Itasca Idyll: A Hidden Small Town

July 10, 2013

Scenic bike ride

Traffic races by on Interstate Highway 290 and the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway, while airplanes from O’Hare International Airport soar overhead. Tucked away from the bustle is Itasca, a remarkably secluded and low-key western suburb with residents going about their business like the Whos in Whoville.

In many ways, this sliver of DuPage County hasn’t changed much in decades. The downtown, homes and storefronts retain the feel of an earlier era. Century-old maples canopy the streets, parents pull their children in wagons and teens ride their bikes to Daddy O’s Diner for malts.

This comfortable suburb hasn’t been forgotten by time, though. A Starbucks is now part of the retail district. Supplementing the grande dame homes on the north side of the iconic Itasca County Club are newer houses, and the town swimming pool has been upgraded to a water park.

Still, you know you’re from Itasca if you understand that “meet at the gazebo” means head to Usher Park; you call the church on South Walnut Street the “steeple church”; you know the pizza place is Tree-Guys; you included Boomer, the late Great Dane (until recently, Itasca’s best-known canine resident) in your wedding photos; and your children know the ever-present, snazzy, Hot Wheels-on-steroids Subaru Impreza is a police car.

Mayor Jeffrey Pruyn keeps a “uniform” in his office that bespeaks his strategy — a T-shirt with the logos of the police, fire, park, school and library districts.

“Other towns ask us how such a small town can do so many big events, and I tell them it’s because all these groups work together,” said Pruyn.

Annual events include a huge July Fourth fireworks display, Scottish Festival and Highland Games, Oktoberfest, summer concerts, Jazz and Wine Festival, chili cook-off, beer festival, visit from Santa, Memorial Day parade, Itasca Fest, car show and several marathons.

“It’s cohesive,” said Steve Ellenbecker, vice president of the Itasca Runners Club, of the group’s annual Oktoberfast 5K, which raises $15,000 a year for charities. “Scouts, police, service clubs — everyone helps.”

On July 13, residents will raise more money by trying to break the village’s own 2009 Guinness World Record for the longest Subaru parade (339 vehicles).

Itasca’s housing is a mix of single-family and multifamily homes. Recent sales ranged from a 1950s ranch for $105,000 to a circa-1980 two-story for $352,000. Multifamily homes ranged from $21,600 to $320,000.

Most elementary- and middle-school pupils attend schools in Itasca School District 10, while high school students attend Lake Park High School (two campuses) in Roselle.

A walk from Itasca’s older, downtown homes to the newer ones on its perimeter is a walk through history. At its core are the originals, built in the mid-1800s, when Dr. Elijah Smith founded the village, donated land for the railroad depot and divided farms into lots.

Country Club Estates that surround the club came next, built by developer B.B. Clover, whose ads heralded Itasca as “170 feet above Lake Michigan, which assures cool breezes in summertime.”

“The origin of the name Itasca is uncertain, but there’s a story that makes sense about Dr. Smith naming it for the place he visited in Minnesota,” said Jerry Danzer, historian and 52-year resident.

The Itasca Garden Club gets credit for helping turn Itasca into a suburb by adorning the village with plants, especially its signature irises, Danzer said. The intention was to lure potential homebuyers stepping off the train to the “soothing calm of a lovely scene,” said a 1904 Chicago Tribune article.

It worked. Itasca’s transformation continued until its outer ring of industry butted its inner ring of houses.

Today, residents work and play in the cocoon that is Itasca. Within town, they can play golf, dine at down-home or upscale restaurants, hike the trails at the Springbrook Nature Center or walk or run with the Itasca Runners Club on Saturday mornings.

Then there’s the other Itasca — the commercial part on the village’s west and north sides that multiplies its nighttime population of 8,700 to a daytime head count of 50,000.

“That’s not counting the people sleeping in the 1,115 hotel rooms,” Pruyn said.

Commercial Itasca includes hotels, corporate headquarters including Willy Wonka Brands and Walter E. Smithe Furniture, and hundreds of smaller companies that feed products or services to O’Hare. Together, the commercial residents keep Itasca’s coffers filled with tax revenue.

The diverse housing stock has attracted new homeowners and renters, more than a third of whom speak a language other than English at home.

The addition of a new runway at O’Hare and the upcoming extension and elevation of the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway are likely to crank up the village’s volume a few notches. According to the village’s website, the Itasca Citizen O’Hare Commission will meet bimonthly to discuss noise and air pollution issues related to the realignment of the airport’s runways and shift in noise patterns.

Pruyn’s to-do list includes flood remediation with new storm-sewer pipes, paving of wood-chipped paths and “keeping the balanced budget balanced.”

Police Chief Scott Herer pledges to maintain Itasca’s “Safe Communities” designation by running hands-on programs like anti-bullying and self-defense and keeping officers visible.

But some things are best left unchanged. People still greet the mayor by name when he starts his day with a cream-cheese frosted doughnut from the local bakery. And despite the addition of bigger, newer industry that dwarfs it, there still is a local bakery. And a baker.

And a cream-cheese-frosted doughnut.

This post was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on June 28, 2013. 

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