McHenry’s Borden Factory

Going into the 1900s, McHenry had a lot going for itself. It was a summer tourist destination and had a great agricultural community. Businesses and factories were also starting to spring up throughout the village. One of those was the Gail Borden Condensing Plant. The Gail Borden Company had factories in many towns in the state of Illinois. In 1901, McHenry would become one of those towns. By 1910, McHenry County alone had Borden factories in McHenry, Cary, Richmond, Woodstock and Hebron. In these factories, Borden would buy milk from dairy farmers, process it into condensed milk, then ship it to Chicago for mass production & packaging.

rv06pfCTMSgGf84g7opR_1912 Sanborn Map - Bordon's (1)
1912 Sanborn Fire Map Overhead View of Factory and Ice House.

In May 1901, Borden started building their factory here in McHenry. They purchased the land on the western bank of Mill Pond. This location was ideal, as it was next to the pond, which in the winter would supply the factory with the ice it needed. Also, on the other side of the factory was the Chicago & Northwest Railroad, which would take the milk to Chicago. The business started that spring and did very well, with the hiring of up to 25 people at a time. In October of that year, the Bordens built their own ice house with a direct run from Mill Pond.         

Bordon Picture - Feb 1902
Picture of New Factory From Feb 1902 McHenry Plaindealer.

The factory in McHenry was always one that the city was proud of. Borden kept the building clean and up to date. The factory had overhauls or upgrades throughout its operation. In 1913 business was going very well and the Borden’s dug two new wells on the property to help increase their water supply. In 1915, the company ran 120 ft. of pipe from Mill Pond to a nearby area that had become a “dumping ground” of garbage. The area would be cleaned up and turned into a park for the public with the pipe helping keep the area dry. In 1924, the newest equipment was brought in to help bring the factory to its utmost efficiency. Overall the McHenry factory had the reputation of being one of the best dairy factories in the area.

The Borden business was a multifaceted one, with many moving parts and ties to the community. The factory would get its milk from local farms, which would sometimes lead to problems. Local farmers seemed to keep a wary eye on Bordens, as prices they would receive for their milk would fluctuate. The Bordens would do the same as many local farmers would join the dairymen unions that would band together to reject milk prices that Bordens had offered them.  In the middle of this were the people who worked at the factory, many whose livelihood would be affected by the relationship between the farmers and the company. Despite a strike by dairy farmers in 1916, the partnership between the groups involved was a profitable one. Also, there was the ice hauled in from Mill Pond. Borden would hire large crews to cut and haul ice from the pond into its ice houses. After a while this hauling ice became an annual event, as well as a source of income.

Jan 1922 Borden.PNG
Borden Factory From 1922 Sanborn Fire Map

For about 25 years, the relationship between the community and the factory was a prosperous one. The Borden Company flourished in McHenry and in McHenry County overall. However, automation was starting to become more prominent. Since the factory was built, the process involved putting the condensed milk product into bottles when they were sent to Chicago. But with new machinery, the bottling process was skipped and the milk was then put into large tanks when they were sent off. This change cost 13 people their jobs in Aug 1925. By 1926, there was talk of closing down the factory in McHenry and just having the village be a stop for farmers to deliver their milk to Chicago. There was even a date that the company set to shut down operations: April 1, 1926. For whatever reason, the factory didn’t close and held out for two more years when it closed on April 1, 1928. Milk was then trucked to the city, instead of being sent by rail.  

The Borden building and ice house were almost immediately purchased by the Mathews-Tonyan Company. On Dec 19, 1928, the ice house burned almost completely to the ground. Thankfully nobody was hurt and the building was almost empty. Mill Pond, where the company got its ice & water, was drained in 1929. The main factory building still stands today and now is home to a lamination company.


“Borden Factory Closed April 1.” McHenry Plaindealer 5 Apr 1928: 1. Web. 4 Jan 2018.
“Borden Ice House Destroyed By Fire.” McHenry Plaindealer 20 Dec 1928: 1. Web. 4 Jan 2018.
“Will Commence Building In A Few Days.” McHenry Plaindealer 4 Apr 1901: 1. Web. 4 Jan 2018.
“Postponed Closing For 30 Days.” McHenry Plaindealer 29 Apr 1926: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“13 Men Lose Positions.” McHenry Plaindealer 20 Aug 1925: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“Ice Harvest Starts Soon.” McHenry Plaindealer 30 Dec 1920: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“Milk War On Again.” McHenry Plaindealer 16 Mar 1916: 5. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“Milk War Ended.” McHenry Plaindealer 13 Apr 1916: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“New Machinery At Borden’s.” McHenry Plaindealer 3 Jan 1924: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“Arranging For Milk Market.” McHenry Plaindealer 9 Feb 1928: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“Borden’s Whistle Is Heard Again.” McHenry Plaindealer 6 Jan 1927: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“More Wells For Bordens Factories.” McHenry Plaindealer 21 Aug 1913: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.
“Will Beautify Property.” McHenry Plaindealer 20 May 1915: 1. Web. 3 Jan 2018.


