McHenry County, about an hour's drive northwest on I-90, likes to point to its glory days. Pick up a copy of its tourism-council brochure, and discover these little-known facts:
In 1873 the first upright silo ever built was invented just east of Spring Grove.
In the mid-1930s Huntley was the world's largest fresh-milk shipping depot. McHenry County was the seventh-largest dairy county in the United States.
In 1952 Hebron, with a high school enrollment of 99 students, won the Illinois State Basketball Tournament.
In 1962 Chuck Hiller of Johnsburg hit the first grand slam homer in World Series history when he played for the Giants against the Yankees.
But its past splendor notwithstanding, McHenry County, full of lush farmland, is also full of natural charm. Drive along its back roads and you'll pass through towns with names like Harmony and Coral. Signs advertising fresh eggs dot the landscape. Towns like Marengo look as though they haven't changed in a century, with hash houses downtown that sell breakfast for under $3. Woodstock has a town square restored to its 1890s appearance, and more antique shops than you could visit in a week.
Cowboys and Indians: The museum of the McHenry County Historical Society in Union (815-923-2267) has a handful of rare Native American artifacts, including an ancient banner stone carried in ceremonies as a sign of authority, that alone are worth the visit. The Seven Acres Antique Village and Museum in Union (815-923-2214) puts on a Wild West show within its western town, which is complete with saloon, jail house, and general store. It's a bigger version of the old-time street at the Museum of Science and Industry, and a lot more fun.
Railroads: If you still get a kick out of crashing your Lionel trains together, you'll really enjoy the Valley View Model Railroad Society in Union (17108 Highbridge) with eight scale miles of track and more than a dozen operating miniature trains. Less than a mile south in Union, the Illinois Railway Museum (815-923-4391) provides the real thing with more than 225 pieces including historic railroad coaches, trolleys, steam and diesel locomotives, and a silver streamlined passenger train.
Shopping: The Woodstock Square Mall (815-337-0800) houses over a dozen craft, clothing, and furniture stores. For antiques, though, it's best to drive the back roads and watch for signs advertising weekend sales.
Toward the end of the summer, stop by the Thunder Grove Orchard (3016 Deer Pass Road, Marengo) for a taste of the season's first apple crop. Over 300 varieties are planted every year.
Restaurants: Try Sunday buffet brunch at the Cloven Hoof in Marengo (815-568-7141), a pretty place with a good continental menu. For pizza and deli food, it's Elysian Fields in Union (815-923-4251). For casual dining, the Kopper Kettle in Marengo (815-568-8778) has good homemade pies and desserts. And don't forget to try the Yummyburger at the Yum Yum Drive-In in Marengo (815-568-6161), a massive offering available alone or with fries and coleslaw. If you've got kids, buy one and split it.
For a Door County-style fish boil, try Friday nights at Paradise Cove in McHenry (815-344-0144), the only restaurant in the Chain o'Lakes where you can arrive by boat, seaplane, or car. This place can get busy, so call for a reservation.
The Woodstock Opera House (121 Van Buren St., Woodstock, 815-338-4212) is open Monday through Saturday year-round with musicals, plays, concerts, and dance performances. A restored landmark, the theater was built in 1890 and is listed with the National Register of Historic Places. The Shady Lane dinner theater in Marengo (815-568-7218) is also worth checking out for its weekend buffet specials.
The bed-and-breakfast concept hasn't caught on in McHenry County, so most of the overnight lodging available is at established hotels. Notable exceptions include the Bundling Board Inn in Woodstock (815-338-7054) and the Concorde Country Inn in Woodstock (815-338-1100), where all the rooms have been restored with Victorian features. For the hearty, the KOA Kampground in Union (815-923-4206) provides overnight camping facilities and has a single cabin for rent. Bring your own linens. And if you have any questions about places to eat, or things to do, Bonnie Sloan at KOA is a treasure trove of information.
Other points of interest: The Fox River winds its way through the eastern edge of the county from the Chain o'Lakes, which offers more than 6,500 acres of lakes and waterways. Moraine Hills State Park (914 S. River Road, McHenry) has more than 1,750 acres of parkland for picnics, fishing, boating, cross-country skiing, and nature walks.
Nearby, the Nippersink Canoe Trail provides rental canoes and has three access points for unloading your own. There's also Glacial Park, 600 acres of ancient wetlands, creeks, prairies, and trails. For information about McHenry's nature offerings, call the McHenry County Conservation District Headquarters at 815-338-1405.