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McHenry Turns 175

This year marks McHenry’s 175th birthday — a milestone by any stretch of the imagination.

Everyone loves a party. Have you ever planned a party celebrating 175 years and invited more than 24,000 people? For McHenry’s 175th birthday, that was the monumental task taken on as the committee met at the McHenry Chamber of Commerce office and began to plan the celebration of the founding of the city. With a committee that included members of the chamber, city administrators, members of the local historical societies, local community organizations and interested citizens, the plans for McHenry’s birthday became a reality.

175 Years in the Making
May 10, 1836 is considered the official birth of McHenry, for it was then that the first recognized settler, Christy Wheeler, made his home near the banks of the Fox River in the area that was to become Riverside Drive. Wheeler was the first merchant, postmaster and physician to practice in McHenry even though he lacked formal medical training.

In 1836, McHenry also became the county seat for the newly formed McHenry County, a title it retained until the state legislature of 1842-1843 separated the county into present-day McHenry and Lake counties and the county seat was moved to Centerville — today known as Woodstock.

With a large farming community surrounding it, the city developed into not one but three separate downtown centers: Riverside Drive, Green Street and West McHenry (Gagetown). Each was independent of the others and sometimes competitive, but still united as the city of McHenry. The railroad arrived in West McHenry in 1854, largely due to the efforts of State Senator George Gage. It provided easy access for visitors to the city, especially those escaping the heat and grime of Chicago. Resorts and dance halls blossomed on the river and in nearby Pistakee Bay. Excursion boats filled the river transporting visitors.

Industry also found its way to McHenry. Borden Milk built a processing plant along the railroad to transport local milk to Chicago. Hunter and Switzer brought their boat-building companies to town. Ice was harvested and sent to Chicago. Gravel from the clay pits provided materials for road building. The Hanly Brick Factory and the mills located in town were but some of the many industries that contributed to the growth of McHenry.

Birthday Fit for an Icon
The committee quickly realized that this birthday deserved not a one-day festival but a full year of celebration, a time when all of the city could be involved. And so the festivities began. In January, a dinner dance was held to begin the commemoration.

What is a birthday party without decorations? With McHenry being known as the “Heart of the Fox,” the fox was the obvious symbol chosen to decorate the city. Wood cutouts of the fox (which is also the McHenry logo) were provided by the city and sold to local merchants, organizations and individuals to be painted, decorated and now displayed on the light posts of Riverside Drive, Green Street, Main Street and the Riverwalk (see photo). Styles from funky to traditional painting can be found. Each one is unique. Enjoy a walk through the city and see them all.

Of course birthdays also require birthday cards. Thanks to Lucy Tonyan, artist and owner of The Studio Art School in McHenry, a birthday card was designed with McHenry’s fox and distributed to the elementary schools for the students to color and return to the McHenry Public Library where they were judged by a committee led by Mayor Sue Low.

Next comes the cake. On May 10, visitors to city hall were treated to a piece of  McHenry’s  birthday  cake  baked  by  Riverside Bake Shop.

By evening, the party moved to Veterans Park, where everyone was entertained by an excellent selection of music performed by the McHenry High School Band. Mayor Low officially proclaimed the day McHenry’s birthday. Pat Wirtz,a chairman of the landmark commission, read a history of early McHenry as published in the 1878 Plaindealer.

Introduced in the evening was the Adams Trailer, donated by R. A. Adams Enterprises Inc., which contains a portable historical display organized by landmark commission and McHenry Area Historical Society members. The display board, with its large collection of historical photographs collected from various sources, will help long-term McHenry residents reminisce while introducing McHenry’s past to new residents and the youth of the city. The trailer will be on display in various locations throughout the city. When not on display, it will be under the care of the McHenry Fire Department.

Future Celebrations
“Then and Now McHenry,” a book depicting the changes and growth of McHenry over the years will be published in July and available at all events that the Adams Trailer attends. A children’s book, “Exploring McHenry with M.C. Henry,” will also be introduced. Shirts for both adults and children are available at the trailer inscribed with the birthday celebration message. Christmas ornaments and sun catchers have been designed by Adams Memorials & Memorable Gifts, commemorating 175 years of McHenry. They are engraved with the likeness of the fox or the Pearl  Street  bridge.  Monies  from  sales  will
be donated to the McHenry Riverwalk Foundation.

Moving on with the party, the landmark commission will be holding the city’s largest picnic, A Day at Petersen Farm, on Sunday, June 26. Come and join in the fun, with hayrides, farm animals, entertainment and no entry fee.

Each Thursday throughout the summer, the melodious sounds of the band concert in Veterans Park can be heard drifting across the city; continue the party during cruise nights on Mondays.

July 8 through 17, the party continues during Fiesta Days, featuring a parade, live music, arts and crafts sales, outdoor theater performances and more. Throughout the fall, McHenry will continue to celebrate and invites all to join.

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