The Flood of 1938

In July 1938, the McHenry area had some of the worst floods in its history. A huge storm on June 30th brought torrential rains The storm saturated the area and caused area rivers and lakes to swell. Damage and destruction to local fields, crops and buildings were due to the rivers flooding their banks. However, probably the worst casualty was to the area’s bridges.


Flooding at Barnard Mill near Wonder Lake. The roads, fields, and some fencing are underwater. From the McHenry Plaindealer, 7 Jul 1938.
Rivers like the Fox and Nippersink, pounded the bridges that spanned them, damaging some and destroying others. Up to 13 bridges were damaged in some way and the estimates totaled approximately $300,000. Like the rest of the country, the area was in the midst of the Great Depression and assembling that kind of money wouldn’t be easy.
The new Johnsburg bridge (left), sitting next to its predecessor. Courtesy of the McHenry Plaindealer 15 Jun 1939.
Public officials for the McHenry County Road and Bridge Committee did have some options, such as applying for federal funds and raising money through public bonds. In September 1938, a special election was held to vote to get a grant from the federal government. If the public voted “yes”, the government offered to cover about $58,000, or 45% of the total of the $130,000 needed,  For the rest of the money, about $71,000,  a slight tax of 2 cents for every $100 in property assessment was also voted on by the public.  The election passed by a whopping 1,300 to 460. This was the first time that a bond issue had been voted on by the county. 
Of the thirteen damaged bridges, seven needed to be completely rebuilt. Greenwood alone lost four bridges. One bridge that crossed the Nippersink cost $25,000 to rebuild. Construction of some bridges started in August of 1938. Work was finished for all but two bridges by June of 1939. The citizens of Johnsburg and Greenwood acknowledged their new bridges with huge dedication ceremonies. By the end of the fall, all of the bridges were successfully rebuilt, thanks to the leadership of the McHenry County Road and Bridge Committee and the grant from the federal government.  


“May Cost $125,000 to the County” The Daily Sentinal (Woodstock) 2 Jul. 1938: 1. Web. 17 Nov 2016.
“Cloudburst on Thursday Ends Heavy Rain” McHenry Plaindealer 7 Jul. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“Seek Federal Aid Road And Bridge Repairs” McHenry Plaindealer 14 Jul. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“Must Find A Way To Finance Bridge Problem” McHenry Plaindealer 4 Aug. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“$130,000 Cost Estimated to Build Bridges” McHenry Plaindealer 11 Aug. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“McHenry Bond Issue Election To Be Held Tues, Sept 6” McHenry Plaindealer 1 Sep. 1938: 1. Web. 17 Nov 2016.
“To Be Erected Just South of Old Structure” McHenry Plaindealer 1 Sep. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“$130,000 Bond Issue OK’d By Voters Tuesday” McHenry Plaindealer 8 Sep. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“County Claims Thousands of Dollars Owing” McHenry Plaindealer 15 Sep. 1938: 1. Web. 17 Nov 2016.
“Rain Delays Work On New State Bridge” McHenry Plaindealer 22 Sep. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“Busy Session Held Tuesday at Woodstock” McHenry Plaindealer 17 Nov. 1938: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.
“Greenwood – Special Correspondence to the Sentinal” The Daily Sentinal (Woodstock) 12 May 1939: 1. Web. 17 Nov 2016.
“Community Club Makes Plans for a Big Celebration” McHenry Plaindealer 18 May 1939: 1. Web. 17 Nov 2016.
“Work Is Completed On Seven County Bridges” McHenry Plaindealer 15 Jun. 1939: 1. Web. 4 Nov 2016.

The McHenry Coliseum?


