Honoring a town’s heritage is an integral part of small town life in Richmond, Illinois. The celebration of Richmond’s 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial, stretches over a three-day weekend in mid-September. The full slate of events included an ice cream social, sidewalk sales, the dedication of a renamed park, a walking tour of historic homes, and a fancy-dress ball.
Despite its near equidistance to Chicago and Milwaukee and its bisection by major east-west highway US 12, Richmond retains its small town charm with a population of just 2,106 residents.
Village President Toni Wardanian and her family moved to Richmond from Chicago in 2005. “I wanted to raise my children like free-range chickens,” she explained.
Wardanian pointed out the town’s neighborhood feel with sidewalks and the short walk many residents have to downtown. According to Wardanian, the town is “affordable and manageable, retirees like being away from the hustle and bustle, and families continue to seek out the small town atmosphere. Furthermore, the Richmond-Burton school system is highly regarded for its educational programs, particularly for its special education classes and successful sports teams.
Housing prices are affordable, with one-bedroom condos costing near $100,000, while character-rich vintage homes downtown tend to be in the $200,000s, and homes with acreage range from the $300,000-$400,000s.
Recreation opportunities abound, whether it’s 15 minutes away in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, or at the 3,400-acre Glacial Park in nearby Ringwood. There, visitors can enjoy biking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, or horseback riding in the “Treasure of the McHenry County Conservation District.”
Any toast to Richmond’s 150th birthday must include mention of the town’s knack for reinventing itself not just once, but several times over the course of its history.
Rising from a devastating fire, looking forward
The unfortunate Indian Removal Act in 1830 set the stage for the first white settlers to make their way to the area, including William McConnell who arrived from Pennsylvania in 1837. After returning to the Keystone State for his bride, he returned to build the first log cabin in Richmond in 1838. McConnell purchased 480 acres of land from the U. S. government in 1840, a holding that would eventually grow to 1,400 acres. When he divided his land in 1872, he gave each of his three sons a farm.
The Montelona Schoolhouse was built on a corner of the McConnell Farm in 1841. McConnell went on to become Richmond’s first postmaster, a two-term McHenry County commissioner, an associate judge, a township commissioner, a railroad director, and even served a term in the Illinois state legislature.
With his impressive record of civic involvement, one might expect the town to be named ‘McConnell,’ but instead, the honor of naming the town was promised to the man who climbed the highest when the local flour mill was built in 1844. Scampering to the top of the wooden structure, Isaac Reed claimed the prize and selected the name ‘Richmond’ after a town in his native state of Vermont.
When Richmond was incorporated in 1872, Dr. Sanford Fillmore Bennett became the first village president. Bennett achieved lasting fame for writing the lyrics to the hymn, “In the Sweet By-and-By.”
The late 1800s saw the construction of more flour mills, along with cheese and pickle factories; however, there was a catastrophic fire that occasioned Richmond’s first reinvention.
At 1:00 AM, on Christmas Eve in 1902, a blaze started in A. Fisher’s Bakery and Restaurant. The fire ate its way through 20 frame-constructed downtown buildings, including the town newspaper building, the drug store, the meat market, a hat shop, two grocery stores, the city jail, and the undertaker’s establishment. Only the brick and stone walls of the State Bank of Richmond were able to stop the fire–and that was only in one direction.
Famously, resident Ralph Killbourne climbed to the roof of his house at 10382 Main Street and, laying horse blankets on the roof, repeatedly soaked them with buckets of ice water. When his own clothes caught fire, he used the ice water to douse himself. The Victorian home with its tower and decorative railing, known as the T. C. Schroeder house, survived. It still stands today.
While rebuilding progressed slowly, a 1908 photo of the area shows new buildings constructed of brick, giving Richmond’s downtown the distinctive character it possesses today.
From ‘The Village of Yesteryear’ to a new focus
With its collection of Victorian, Queen Anne, and Italianate homes near the sturdy brick downtown businesses, Richmond was well-poised to attract antique shops and their devoted customers. In the 1980’s, 26 antique stores called Richmond home, and the town proudly bore the nickname, ‘The Village of Yesteryear.’
