Visit Hebron, Alden & Harvard:
Small Illinois Towns Known
for Antiques, Basketball, Milk
McHENRY COUNTY, ILL. - Tucked away in the northwest corner of McHenry County, just a few miles south of the Wisconsin state line, are three interesting little towns well worth visiting for a relaxing weekend road trip.
First settled by farmers in 1836, Hebron was named by the first white woman settler in the area. Friends and neighbors would gather at her house on Sundays to share a meal and sing. One of their favorites was the hymn "Old Hebron", and they decided it would be a good name for their community. Today, the population is 1,215.
BASKETBALL: Near the center of town is a water tower painted to look like a basketball. That's because in 1952, the Hebron-Alden High School basketball team of strapping young farm boys beat out the competition from much larger Illinois schools to win the state basketball championship. Back then, the high school's total enrollment was only 98, and all the schools in Illinois played in one tournament, no matter how big or small they were. It was quite an accomplishment; you can ask just about any one in town, and they'll tell you all about it!
ANTIQUES: Today, in an era when antique shops are becoming few and far between, Hebron has an "Antique & Specialty District" with several antique shops in a two-block stretch, including Abundance Antiques & Design, Grampy's Antique & Resale Shops, Lloyd & Leota's Antiques & Restoration and Prairie Avenue Antiques & Tack Exchange.
FOOD: Hebron has good eats, too. In the shadow of the watertower is The Dari, dishing up soft-serve cones, sundaes and shakes, plus burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches from March through November. Check out the "little lending library" and innovative straw-bale garden. Harts Saloon bakes brick oven pizza, and Hoops Sports Bar & Grill serves handmade burgers and celebrates the town's basketball heritage. On the north edge of town is Crandall's, known for decades for their "World-Famous All-You-Can-Eat Broasted Chicken" plus a Friday fish fry and Sunday brunch (closed Mondays).
FARM MARKETS: Von Bergen's Country Market is just east of Hebron, growing and selling veggies, fruit, sweet corn, tomatoes, pumpkins and fall decorations from July through November since 1965. There's a children's play area and farm animals to visit, and Von Bergen's hosts an antique tractor and plow day in September. www.vonbergens.com. Royal Oak Farm Orchard is northwest of Hebron, with thousands of apple trees, plus raspberries, honey, cider, pie, playground, petting zoo, wagon rides, carousel, full-service restaurant, gift shop and the nation's only "apple maze". You can pick your own apples from August into November or buy pre-picked fruit.www.royaloakfarmorchard.com.
Alden, between Hebron and Harvard, is so small, there aren't any population statistics. But, it has two interesting stores, kitty-corner from each other smack-dab in the center of town at the four-way stop. Both are called Alden Resale, and carry liquidated and nearly-new contemporary furniture, along with some antiques. The "big store" has 6,000 square feet of mostly furniture, while the "small store" is stocked with smaller furniture, dishes and collectibles. Open daily. www.aldenresale.net.
Harvard was named for --you guessed it!-- Harvard, Mass. The town got its start in 1856 with a train depot and hotel, when the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad extended service from Cary, Ill., to Janesville, Wis. It eventually became the epicenter of a large empire of dairy farms. By WW II, those farms, along with seven dairy plants, were producing more milk than anywhere else in the nation, and Harvard became known as "Dairy Capital of the World". The area is still dairy country, and the population is about 9,500. The Metra commuter train from Chicago stops at the train depot, within walking distance of many points of interest. www.MetraRail.com
MILK DAYS: This June 2-5, Harvard celebrates the dairy industry with the 75th Annual Milk Days Festival, featuring dairy cows, antique tractors, dairy princesses, carnival rides, contests, demonstrations, food, fireworks and a parade on the main street, which is whitewashed and re-named the "Milky Way" www.MilkDays.com.
FARM MARKETS: Just outside Harvard is Twin Garden Farms, growing and selling Mirai sweet corn, a special variety of corn that is so sweet and tender, you can eat it raw, right off the cob. It's sold at area farmer's markets and on the farm daily during growing season, usually late July through September. They also sell seeds online. www.twingardenfarms.com. Northwest of town at Ben's Christmas Tree Farm, you can cut your own fresh tree and enjoy horse-drawn wagon rides from Thanksgiving weekend through the weekend before Christmas. www.benstreefarm.com.
SHOPPING & ART: Just a few blocks off the main street is an enormous, beautiful ivy-covered circa 1883 brick building with a roof full of skylights. Once home to the Starline Factory, which manufactured farming equipment, today it's been re-purposed to house a retail store, art gallery, artists' studios, a pub, an event center and several small offices. Steel Heart Ltd. began nearly 20 years ago as the dream of a young Polish couple who design, build and import steel and stone garden accessories: gazebos, arbors, trellis, armillaries, tables, benches, chandeliers, fences, gates, lanterns and more. Today they sell their creations at wholesale prices to the public and select local businesses. www.steelheartltd.com. Starline Gallery & Studios showcases the works of more than 25 area artists and hosts Fourth Friday Art Shows with refreshments and and music from 6 to 9 p.m. on the fourth Friday of each month. The Stanchion Pub serves lunch and dinner Thursdays through Saturdays. Sunlight streams through the skylights in the spacious event center for weddings, banquets and private parties for up to 500.www.starlinefactory.com.
FOOD: Harvard is large enough to have lots of restaurants, but three merit special mention. Just off State Line Road north of town is Big Foot Inn, named for a Potawatomie chief and serving lunch and dinner daily. Since 1946, it's been featuring a Friday fish fry, Saturday prime rib and Sunday brunch. South of town, Heritage House is known for German specialties such as sauerbraten, schnitzel and strudel, plus steaks and seafood, serving dinner Wednesday-Sunday, plus Sunday lunch. In downtown Harvard since 1943,Swiss Maid Bakery makes scrumptious cookies, pies, cakes, pastries, muffins and more. It began when the Stricker family immigrated to Chicago and opened a bakery in the 1920's; today the fifth generation continues the tradition. The doors are open from early morning to 6 pm, Tuesday-Saturday.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Harvard has three bed and breakfasts. Crane Hollow B&B is a contemporary house overlooking a small lake on 40 acres, with two guest rooms. www.cranehollow.com. Morning Glory B&B is a renovated century-old farmhouse on five acres, with two guest rooms. 815-943-5764.Ravenstone Castle B&B is a contemporary castle complete with towers, turrets and gargoyles, built by a family out of their love for attending Renaissance fairs. It has three guest rooms and also hosts teas and special events. www.ravenstonecastle.com.
PLAN A McHENRY COUNTY GETAWAY
McHenry County is just an hour's drive northwest of Chicago, bordered on the north by Wisconsin, and on the south by I-90. The Fox River winds down from the Chain of Lakes through the towns on the eastern side of the county, while country roads meander the western side. For visitor information, including links to attractions and lodging and dining options throughout McHenry County, go to www.VisitMcHenryCounty.com or phone 815-893-6280. Follow on Twitter and Facebook.