During the early part of the 20th century, McHenry was a booming tourist destination. People from Chicago and the surrounding areas would flock to McHenry to enjoy Pistakee Lake and Bay, the Fox River and other relaxing attractions. Realizing the economic opportunity, McHenry welcomed the tourists having already established resorts and hotels in the area.  McHenry also offered various forms of entertainment such as dancing at the Riverside Hotel/Hall.
The city-fathers realized early on that adding a ground-floor indoor facility that could house a sport, fair, convention or large indoor gatherings could greatly benefit the city’s  economy. This large facility could host events and be a magnet to gather the tourists and local people alike. This was an idea that took shape over time. It appears to have first been mentioned around 1909. However, it really seemed to take on steam in 1912. On February 22, 1912 the McHenry newspaper, the Plaindealer, posted a picture of the proposed coliseum. The plan was described as having steam heating, electricity and bathrooms with indoor plumbing. An earlier account noted that the building would be built from cement blocks and constructed in a semicircular pattern to limit posts and beams obstructing spectators’ views. It would be used to entertain vacationers in the summer and offer new opportunities to the citizens of McHenry in colder weather.




There were a couple of places mentioned for the location of the coliseum’s construction. One location was  the “center of town” and the other was Water Street (now Riverside Drive). The idea was that the people of the city would invest in the project by purchasing shares so the coliseum would be literally for the people of McHenry. One document mentioned about 100 people were willing to invest int the project. In February,1912, an article stated that 3/4 of the funds had been raised and that the construction was all but a certainty. However, the construction never came to be. How close the project came to fruition or why it didn’t materialize is hard to say.  In August,1912, the McHenryPlaindealer newspaper mentions that the idea of a coliseum wasn’t dead and that some citizens wanted to continue with the project. However, there is no further mention of a coliseum anywhere in any McHenry historical documents. It’s interesting to imagine what a building like this could have meant for McHenry’s growth.


“Coliseum For McHenry?” McHenry Plaindealer 18 Jan. 1912: 1. Web. 18 Sep 2016.
“New Coliseum For McHenry?” McHenry Plaindealer 28 Jan. 1909: 1. Web. 18 Sep 2016.
“Proposed Coliseum For McHenry.” McHenry Plaindealer 22 Feb. 1912: 1. Web. 16 Sep 2016.
“Coliseum Not A Dead Issue.” McHenry Plaindealer 8 Aug. 1912: 1. Web. 18 Sep 2016.



The Building of the Iron Pearl Street Bridge

The first “formal” bridge in McHenry that spanned the Fox River was located at Pearl Street, just east of Riverside Drive (known as Water Street in the 1880s). Bridges or ferries had been at this location before McHenry was even settled in the 1830s. In the fall of 1880, it became clear to the residents that the Water Street wooden bridge needed to be replaced. The village trustees called a meeting on Aug 14th, 1880. Sixty-nine people voted in all, with the majority voting in favor of a new bridge. The Milwaukee Bridge and Iron Company submitted a bid for an iron bridge that would cost a little over $8,000. The village board approved that cost and proposed that the state or county assist in paying for it.

Pearl Street Bridge - Old Bridge
Picture of the bridge from the 1970s compliments of the McHenry Public Library collection.

In early October 1880, the contractors arrived and started planning the bridge. Construction of the bridge began late October/early November and was to be completed at the beginning of February. The original wooden bridge was torn down after the initial foundation stonework had been laid in mid-December. By that time, the Fox River had frozen over so people could cross safely and not be inconvenienced. The bridge went up rather quickly, and construction finished in the first week of January, 1881.

During construction there was only one reported accident involving a large stone that fell and flattened a worker’s toes. When work was finished, two carts loaded with stones and drawn by teams of horses slowly plodded over the bridge to test its strength.  It was noted that each team weighed about 6,130 lbs. The contractors offered to double the weight to show the bridge’s ability to stand weight.  However, the town commissioners didn’t think it was necessary as they were delighted with the bridge as well as the work done by the Milwaukee Bridge and Iron Company.

1872 map
Map of McHenry from 1872, note the lone bridge crossing the Fox.

In late April of that year, the bridge’s strength was tested when heavy winter snow melted leading to high spring river waters when the snow melted. That April of 1881, the Fox River became a roiling rapid. Johnsburg had a wooden bridge across the Fox River a few miles north of McHenry. The rapids were so fierce that they overtook that bridge and sent it downriver towards the McHenry bridge. Yet, with all the ice, water and a neighboring town’s bridge that came at it, the new structure held up quite well with only minor damage. The Milwaukee Bridge and Iron Company sent out a crew to fix the bridge within a matter of days.  The iron structure stood in McHenry until December 1976, when it was replaced with the bridge that is there today. Parts of the dismantled bridge remain at Terra Cotta Industries in Crystal Lake forming the entrance to their employee parking lot. Even today, there has been discussion of using some of the remains of the old bridge along the McHenry Riverwalk.