But times and tastes changed, and antiques became a predominantly online business with the advent of the internet. At the same time, the public’s desire to fill their homes with antiques evolved, and the fashion became a room with one or two tasteful vintage pieces, using new furniture to complete the look.
The loss of antique stores might have been more devastating to Richmond than the fire, but luckily, a new breed of entrepreneur emerged just in time. Businesspeople, often female, began opening restaurants, bars, shops, and even an art gallery in the downtown area.
In 1994, Jeanne Doyle opened her namesake restaurant, Doyle’s Pub, in the 1844 flour mill where Isaac Reed proclaimed the town’s name.
“I’m completely insane, like all the rest,” said Doyle of her fellow restaurant owners.
Doyle makes everything from scratch, including pot roast, mussels, reubens with freshly roasted corned beef, soup, chili, and the Friday Night Fish Fry with beer-battered Icelandic cod, potato pancakes, and corn fritters.
In addition to Doyle’s Pub, diners frequent the Richmond Café for waffles at breakfast and paninis at lunch, as well as Paisano’s, a fine dining Italian bistro where Chef Victor whips up specialties created from owner Phil Gilardi’s family recipes.
A sweet tooth is easily satisfied with a trip to the 102-year-old Anderson’s Candy Shop. Outside the home-turned-candy shop, a nine-foot carved rabbit stands sentinel. Inside, customers choose their favorite treats from the fudge, caramels, chocolate-covered pretzels, s’mores bars, lollipops, and hand-dipped chocolates packaged in wax paper or by the box.
For late-nighters, Olive Black features live entertainment and Karaoke in its classy club-style bar and lounge.
While the number of antique stores has dwindled, new shops have taken their place.
Finery and Finishes sells unique women’s and men’s clothing, home goods, and gifts within the funky background of one of the signature buildings on Broadway Street, with its original wood floors, intricate crown molding, tin ceiling, and vintage ceiling fans.
The McConnell Legacy, Updated
As part of Richmond’s sesquicentennial celebration, Nippersink Park was renamed William A. McConnell Park after the town’s first settler. For the occasion, the town installed a new playground, pavilion, and stand for the kayaks that ply the waters of Nippersink Creek.
The weekend also saw the unveiling of The District, a wedding and event space located in the former Memorial Hall.
In 1903, Charles McConnell, grandson of William McConnell, made a $10,000 bequest to the town of Richmond to build Memorial Hall. Beside serving as town hall where the village board first met in 1908, the building included an auditorium, ticket office, and offstage dressing rooms. For years the hall hosted school plays, graduations, and was the performing home of the J. B. Rotnour Players, producers of “family entertainment and melodramas.” Church societies and schools were permitted to use the hall free of charge.
Before a new village hall was built in 1993, Memorial Hall had already housed two jail cells, the police department, the library, the American Legion, and even a gym for Richmond High School basketball.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, Memorial Hall has caught the attention of Sam Everly, owner of Midwest Arbor Corporation, and his wife, Heather.
The couple had been looking for a building, ideally with historic character, to renovate as an event space. Under the pink plaster inside, the Everlys found walls constructed of common Chicago brick that they exposed as part of the building’s renovation.
“It really gives a nice historic charm to the space,” Sam Everly said.
Renamed ‘The District,’ the event space opened with a sesquicentennial ball—a fundraiser for the McConnell Foundation—on September 16th, 2021. The public was invited to an open house the following day, where they could enjoy music, partake of food and drink, and tour the 3,000 square foot Grand Room and the 3,000 square foot covered patio, capable of hosting 200 people for a reception, party, or dance.
Beyond the building itself, the Everlys were impressed with Richmond.
“Richmond is close to Lake Geneva and the Chicago North Shore, but it still has a small-town feel,” Sam Everly said, noting in particular the variety of new restaurants and businesses around town.
“It’s an up-and-coming area but also has nice historic homes,” Everly said.