Actually named after a Boston suburb, Harvard, Illinois began as an agricultural community and evolved into a residential satellite, without ever losing its small-town character.
Harvard’s location 70 miles northwest of Chicago means that residents can easily commute to their jobs in Chicago and its suburbs via the Metra Northwest line. Conveniently, it is also only a twenty-minute drive from the outdoor recreation hub of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Don’t make the mistake, though, of saying that Harvard is the last stop on the train line.
“The train starts in Harvard,” the locals will smilingly correct you. Indeed, town pride there is palpable, whether you’re talking to residents about Harvard’s community spirit, farming heritage, local businesses, or charming homes.
Launched by the railroad
The land where Harvard now stands was once home to the Potawatomi tribes, until settlers from the east arrived in 1838.
Harvard’s subsequent establishment coincided with the Union Pacific’s decision to locate a railroad station in the area, a decision that might have been helped along by Harvard’s wining and dining of railroad officials. When Elbridge Ayer, formerly of Massachusetts, gave a portion of his land to the railroad, he “recommended” that the town be christened Harvard.
Tracks running in four directions made the station a hub for a variety of trains, including freight, passenger, and milk runs intended to transport cans of milk from the local dairy farms for processing and bottling.
That can-do spirit
Though Harvard originally owed its existence to the securing of a railroad station, Harvard’s community spirit persisted even as the amount of rail traffic decreased. For example, in 1959, the wife of the local newspaper editor, fed up with loading the couple’s five children and all their gear into the car to go to the beach in Fontana, told her husband that she wanted a pool in Harvard. The editor dutifully noted his wife’s request in the newspaper, prompting a flow of donations to the newspaper office that began with $10 from the city forester. In 1962, the Harvard Community Pool opened, the $130,000 cost raised in part from the usual bonds, but also from proceeds from a Moose Lodge dance and money from a farmer’s sale of a calf.
That same spirit resides behind Milk Days, held over a three-day weekend each year in early June. Having just completed its 78th celebration, Milk Days is the longest running hometown festival in Illinois. Each year, Harvard welcomes 30,000 people to the parade, bed races, contests for cow milking and milk drinking, and a festival with rides, games, food, and fireworks.
Over Labor Day weekend in 2020, Harvard will celebrate its fourth Balloon Fest. Giant hot air balloons are the principal attraction, accompanied by rides, games, food, and skydiving exhibitions.
A cherished agricultural heritage
Harvard’s dairy farm history is embodied by Harmilda (Harvard Milk Days) the Cow, that occupies a spot of honor at Five Points Park. Making her debut at Milk Days in 1966, Harmilda is now remembered with a statue on a stone pedestal which was created to welcome visitors to Harvard’s business district and to remind them that Harvard is the “Milk Center of the World.”
Harvard is also home to the Royal Oak Farm Orchard, a thriving agricultural business in Harvard. Thirty varieties of apples grow on their 120 acres, as well as pumpkins, gourds, and squash. Visitors can pick their own apples, buy apple cider doughnuts at the bakery, and sample apple cinnamon French toast in the restaurant. An entertainment area includes a train, carousel, and hayride. Royal Oak boasts the country’s only apple tree maze, with 2,500 apple trees representing nine varieties of apples, spread out over 1.5 miles.[metaslider id=”3658″]
Open for business
The 2003 closing of the 1.5 million square foot Motorola plant has led Harvard’s mayor and city council to hammer out a strategic vision for the next two decades, as well as a detailed agenda for the next two years.
Harvard Mayor Mike Kelly says that a streamlined process for opening new businesses signals that the community is ready to embrace entrepreneurs with vision. “We’re at the precipice of a very bright future,” says Kelly.
Harvard is already home to a host of manufacturing and warehouse companies: Pedigree Ovens, which makes pet treats and food, a True Value Distribution Center, a Dean Foods processing and distribution plant, and two companies that create packaging for food and household items: Consolidated Container Company and Catty Corporation.
