Before their annual camp-out in their neighborhood park, teens from the Old Town neighborhood in West Dundee secure permission from the village council. "Then the older kids coach the younger kids how to do it the next year," said Pam Griffin.
The camp-out is one of many family activities that fill the neighborhood calendar, said Griffin as she chatted with neighbors Nancy May and Chloe Leith at the kitchen table in her 1879 home. They stage Popsicle Day on the first 70-degree day of the year, an annual canoe trip, girls' night out and a mother-daughter book club, to name a few.
If you are the 100th trick-or-treater at Griffin's house, you get a 5-pound Hershey bar. "One year, the store where I get the bars didn't have one, so I called Hershey's in Pennsylvania and had them overnight one to me," said Griffin. "It's been a tradition for 11 years, so the kids would have been so disappointed if I didn't get it."
The women said they bought their 19th and early-20th century houses because of their built-in stories, like the "scarlet fever quarantine room" in Leith's house and the multiple doors in May's house that tell of an earlier fire. But they stayed because of the friendships they forged with neighbors.
"When I was going through cancer treatments this year, the other families made our meals and cleaned the house," said May. When younger kids get bullied on the school bus, older kids from the neighborhood stick up for them, Griffin added. Leith said that when her husband's car was in the shop for repair work, neighbors called to offer their cars for the day, knowing he had client calls to make.
"Comfortable" is the word village President Larry Keller uses to describe his adopted hometown. A retired shop teacher, he moved with his family to West Dundee 40 years ago. "It was going to be for a few years," recalled the Minnesota native. "Now, I'll be here till they pull a sheet over my face."
Keller likes West Dundee's proximity to Chicago and Wisconsin and its abundance of shops and restaurants. From his house, Keller can walk one direction to Main Street (Illinois Highway 72) or the other to Spring Hill Mall and its outcroppings. Thanks to the village's small population of 8,000 and abundance of retail, its municipal tax rate is one of the lowest in Kane County, said Keller.
The mall, especially, gives West Dundee a crime chart that differs little each year. A 5 percent sliver is serious crimes such as burglaries and assaults, while most of the pie is retail theft. "(We) believe in community policing and are active with programs such as D.A.R.E., National Night Out and Neighborhood Watch," said interim Police Chief Andrew Wieteska.
Missing from West Dundee is a Metra train station, which has its upside, said residents. "Unlike towns like Naperville (on the rail lines), West Dundee's houses are still reasonable," said May. Metra's Milwaukee District/West Line goes to the Big Timber Station in Elgin, which is five miles from downtown West Dundee.
Instead of commuting to Chicago, most residents head to employment centers to the east, including Schaumburg, or work in town. In addition to its stores and restaurants, the village has an industrial park on its west side.
Old Town houses range from a century-old fixer-upper that sold recently for $81,500 to an 1850 former farmhouse that went for $310,000. Many are made of "West Dundee" brick, made at the Haeger brickyard (now Haeger Potteries) in East Dundee. Several are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architectural treasures include the estate that is known informally as the Haeger farm, although the family didn't buy the 1832 farm until the 1940s. Old-timers recall its pre- World War II life as an orphanage.
Beyond the village's downtown, buyers trade old-house charisma for new-house uniformity. These subdivisions, built from the 1960s until the recession crashed and burned production builders, appeal to buyers who want "more closet space and minimal work," said Bill Jansen, Realtor with Re/Max Central West in West Dundee.
Recent sales include a 1986 four-bedroom house for $210,000 to a 2005 four-bedroom brick house for $530,000. It's a buyers' market, Jansen said, with 50 percent of homes for sale listed as short-sale or bank-owned.
Separated by the definitive but squiggly Fox River, West Dundee and East Dundee share a Main Street, park district, library and historical society.
The Dundees share Community Unit School District 300 with surrounding towns. Children attend grade schools in their neighborhoods, then ride buses to Dundee Middle School and to either Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville or Jacobs High School in Algonquin.
The Dundees, named by their Scottish founders, never were two halves of a whole. West Dundee was incorporated in 1867, four years ahead of its sister village. "We have friendly sibling rivalry," said Keller. "Twice, the two tried to merge. One time one voted no, and the other time the other said no."
While its neighbors boomed post-World War II, West Dundee was hemmed by the former D. Hill Nursery, which once owned 900 acres on its west side. Little by little, the nursery later sold its land to commercial and residential developers.
Although most of West Dundee's residents live in single-family homes, 46 percent of its housing stock caters to singles and seniors, from simple three-flat rentals to upscale condos.
Today, some undeveloped land remains on West Dundee's western edge. If an improved economy spurs homebuilding there, the village could max out at its 2030 projection of 11,364, said Keller.
The hot topics that residents debate over beers at Emmett's Brewing Co. are mild compared to those in larger towns. Should the village give the green light to a new Wal-Mart Supercenter? Is the $25-per-head fee for backyard chickens too steep? Should the park district proceed with its proposed recreational center?
But everyone joins hands at community events, including Heritage Fest in September, Dickens in Dundee in December and holiday parades.
Between events, residents bike along the Fox River Trail, play disc golf at Randall Oaks Park and let their dogs frolic with their pals at Schweitzer Woods Forest Preserve. The Fox River draws paddlers and fishermen, including Keller. "My retirement present from me to me was a new kayak," he said.
"I call it a mix of Mayberry and Cheers," said Griffin. "Everyone knows your name, and Aunt Bee lives around the corner. We have everything we need nearby, from Jewel to Target. But here in the neighborhood, it's very small town."