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A ‘Star’ is Reborn

Starline Factory, an old farm equipment plant, has been repurposed for the arts and more.

Back in the early ’60s, I lived on a small farm in Sharon, Wis., a town a few miles northwest of Harvard. On weekends, my family would often head for Harvard to go shopping, attend church and maybe go out to dinner. My father had an amazing selection of routes to Harvard. It’s difficult to imagine one could find or create so many routes to the neighboring town. As a small, often preoccupied kid, our actual entry into Harvard was usually a surprise for me. Sometimes it was via the bovine gatekeeper Harmilda, the statue at Five Point Park that welcomes visitors to the home of Milk Days. Other times we would rumble over what seemed like 50 railroad tracks, and at times we’d enter via Diggins Street, which sliced through a massive brick and glass factory emblazoned with the name “Starline.”

With smoke and steam rising from this red brick, fortress-like building, I was certain they were building Starline-brand locomotives, rockets or cannons. Whatever they made there, it had to be big. A few years later, I began to notice a five-pointed star on barn hardware, rope pulleys and cow stanchions. There was even a cast iron star that activated the cow waterers. “Aha, this is what Starline makes!” I discovered.

Starline’s Beginnings

Starline’s first claim to fame was a hay carrier patented by Henry L. Ferris. Born in a log cabin about a mile east of Alden, Ferris grew up on a farm and was familiar with farming’s long, hard hours. This may have been the driving force behind his inventiveness. His first invention was a gate that farmers could open and close without leaving their wagon. Next, in 1883, it was the hay carrier. Word got out about his hay carrier and soon, enterprising men were coming to Alden, looking to make business with Ferris. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Helm – owners of a Harvard hardware store on the northeast corner of Ayer and Brainard streets – seemed to have the best business plan, and so a partnership was formed: Hunt, Helm & Ferris.

By now, Ferris had a family and a creamery business on his father’s farm. Each day, he walked the four miles down the old K.D. Railroad tracks to make carriers in the basement of the hardware store. The carriers began selling, profits were good,and eventually Ferris sold the creamery and moved himself and family to Harvard. Soon, Ferris required more room and a 20-foot-by-60-foot machine shed was erected on Front Street along the Northwestern Railroad right-of-way. Then, two more sheds appeared.

In 1889, construction began on their first brick structure and by 1910, the old wood buildings were removed and replaced by even more brick and mortar. Harvard began to grow around Hunt, Helm & Ferris Co. The city’s fathers knew a good thing when they saw it and were very cooperative, allowing two existing streets to be vacated so Ferris could construct a three- block-long, uninterrupted mega-building. Not long after, more expansion was needed. But by now, Diggins Street was too important to vacate, so a tunnel was built connecting the newest most northerly addition. The original 6-horsepower steam power plant had now grown to four electric units producing 2,000 horsepower.

On the Production Line

Early on, Hunt, Helm & Ferris had two divisions: the Star line of farming products and the CannonBall line, which made toys like sleds, coaster wagons and roller skates. Eventually, the toy production morphed into a maker of barn door tracks and hardware.

Because of the five-pointed star the company incorporated as their product logo, farmers began referring to its farmstead equipment as the “Star line.” So in 1931 Hunt, Helm and Ferris renamed the corporation Starline Inc.

By the mid-’60s, three generations of Ferris engineers had taken out more than 350 patents under the Starline name. With 40 salespeople on the road and 325 plant employees, Starline, the oldest industry in McHenry County, was on a roll.

In 1969, Starline merged with Chromalloy American Corp., becoming part of its Farm Systems Division,and remained headquartered in Harvard. In the early ’70s, S.G. Burritt became the first nonfamily member elected chairman of the board. To his credit, he strived to keep Hunt, Helm & Ferris’ objective alive – the streamlining of American farming – but eventually, the poor economic environment of the late ’80s, multiple corporate sales, mergers and bankruptcies brought an end to Starline and the building was left empty.

Starline Reborn

By 1990, I had a family and was living in Johnsburg. One day, while visiting Harvard, I thought I’d reminisce a bit and stop by the Starline, which I had not seen in several years. To my shock, the building was in deplorable condition – broken windows, doors wide open, caved-in roof sections, file cabinets and desks askew, papers everywhere. I was certain this once prominent building, a part of Harvard’s proud history, was only a breath away from the wrecking ball.

Around 1994, enter Harvard resident Orrin Kinney, who needed a place for his expanding business. Other than its horrible condition, the northern section of the old Starline facility seemed a perfect fit. But in order to acquire this northern section, he had to take ownership of and responsibility for the remaining crumbling three-story eyesore. And so the deal was done, sleeves were rolled up, and for five years Orrin and his son Eric worked to slow or stop the rampant decay and reclaim the northern building to house their companies, A-OK Inc. and Harvard Products, makers of a variety of metal products, including doors and windows. I thought it interesting to learn that Kinney, at one time, actually worked in the Starline facility, the same place this Harvard visionary was now working to save.

 A Home for the Arts

Next, what to do with the southern three-story section? Orrin’s son, who was residing in Chicago, saw the demand for art show space, especially in former turn-of-the-century factories. Starline’s large industrial windows could supply excellent lighting and the exposed brick walls, cast iron fittings, and large timber columns throughout would provide the perfect ambiance. So back to work they went, restoring yet another section of the building for art shows, and thankfully their vision worked. Art shows brought artists asking about studio space and creating studio space meant more restoration. Today, there are more than 25 active art studios at Starline.

Expanding its Breadth

In 2010, a rather surprising phone call came, from of all people, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry L. Ferris. She was going to be married and wondered if there was any chance a part of her grandfather’s old Starline building could be made available for a sizable reception. The answer was yes, except for one detail: The area needed for a large reception had a partially collapsed roof and was filled with debris. So once again, Orrin worked to resurrect more of the building. Completed on time, the reception was a resounding success and today Starline can accommodate receptions for as many as 500 guests.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit and tour Starline. How wonderful it is to see the place revived and teeming with new life. History abounds around each corner with numerous, carefully preserved reminders of the building’s previous life. Expansion continues for providing more of Starline’s unique and affordable studio spaces. An Internet radio station, Harvard Community Radio, now operates at Starline and recently several elegantly curved antique church pews and a pipe organ were acquired for the creation of a wedding chapel. Access for the mobility-challenged Starline guests is provided throughout the multilevel facility. Future plans abound at this truly historic and sustainable building project.

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