More Than You Know at the Crystal Lake Park District

If you’ve lived in Crystal Lake or the surrounding area for even a short period of time, you’ve most likely established some associations with the Crystal Lake Park District. Maybe hiking through the woods, strolling around the pond, or your kids playing on the playground or splash pad at Veteran Acres comes to mind. Or maybe countless sporting activities out at Lippold Park. Or maybe it is numerous activities and events at the Crystal Lake Park District Main Beach.

All of those are fair examples, but merely scratching the surface.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Jenny Leech, the Marketing Manager for the Park District, and the two biggest takeaways from that meeting were that there was much more to the Crystal Lake Park District than I ever could have imagined and that they truly have something for everyone.

Address: 1 E Crystal Lake Avenue, Crystal Lake, IL 60014

We have two Illinois Nature Preserves, a lake with two beaches, a tennis club with a regional draw, a historic house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a Nature Center with a butterfly house and an impressive 100 years of service to our residents. In addition to providing parks and natural areas, the Park District provides year-round programs, special events, preschool, day camp, Extended Time and facility rentals to resident and non-residents.

Crystal Lake Park District statement

100 Years On Display

The Crystal Lake Park District celebrated an amazing 100-year anniversary this year. So who better to talk to than Jenny?

Jenny grew up in Crystal Lake and after a short stint living outside the area, returned to Crystal Lake and started with the Park District in 2003, part-time in the Marketing Department. In fact, that was the department at the time.

Fast forward 18 years and she is now full-time, leading a department that has grown…by one more full-time employee. Government and non-profit marketing departments are often very lean, but when you think about the marketing efforts of the Park District, their efforts are pretty amazing!

One of the extraordinary efforts they pulled off with park staff, the help of the Shaw Media Newspaper Archives, and the Crystal Lake Historical Society was pulling together a 100-year anniversary timeline. It is quite extensive but well worth the time to take a stroll down the digital memory lane.

Jenny commented that it was “lots of fun diving into the archives, seeing where we started, where we began. Fun project for staff to find a good way to honor the history and the anniversary, and kind of balance what everybody was going through with COVID. As we started diving in, what we were seeing with people going through COVID was the importance that parks became during the year…open spaces, getting out with your family and friends.”

Perhaps the most amazing discovery goes all the way back to the beginning and the founding of the Crystal Lake Park District itself. You may have heard the story of how Crystal Lake was named due to the “crystal clear waters” of the lake itself. You may also have heard that the lake was very important for ice harvesting.

Before the organization of the Park District, public access to the lake was at risk. Much of the surrounding lakefront property was under private ownership, either by individuals, summer resorts, or commercial ownership for ice harvesting. With concerns that public access would be lost, legal action was taken to establish the Park District in 1921 and an easement was granted to secure public access for the beach.

Fast forward to 1926 and the Main Beach bath house (now known as the Main Beach Pavilion) was constructed, with a grand opening planned for July of 1927. While annual July 4th fireworks used to be held at Veteran Acres, the annual July fireworks display at the lake takes on even greater significance now when you realize that it also signifies securing and protecting the very public access to the lake that we may now take for granted.

Here is just a snapshot of some of the milestones in the Park District’s history:

  • 1931 Waterslide at Main Beach
  • 1939 Walkup Woods purchased (renamed in 1946 to Veteran Acres in honor of WWII veterans)
  • 1943 First female lifeguards employed
  • 1954 Residents passed first tax referendum to fund year round recreation in Crystal Lake
  • 1955 Playground Program, the precursor to the Summer Camp program
  • 1963 Beginning of Parks and Playgrounds parcel acquisition and development
  • 1967 First female Park District Board of Commissioners member
  • 1968 Grafton Park & Crystal Lake Park Districts merger (expanded boundaries, adds West Beach)
  • 1968 Nature Center construction approved
  • 1970 Vulcan Materials Corporation transfers ownership of Crystal Lake’s lake bed to the Park District
  • 1971 Launch of year round recreation programs
  • 1976 After four year ban on fireworks, July 4th fireworks approved and officially relocated to the lake
  • 1980 First triathlon held
  • 1982 Racket Club purchase
  • 1983 Extended Time program started in conjunction with elementary schools
  • 1984 Tot Time Preschool started
  • 1985 First Cardboard Cup Regatta on the lake
  • 1992 Rotary builds recreation building at Veteran Acres
  • 1993 Acquired vacant Citicorp building in downtown Crystal Lake, moving Crystal Lake Park District headquarters & administration offices from Main Beach
  • 1995 Summer Day Camp expands into weekly multi-session Young Explorers program
  • 1997 Lippold Golf Center opened
  • 1998 Colonel Palmer House acquired
  • 2000 Christian Fellowship Church acquired and renamed Grand Oaks Recreation Center
  • 2002 Butterfly house created at the Nature Center
  • 2011 Splash pads created
  • 2019 Sterne’s Woods Restoration Project

Check out these milestones in more detail as well as many others with the Crystal Lake Park District’s Celebrating a Century timeline.

