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Discover the small-town charms of McHenry County
By Mike Michaelson | Midwest Travel

Ride the trolley and view streetcars, locomotives and other railroad cars at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union.

 

Harmilda, the fiberglass cow, is a landmark in Harvard, famous for its Milk Days festival,

 

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Published: 4/19/2008 5:00 PM

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First of two parts

Harvard, Ill., probably could use the talents of Tom Sawyer, at least for one day a year. With his ability to motivate earnest citizens to slap on white paint, Tom would feel right at home.

Of course, the likable rogue would be involved in painting streets instead of fences. Harvard, a one-time dairy center, whitewashes its streets and dubs them "Milky Way" for its annual Milk Days (June 6-8).

It claims its place in history as the oldest festival in Illinois, first held in 1942 as a tribute to area dairy farmers for producing vast amounts of milk for servicemen and women during World War II. It has evolved into 30-some events, ranging from bed races and tractor pulls to the inevitable carnival.

A two-hour parade flows down "Milky Way," attracting local pols and celebrities ranging from major-league athletes to Miss America. You'll likely find the Budweiser Clydesdales in town -- although, pride of place is strictly bovine, going to Harmilda, a fiberglass cow that stands at a five-point intersection in the center of downtown Harvard. In case you were wondering, its name is a contraction of Harvard Milk Days.

Located in McHenry County, within an hour's drive or train ride northwest of Chicago, Harvard is one of a chain of one-of-a-kind villages in and near picturesque Fox River Valley. These communities are busy dusting off their history, sprucing up their downtown areas and proving that small-town America still exists in the shadow of urban sprawl.

As a close-in getaway destination, these charming towns provide plenty of diversions for day trips or for weekend outings. These include performances at a restored vaudeville theater, touring a major railroad museum and biking or hiking on one of the state's most popular trails.

Crystal Lake, one of the largest of McHenry County's towns, has won awards for its downtown revitalization. It has a public beach (with lifeguards and bathhouse) and is home to a sailing club that offers lessons and rentals. Just a few blocks from the beach is Lakeside Legacy Arts Park and Dole Mansion with galleries, performances, workshops and a variety of art festivals.

A restored 1920 art deco theater houses the 800-seat Raue Center for the Performing Arts. Check out its striking original mosaic floor and its eclectic performance schedule, which includes a range of movies, music, plays, dance, comedy, lecture series and art exhibitions. Upcoming engagements include "Ain't Misbehavin'" (April 26), "Romeo & Juliet" (May 6) and a concert by Melissa Manchester (May 17).

A major annual event is the Raue Center Art Fair, which spills onto the picturesque streets of downtown Crystal Lake June 1. This professionally juried outdoor art show exhibits oils, watercolors, photography, pastels, sculpture and acrylics, as well as jewelry, metalwork and ceramics. The popular event includes musical performances, children's art activities and an array of food and beverages.

In downtown Crystal Lake, Benedict's La Strada is a bright, elegant spot from which to launch your day. Sun streams in through floor-to-ceiling glass, highlighting an interior of black seating, burnt-orange walls and a high white ceiling. An art collection includes prints and ceramics featuring colorful roosters. Numerous takes on eggs benedict are featured (perhaps with a mimosa or bellini from the bar). Corned beef hash tastes fresh and is minus the heavy use of salt that flaws some versions. Huevos rancheros is another breakfast favorite -- though signature strata, a breakfast casserole dish, is the house specialty.

Also in Crystal Lake is Pop's Corn Crib, an old-fashioned stand selling popcorn, popcorn balls, caramel corn, ice cream and hot dogs.

La Petite Marche is a good choice for freshly made breads and pastries, including Nanaimo Bars (a Canadian West Coast favorite, a sort of chocolate sandwich filled with custard or vanilla butter icing) and creamy, chocolate Opera Torte.

The town of McHenry is putting the finishing touches on its Riverwalk that, prettily decorated with hanging baskets of flowers, runs alongside the Fox River. The project is attracting a clutch of interesting new shops, such as Corkscrew Pointe Wine & Accessories, which conducts tasting sessions and carries a large selection of Illinois wines.

At Union, the Illinois Railway Museum is the nation's largest living-history exhibition on rails. It houses a collection of streetcars and interurbans, as well as steam, diesel and electric locomotives and passenger and freight cars. Ride through the rolling Illinois farmland on a 10-mile round trip to Kishwaukee Grove on an Electric Interurban train, behind a steam locomotive or on a 1950s diesel passenger train.

Outdoors, a popular pursuit is biking or hiking the Prairie Trail, a 26-mile recreational path. The trail follows what once was a Chicago and Northwestern rail line that ran from Kane County, Ill., into Wisconsin.

Highlights along the trail include 20-acre Larsen Prairie, containing both prairie and fen plant communities, and Diverse City Prairie, planted with native plants by fourth-grade students. Sterne's Woods is the most wooded and winding section of the trail, while Glacial Park is home to more than 20 endangered species and contains prairie, savanna, marshes and a bog.

Find comfortable lodgings at the Country Inn & Suites in Crystal Lake (close to the Prairie Trail).

Next week: McHenry's "Music Town"

If you go

Information: McHenry County Convention & Visitors Bureau, (888) 363-6177, www.visitmchenrycounty.com; Illinois Tourism, (800) 226-6632, www.enjoyillinois.com.

Mileage: Crystal Lake is about 50 miles northwest of Chicago (and is served by Metra's Northwest Line).

MikeMichaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."