance Y2K updates for banks.

“After that, I started looking for something new to do,” says Terry. “I always found dairy interesting, so I looked online and found a place that would teach commercial cheese making on a small scale.”
That place was in the Scottish Highlands, which was rather fitting, given Terry’s Scottish roots and his previous visits to the country. At Highfield Farm Creamery, he uses European methods – what Terry describes as “British style.”

“We make hard and semi-hard wheel cheeses in 5- and 10-pound wheels,” he says. “We also make soft cheeses if we have enough milk.”

Terry hopes to make it back to Scotland to visit Kathy Biss, author of the book “Practical Cheesemaking,” whom he credits for teaching him the craft. He’s also keen to visit the few cheesemakers that ply their trade in Scotland.

“There’s one out on the Isle of Mull that I’ve been talking to,” Terry explains. “He says, ‘Come on out and I’ll put you to work.’”

(Janesville CVB photo)

Janesville: Promoting Peace on Earth

With a nickname like “Wisconsin’s Park Place,” you just know that Janesville is a great spot to stretch your legs.

The largest green space in town is Rockport Park, 246 acres that include an outdoor pool, hiking trails, a soccer field and a historic farmstead. It’s also home to the Peace Park Playground. Completed in 2002, this gigantic play place is named for a 52-foot-tall peace pole with the inscription “May Peace Prevail on Earth” written in several languages.

“What’s really cool about it is that you can walk around it and talk to your kids about the inscriptions,” says Christine Rebout, executive director of the Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Just a few steps away, the playground pays tribute to the tribes that once lived in the area, including the Menominee, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Sauk and Ho-Chunk peoples. A structure resembling a teepee contains eight paintings created by Janesville artist Gary Gandy.

Madison: Fun with Physics

Wisconsin’s state capital has much to enjoy, including the seat of government and a state university. For something truly unexpected, stop by the university and the second floor of Chamberlin Hall, 1150 University Ave., to find the Leonard R. Ingersoll Physics Museum.

Established in 1918 by Professors Benjamin Warner Snow and Leonard Rose Ingersoll, the 1,500-square-foot museum is one of the country’s first dedicated solely to physics.

“We really pride ourselves that our museum is the oldest interactive science museum in the country still in operation,” says Cierra Atkinson, the museum’s outreach manager. “We’ve been hands-on for a really long time.”

Sixty-five rotating exhibits include an earthquake simulator, a bicycle-powered generator and a Fourier sound analyzer that visualizes the soundwaves created by your voice. Several of the museum’s original exhibits are still on display.

“The concepts for the exhibits and their construction are done by faculty and staff in the department,” says Atkinson.

Admission is free and exhibits are suitable for all ages.

“When we bring groups of school kids in, they are full of questions,” says Atkinson. “Their faces light up when we tell them they can touch everything and push all the buttons.”

The museum is open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check the website for open house events on Saturdays.

Yellowstone: Full of Wonder

Congratulations! After trekking through Minnesota, the Badlands and most of Wyoming, you’ve reached the end of Route 14 inside Yellowstone National Park. While we most often associate America’s first national park with Theodore Roosevelt, it’s actually another president – Illinois’ own Ulysses S. Grant – who deserves the credit.

The land has been settled by people for more than 11,000 years, with more than 27 tribes claiming some connection. Fur traders and early explorers, including a wayward member of Lewis and Clark’s team, brought home stories of an unusual landscape filled with geysers and hot springs. Expeditions in the 1860s and ’70s included explorers, surveyors, scientists and artists – each of whom helped to capture the imagination and save the land from development.

Grant signed America’s first national park into law on March 1, 1872, but it wasn’t until 44 years later, when Woodrow Wilson approved the National Park Service, that Yellowstone took on the shape we know and love today.