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‘An Absolute Pearl’

Spring Grove long remained the largest fish hatchery in the United States due to its natural supply of pure spring water and its proximity to nearby lakes.

Local boys told tales of a whale living at the Spring Grove Hatchery.

This “whale” — in reality a 300-pound Wisconsin sturgeon — went missing one day, evidently stolen, never to be returned. (“Someone had a nice diner,” jokes Dr. Ron Erdmann, who volunteers today as fish hatchery business manager.). And so the legend grew, helped by the cracked concrete walls of its former holding pond, attributed no doubt to the whale’s mighty flailing.

The Beginning of a Landmark
In 1914, a frog-ridden peat bog was transformed by the Illinois Conservation Department into the Spring Grove Hatchery. The location was ideal, owing to its natural supply of pure spring water and its proximity to nearby lakes, and Spring Grove long remained the largest U.S. fish hatchery.

Thomas McCafferty was the hatchery’s first superintendent, spending a lifetime in that capacity from 1914 to 1960. Under his direction, Spring Grove became not only home to nation’s premier facility for the propagation of game fish, it became a beautifully landscaped and maintained park as well, where great weeping willows stood sentinel beside the ponds, and was enjoyed by all in the surrounding village. And, it was a place where youth roared.

No Fishing Allowed
Any given day might witness a Boy Scout troop hiking the pathways that encircled the ponds; or a group of school kids on field trip learning about conservationism; or a family out for an afternoon drive and picnic.

Superintendent McCafferty — who boasted that he’d never lost a fish — made a deal with the local children. Do not fish at the hatchery, he offered, and he will clear off an entire pond for use as a hockey rink and for ice-skating in the wintertime.

Yet the temptation to fish must have been too hard for some to resist. At its peak, the Spring Grove Hatchery spawned more than 35 million fingerlings (baby fish) per year. To the delight of regional sportsmen, these fish — bluegill, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, walleye, northern pike and catfish among them — were eventually stocked in lakes, rivers and ponds throughout northern Illinois. The whole operation was a tremendous success.

In 1932, during the worst of the Great Depression, in fact, the hatchery was booming. McCafferty took advantage of low-cost materials and a ready supply of labor to nearly double the size of the facility. And all this was accomplished without a dime of taxpayers’ money. Funded entirely by the receipts of fishing licenses and fees, the hatchery operated at an expense of $9,000 per year and even kicked back some profit to the state!

For decades, the Spring Grove Hatchery remained open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

Nature Takes its Course
The process was quite simple. First, fish eggs were artificially hatched in jars inside the hatchery building. These jars were carefully infused with 400 gallons of cold, pure spring water per day. Once hatched, the fingerlings were kept in the long narrow tanks, called “racers,” also located on the first floor of the hatchery building. When they reached about an inch in length, these young fish were netted and transported to the ponds — the largest of which encompassed 17 acres and up to 10 feet in depth — where nature took its course and more spawning occurred.

Once the fish grew to the size of a legal catch, they were seined — that is, trapped in a large net with sinkers on one end and floaters on the other — and then transported to Illinois waterways.The design was rather ingenious. The ponds had locking devices, or dams, for easy control of the water level. One or more could be drained without disturbing the others.

Built at different heights and depths, the water cascaded from one pond down to the next, and was ultimately directed through one final sluice to drain into the Nippersink Creek. The catch-worthy fish left Spring Grove at first by a railroad spur that ran by the old milk factory, on what came to be called “fish cars,” and later by hatchery trucks with special aeration systems.

And so the Spring Grove hatchery functioned, swimmingly one might say, year after year, until the state closed it in 2004.

Rite of Passage
The hatchery provided countless hours of adventure to Spring Grove’s youth. A favorite pastime was walking the 10-inch wide concrete walls that separate the fishponds. The goldfish pond posed the most daunting challenge, and it became a true rite of passage.

“Until we had mastered walking the goldfish pond,” writes storyteller Jim May in his book, “The Farm on Nippersink Creek,”  “every other wall walk was a rehearsal for the real test.

“Sometimes on these practice runs the drop down to the ground might be four or five feet, but it was still better than falling into the water—most of us didn’t know how to swim.

“The first time I made it across standing up I realized — along with the joy of accomplishment — that contrary to my parents’ warning, the worst doesn’t always happen when you take a risk.

“We walked the goldfish pond hundreds of times. It was, perhaps, a tempering of our spirit equally as important as attending mass.”

Mary Hedge, who eloped from Chicago to Spring Grove during World War II, remembers one family member who was not so lucky. “I was walking with my three kids and our dog, Blackie, on the fringe of the ponds,” she recalled. “Not up on the walls, but right up to the edge. All of a sudden Blackie got all excited and leapt in the pond. Maybe he was chasing something, but I don’t know what. I think it was a run-off pond and didn’t have any fish. Blackie landed in mud up to his belly. He was a Gordon setter, with long dark fur, and what a mess.

“One of my kids — I can’t remember if it was Peg, Cindy, or Nick — jumped right in after and pulled that dog out of there. I’d never seen anything like it, except for in cartoons.”

Ask anyone who grew up in Spring Grove and you are likely to open up a font of such memories about the old hatchery.

The Hatchery Today
The Spring Grove Hatchery was, as one writer for the now-defunct Fox Valley Mirror put it in 1932, “… a reward for the leisurely search for the unusual.”

It certainly was unique. And the Village of Spring Grove believes it can be just as rewarding today. The village took ownership of the site in 2007 and has big plans for its future. These include a museum and interactive educational center, a small scale hatchery, a walking, jogging, and skiing path, native wetland flora and fauna, and areas for simply relaxing, picnicking and, yes, a trout pond where youngsters will finally be allowed to fish. “This is our Central Park,” Erdmann said. “It’s an absolute pearl.

“It’ll be a good place for grandma and grandpa to take the little ones, teach them how to fish — I love that scenario. But this is a large project for a small town.”

Thanks to a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, renovations to the hatchery building began last spring.

And it was plaqued this past summer by the McHenry County Historical Society But more work — and more funding — is yet needed. There are some clear signs of disrepair.
Yet the site is not all that shabby, and walking its quiet paths one can easily imagine the ponds at full restoration.

Maybe someday soon, imaginative boys from town will race home on their bicycles with tales of the mighty whale living once again at the Spring Grove Hatchery.

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