“Research and digital timeline were really rewarding to see what a big part of Crystal Lake the Park District has played over so many years. Being a part of so many people’s memories growing up. The love residents have for Crystal Lake.”

Jenny

Throughout 2021, the Crystal Lake Park District has been celebrating in both big and small ways with lots of appreciation events, pop-up parties in parks, inviting neighbors around, as well as integrating this celebration into the larger ongoing programs and events.

Responsive to the Community

The Park District continues to evolve and adapt, whether that is holding public input sessions with residents for new playgrounds, taking in public feedback and requests to modify plans at Spoerl Park to create 6 outdoor dedicated pickleball courts instead of more tennis courts, or embracing the story of “Camp Crystal Lake” and the Friday the 13th horror movie franchise.

Of course, there is nothing actually connecting the city or lake of Crystal Lake with this movie franchise other than name association. But that doesn’t stop the Park District from having fun and also adopting an activity that helps to break the perception that the Park District is just for kids and families. They look to continue reinforcing this idea with next year’s planned “Flannel Fest” at Main Beach in the fall, featuring a lumberjack show, beard and mustache contests, ax throwing, and more.

The 100-year timeline provides an interesting view of how the Park District has evolved to the times and needs of the community over the years.

Female lifeguards were first employed in 1943 in response to many young men going off to serve in the war. Or the evolution of the Playground Program from 1955 to the Extended Time before and after school program in 1983 and the weekly multi-session Crystal Lake Park District Summer Camp expansion in 1995 to address the changes in society and lifestyle with more and more parents working outside the home, single-parent families, and longer working hours.

“When it comes to new programs, staff is encouraged to bring new program ideas to try new things or adapt old things with a new twist. Park staff researches ideas and stays on top of new trends, as well as talking with customers to continue to evolve existing programs or develop new ones.”

Jenny

Convergence of People, Programs, and Places

What really struck me in speaking with Jenny and digging into the Park District in greater detail is how the Park District exists on a foundation of three main pillars of the people it serves, the programs it offers, and the places (or property) it maintains.

Places

This may be in part due to how the Crystal Lake Park District differs from many other park districts that operate out of a more “central recreation center” that serves as a hub to the community. While a few main places, like Main Beach, Veteran Acres, and Lippold Park may stand out, the Park District spans several properties…maintaining 36 park and natural areas as well as 17 facilities.

In fact, the Crystal Lake Park District stands out because of all its “places.” A combined 1,450 acres of land means that the Park District maintains and provides 2.6 acres of open space for every 100 residents…2.6 times the national average.

Even the most popular places maintain surprises. Main Beach not only has served as a key part of Summer Camp, July 4th fireworks, and the summer concert series, but the Main Beach pavilion is becoming popular for facility rental, special events, as well as multi-purpose uses such as fitness classes overlooking the lake.

Others may associate Lippold Park with a few specific sporting activities without ever being aware of the extensive array of what is available there, including the walking trails, wetlands, and pond; a skate park; mini-golf and driving range; frisbee golf course; batting cages; sand volleyball; as well as home to the Crystal Lake Soccer Federation and 14 soccer pitches; the Mickey Sund Baseball Complex and Tony Capalbo Baseball Complex; the Crystal Lake Raiders Football Fields; Hound Town dog park; the Boncosky Softball Complex; and the Blackhawks Lacrosse Fields.

But there are other facilities that may be more on the fringes unless you’ve directly utilized them. Such as the Racket Club, which is a premier tennis facility offering both indoor and outdoor courts, a pro shop, USPTA Pros, competitive leagues, and lessons for players as young as 3 on up. Jenny says, “The Racket Club has helped develop some of the best local area high school tennis players.”

Or the Colonel Palmer House, which you may well have driven by countless times. Not only does this nationally registered historic place provide a glimpse into the early days of Crystal Lake life through special events, Victorian-era birthday parties, and the Kris Kringle German Holiday Tea, it also serves as home to the Crystal Lake Historical Society.

One of the great challenges for the staff is determining how best to utilize the various resources and facilities at hand. Take Grand Oaks, which became the hub of the dance program, but also serves as the senior center while also hosting some of the fitness programs.