“Board of Supervisors.” McHenry Plaindealer 19 Jan. 1881: 1. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Bridge Is Finished.” McHenry Plaindealer 12 Jan. 1881: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“The Bridge Question.” McHenry Plaindealer 12 Jan. 1881: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“The Bridge Question.” McHenry Plaindealer 26 Jan. 1881: 4. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Contractors Arrival.” McHenry Plaindealer 6 Oct. 1880: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Contractors Arrival.” McHenry Plaindealer 8 Dec. 1880: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Construction Accident.” McHenry Plaindealer 27 Oct. 1880: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“The Freshet and the New Bridge.” McHenry Plaindealer 27 Apr. 1881: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“The McHenry Bridge.” McHenry Plaindealer 19 Jan. 1881: 4. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Mr. Chairman and the Board of Supervisors.” McHenry Plaindealer 12 Jan. 1881: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“New Bridge.” McHenry Plaindealer 22 Dec. 1880: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“A Petition For Circulation.” McHenry Plaindealer 28 Jul. 1880: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Resolution Passed.” McHenry Plaindealer 6 Apr. 1881: 5. Web. 20 July 2016.
“Road Commissioners Financial Statement.” McHenry Plaindealer 6 Apr. 1881: 4. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Special Election.” McHenry Plaindealer 4 Aug. 1880: 5. Web. 20 July 2016.
“Work Finished.” McHenry Plaindealer 5 Jan. 1881: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.
“Work Starts.” McHenry Plaindealer 15 Dec. 1880: 5. Web. 15 July 2016.

McHenry, Illinois: The Official City Website. City Of McHenry, n.d. Web. 14 May 2016. Path:
Everts, Baskin and Stewart.  McHenry Township: 1872, McHenry County, IL  [map].1872. Scale undetermined; using “Historic Map Works by Proquest”. <> (15 July 2016).

The Early Years of St. Mary’s

During its history, McHenry has been home to several different churches. One of the most recognizable has been St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Its started with many of the German settlers in the area who wished to go to church services spoken in their native language. At the time, they had to go up to St. Johns the Baptist Catholic Church in Johnsburg. In 1894, a group of citizens and trustees got together with the intention of building a church on the east side of town. In May of that year, they bought the brick school house in town for $900 with plans of, at least temporarily, using the building as a church. That August, the Church hosted a picnic, with over 3,000 people attending, and were able to raise over $1,600 to help with construction costs. The event featured many different activities including races, music, refreshments and much more. Later that month the church started hosting religious services in the completed building.

By 1898, the Church sought to construct a building that was a more permanent house of worship. Through fundraising events, subscriptions and other donations, St. Mary’s was able to start building and continued with construction as money came in. In the summer of 1898, St. Mary’s hosted a festival which raised a considerable amount of funds. People came from all over McHenry County as well as Buffalo Grove, Elgin and Chicago. Church construction was finished in February 1899. St. Mary’s was viewed as an impressive structure, and the parishioners very much appreciated the implications of the construction as they finally had their Church. To celebrate the Church hosted a large fair soon after opening. Part of the celebration included the McHenry Military Band, singing by the Elgin Quartet, a large lunch, and other entertainment.

Its architecture is of a clean, gothic style. The building is 105×50. The foundation is of Joliet stone, surmounted by very handsome white brick, from Racine, Wis. It will be heated by steam and have a seating capacity of 550 persons. In the interior there are three aisles. The height of the ceiling, which is arched, rangers from 28 to 36 fee. The interior will be frescoed and finished in a style second to no church in the state.

  • Description from the January 11, 1899 McHenry Plaindealer

After two years of working on the Church, the parishioners spent about $20,000 constructing the building. In just a few years, they had about paid off all of the debt. Church leaders had hoped to have a dedication ceremony performed, but had to delay due to various reasons. St. Mary’s is part of the Diocese in Rockford and the dedication would be run through it. In November 1901, the Diocese was finally able to come east and dedicate the churches of St. John’s in Johnsburg and St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s has always an important part of the community of McHenry. A place were people were married, laid to rest, socialized and a myriad of aspects of one’s everyday life. Even today, St. Mary’s remains one of McHenry’s most recognizable structures.


“A New Church.” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 24 Jan. 1894: 5.
“Churches Dedicated.” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 14 Nov. 1901: 1.
“Grand Picnic.” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 15 Aug. 1894: 1.
“New German Church” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 11 Jan. 1899: 1.
“The Brick School House.” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 2 May 1894: 5.
“The Fair Closed” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 15 Feb. 1899: 5.
“The German Fair” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 8 Feb. 1899: 5.
“The German Festival” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 17 Aug. 1898: 5.
“The German Picnic.” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 29 Aug. 1894: 1.
“To Dedicate Churches.” McHenry Plaindealer [McHenry, IL] 31 Oct. 1901: 1.