That personal touch
The charm of the businesses in Harvard is that, “you can almost always go in and meet the owner,” says Crystal Musgrove, Executive Director of the Harvard Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Helm, Ferris, & Company opened in Harvard in 1883 to manufacture barn equipment, including hay carriers, windmill regulators, and barbed wire fence stretchers. The company was renamed Starline in 1931 for its “Star” line of farm equipment. Today, the former factory’s ivy-covered brick walls house event spaces for weddings, parties, and fundraisers. Each space features exposed brick, wood columns and beams, and decorative accents created from industrial hardware and machinery. Although Starline is one of Harvard’s largest attractions, the space is home to smaller businesses that have a personal touch.
For example, Philip Sassano operates The Design Coach, a full-service interior design, decorative contracting, and creative services company in the Starline Factory Building, in addition to its Lake Geneva location. Open by appointment, Sassano and his team design interiors that help clients “love where they live.” Also serving commercial clients, Sassano serves as a guide through any design project, laying out the vision for function and style.
Jacek and Gretchen Peczkowski’s Steel Heart, Ltd. has occupied 50,000 square feet in the Starline building for the last 20 years. While working in robotics, Jacek began designing creative metal home and garden décor that he initially sold wholesale. After being inundated with requests from friends who wanted to buy his pieces, Jacek and Gretchen decided to open a retail store.
The couple lives in the 1838 House of the Seven Gables on Route 14, once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Beginning each year on Black Friday and continuing for numerous weekends throughout the year, the Peczkowskis host Christmas on the Prairie, decking out the barn to sell their metal Christmas-themed décor, along with holiday crafts.
Angelo DiGiacomo, owner of Angelo’s Restaurant in Harvard, has built his business over the last 36 years. In March, 2018, Angelo opened his new location in a former office building that he renovated into a warm dining room with thick plaster walls, barn wood, and decorative items that he crafted from old cattle feeders, oil lamps, bits of architectural salvage, motorcycle parts, and stained glass. The restaurant does a carryout business in pizza, serves traditional Italian entrees in the dining room, and also has two event spaces. “I love it,” says Angelo. “I know everybody.”
A variety of housing styles
To attract more construction, Harvard has reduced its permit and impact fees to the lowest in McHenry County. Kelly says that three to four subdivisions have ready-to-build lots. “It’s quite affordable to build a house in Harvard,” says Kelly.
Besides new homes, Harvard’s housing stock includes old farmhouses, Foursquares, Cape Cods, Craftsman cottages with stone foundations, Mid–century Moderns, million-dollar homes on substantial acreage, and even a Geodesic Dome house.[metaslider id=”3647″]
It’s not many towns, though, that can boast having their own castle… You read that correctly. Jose and Rose Michel broke ground in 2001 on a home that they styled as a 16th century-style castle, complete with stone walls, turrets, and arches. Today, the couple operates RavenStone Castle as a bed and breakfast which also hosts private parties, meetings, and weddings.
All about the people
Harvard’s 9,230 residents are a mixture of natives, as well as those who have come from near and far to find, “one of the few towns where you can have both residential streets with sidewalks and farms just outside of town,” says Musgrove.
In fact, “the children and grandchildren of migrant workers give the town a Latino cultural experience not found in other communities,” says Kelly.
Kelly and his family moved from Texas to Harvard in 2006 and built their home in the community. “We didn’t know a soul,” Kelly says, but that didn’t matter at all, because Harvard was, and still is, within an hour’s drive of a major airport, and was within a two-hour drive of Kelly’s in-laws. It didn’t take long for the family to get involved in the community.
“We got so involved in the community, they made me mayor three years ago,” says Kelly.
Musgrove relates what she thinks best describes Harvard’s small-town charm: “When your child gets in trouble at school,” she says, “you know it before they even get home.”
By Susan W. Murray
Photography by Jen Schildgen