People & Programs

Perhaps the real magic of the Park District comes in weaving together the programs they offer with the people they serve…which truly is a little bit of everything to everybody.

The Park District maintains an extensive list of programs, both seasonal as well as year-round. That could be as early as the preschool offering through the Barlina House Preschool or the Extended Time offering for before and after school hours, as well as the popular Summer Camp program and youth dance or athletics.

But it’s not just about kids and families.

Adults may participate through adult volleyball or softball leagues; yoga, dance, and fitness classes; as well as adult trips to various shows, other attractions around the area, or just fun lunches to meet others.

The Park District has also created specific programs for older adults (55 and up), from trips and fitness classes, to drop-in activities at the Grand Oaks Senior Center for a game of Mah Jongg, dominos, crafting, and beanbag baseball.

If you haven’t seen it or spent much time looking at it, get your hands on one of the Park District’s program guides and peruse the 70+ pages of offerings just for this fall…or the Winter/Spring version that will be coming out in December. Aside from the various age requirements of different programs, the programs and Park District offerings are open to all, residents and non-residents alike. Less than $.05 per dollar of taxes paid goes to the Park District, so much of the funding comes through community donations and program fees.

Addressing Challenges

COVID-19 presented a whole new set of challenges and obstacles.

The Park District has followed the guidance and adapted offerings as needed throughout the ups and downs of COVID. The overall approach was to minimize disruption as much as possible.

“The executive director and board made a commitment from the start when things were shutting down, that parks were going to remain open and accessible. Also helped to keep more staff on board to maintain everything.”

Jenny

So early on, given what was known at the time, that may have meant keeping parks open, but closing playgrounds. Adapting programs where possible, such as moving traditional indoor activities to the outdoors to the parks or picnic shelters, and implementing registered time slots for other activities to control the number of people or minimize social contact.

But what could have been crippling circumstances, resulted in pulling the team together to react as responsively and creatively as possible. Jenny says, “At the end of last summer, people were up in the air with what was happening with school and I give total credit to Sam Thompson and her staff for the ‘endless summer’ program with weeks getting tacked on and the impact it had on families to be able to return to work but couldn’t have had this not been an option without Day Camp and Extended Time.”

The Crystal Lake Park District employees around 200. Like many organizations, staffing presented new challenges during this time. And staffing is no small matter when you are one of the largest employers of teens and seasonal workers in the area, and your relatively lean staff is made up of about half part-time and seasonal workers.

Where seasonal hiring for the summer in the past often meant turning away more applicants than there were positions, suddenly unprecedented shortages were an issue. Being outside might be safe, but how can you safely open the beach if you can’t staff lifeguards? So you get innovative, such as offering lifeguard training that could lead to potential employment and refunding of class fees.

A View Into the Future

What do the next 100 years hold? Looking over the 100-year timeline, perhaps the safest bet is a whole new set of milestones we can’t possibly imagine.

In the immediate future though, there are of course the less-than-exciting but necessary ongoing maintenance of structural facilities and equipment, and upkeep like repaving, tennis court maintenance, maintaining and updating playgrounds, etc.

There are also nature maintenance and restoration projects that have longer-term benefits that have to be balanced against immediate needs, such as work that was done over the last few years at Fetzner Park or earlier this year at Veteran Acres Park…sometimes necessary but unpopular projects.

They continue to look at ways to further adapt existing offerings, such as enhancements to the Main Beach Pavilion to make it even more useful for event rentals.

And it would seem, they will continue to offer something for all interests and ages.

Jenny Leach, Marketing Manager for Crystal Lake Park District.
Jenny Leach, Marketing Manager for Crystal Lake Park District.

On the Park District level, I love Veteran Acres, not only for the memories growing up, memories with my kids, even now grandkids, it’s just a little oasis in the middle of town.

I love downtown Crystal Lake…I feel like they’ve done an amazing job filling all the stores and have such unique stores.

Jenny’s personal favorites

It was a real pleasure sitting down with Jenny and I am greatly appreciative of her taking time out of her schedule to do so. I would encourage everyone to “discover something new to you” at the Crystal Lake Park District.

It could be as simple as visiting one of the parks you’ve never been to, or if you’ve never experienced the Nature Center or one of the other facilities, do so. Or look through their Program Guide to find a class, activity, trip, or something else to do.

President and Founder of Identity Developments, LLC, the parent company of the McHenry Life website. My hope for McHenry Life is to create a resource and destination for the residents and businesses of McHenry County alike. A place where residents can discover new places to explore, fun events and ways to spend time, and then share those experiences with others. A place where businesses can connect with existing and potential customers, and not simply market their businesses, but share their own unique stories.

Leave a Comment