It’s not unusual for a place to undergo several name changes over the years and Crystal Lake, the largest city in McHenry County and part of the Chicago metropolitan area, is no exception. The origins of the city go back to two separate communities in the 1800’s, one being Nunda, established in an area that was originally called Dearborn, and the other, Crystal Ville. To confuse things even further Nunda changed its name to North Crystal Lake in 1908 and then, following a period of dispute, not to mention several punch-ups, when they tried to consolidate the two villages, North Crystal Lake was finally annexed to the Village of Crystal Lake in 1914 which in turn changed its official title to the City of Crystal Lake.
In order to unravel this tangle of names and dates we went to visit the Crystal Lake Historical Society which is located in the Colonel Palmer House on East Terra Cotta Avenue. The lady who was on duty kindly gave us a comprehensive run-down on the history of Crystal Lake and we took a brief tour of the house which was built in 1858. (Unfortunately no photography allowed) In one of the rooms on the upper floor we found a veritable treasure trove of records and documents which, we were told, is available to anyone interested in researching the history of Crystal Lake or any family genealogy pertaining to the area.
Another historic house in Crystal Lake that’s well worth a visit is the Dole Mansion. When wealthy businessman Charles S. Dole purchased 1,000 acres overlooking the lake in the 1860’s he planned to build an estate worthy of his position in society and set about spending more than $100,000 in order to see his dreams come to fruition. These plans included a 3-story mansion, gardens, stables and a half-mile racetrack where he could watch his racehorses run.
The estate was called Lakeland Farm and the Dole family maintained it until the late 1890’s when Charles Dole sold the home to his son-in-law for $1.00. Wow! What a deal!
During the early 1900’s the property was owned by several different ice companies, the ice being cut from Crystal Lake and shipped to Chicago. Then in 1922, after standing empty for some years, the mansion was bought by a development company, one of whose principal investors was Mrs. Al “Lou” Ringling, widow of the oldest Ringling brother, of circus fame. The property was then converted into Crystal Lake Country Club.
Since then it has served as a Franciscan Order seminary for high-school boys, a First Congregational Church of Crystal Lake and is now an arts education center which is funded by The Lakeside Legacy Foundation which is dedicated to restoring the Dole Mansion to its former glory.
During our visit we were allowed to walk around the mansion, or at least the parts of it that were considered safe. Unfortunately it was evident that the house had been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair over the years that it will take a lot in the way of public donations to get it back to anything like its original condition.
Water damage has wreaked havoc with the plaster-work and many of the ceilings will have to be completely replaced. But they are doing their best. You only have to look at some of the restoration work that is being done on the wooden flooring and stairs to appreciate how serious these people are about returning the Mansion to its former splendor.
And what a splendid place it must have been. The detail, despite its dilapidation, is magnificent. What I wouldn’t give to live in such a place so bursting with character. I’d take it, warts and all! Sadly the gardens no longer exist but I could imagine what they must have looked like.
Although there are no gardens at Three Oaks Recreation Area, tucked away just off Northwest Highway, there is plenty to enjoy in the way of outdoor activities.
The lakes, which used to form part of an old gravel quarry, provide ample opportunities for fishing and boating and there is a small swimming beach and splash park.
There are also comfortable walking trails and picnic areas. Of course there is an entry fee, slightly higher for non-residents, but it makes a great day out for families who live in the area.
The day that we visited there were emergency vehicles from several surrounding communities parked on one of the roads inside the park. Apparently the various fire departments use the north lake, which is quite deep, for testing and training special water rescue teams.
Quite a busy day, and already in this, only the third in our series of Suburban Travels, I’ve visited several places that I had never even heard about in the forty or so years of living in the Chicago area.