It's difficult to determine with any certainty what Marengo’s first commercial business was. Was it Calvin Spencer’s hotel that was built at the corner of modern day Grant Highway and State Street? Or was it a “tiny shoe shop” as related by Arvilla Damon Coon in her work the Life and Labors of Auntie Coon. Coon briefly described the evolution of Marengo’s early business community in the days when the prairie gave way to a town. She wrote, “…after some time a tiny shoe shop was opened on the corner, later a drygoods and grocery store combined, and finally a post-office.” One thing is for certain, and that is that in the 182 years since the Marengo area was settled our community has seen its share of businesses (and industries) come and go.

Over the years I’ve written about the area’s pickle industry, ice industry, dairy industry, grain milling industry, the stove factory, and various businesses that supported horse and buggy transportation. This month I’m going to talk about several businesses that operated in Marengo in the days gone by.

When you buy cheese today it’s either wrapped in plastic or contained in a plastic bag. There was a time when the cheese container was made of wood and some of these these cheese boxes were manufactured in Marengo. The N.L. Jackson cheese box factory stood on the west side of State Street slightly south of Railroad Street. In 1871 the building was constructed to serve as a sash and blind factory. As the story goes with many commercial enterprises; after six years the sash and blind factory gave way to a cooperage where barrels were manufactured, and two years later in 1879 the business converted to the cheese box and butter tub factory. In 1883 the building burned in a fire that ravaged a portion of Marengo’s downtown business district. This was not Marengo’s first foray into the cheese container industry. Previously, in 1865, R.M Patrick operated a cheese box factory on State Street “at the foot of Woleban’s Hill,” but that business failed after a few years.

The Rural Mail Box Company operated for some time in Marengo. The early days of this business are somewhat sketchy, but it is fairly well documented that the company operated in early 1900’s. An article in the November 15, 1901, edition of the Marengo Republican News reported that the company was expanding its operations with the addition of new manufacturing space. It seems that business was brisk because the article stated that the factory was running day and evening and that it was behind on orders. Eleven “hands” were employed manufacturing rural mailboxes and it was anticipated that more workers would be hired with the recent expansion. Over the years the business was operated by George A. Bennett and S.B. Oakley, and owned the patent for the P.B. Englar rural mailbox.

Before electricity windmills were used to pump water from the ground and two Marengo entrepreneurs, Fred Smith and Thomas Bright, manufactured this essential piece of equipment. The firm was known as Smith and Bright and the product was the “Galvanized Steel Aermotor” windmill. The business was small and the windmills were made by hand, but nonetheless the business was profitable. The September 12, 1935, edition of the Marengo Republican News described the Smith and Bright windmills as having a “short tower,” but several contemporary articles that described the successes of the company mentioned that the windmills were up to fifty feet tall.

In 1923 the Marengo Specialty Company opened its doors in the Riley Building on East Prairie Street. The company manufactured a variety of clothing items to include raincoats, knickers, men’s trousers, sweaters, and sports coats. In its hey-day the business employed twenty-five women to make these products, but eventually cast them aside and specialized in “firemen’s raincoats.” The Marengo Republican News speculated that fewer than a dozen companies were involved in this type of business in the 1920’s and 30’s. The firemen’s raincoats were sold directly to firemen across the United States.

This is just a small glimpse into Marengo’s commercial past. There are many more businesses from Marengo’s heydays to ponder on, and they will definitely be discussed in these pages in the future!

Andrew Butzow (Marengo), Dylan Page (Belvidere), Drew Mateja (Marengo), Oryi Tucker (Belvidere)

On Sunday, March 19th, the Illinois State YMCA Championship swim meet was held in St. John, Indiana where the Belvidere Barracuda swim team competed. Two of our own Marengo boys, Andrew Butzow and Drew Mateja, swam in several events but the most important race of the day was the 200M Free Relay. The four young men on the Barracuda relay team had a chance to break the Belvidere YMCA record for this event. This would be the last competition for the two 21 year old boys, Andrew Butzow and Dylan Page of Belvidere, since swimmers can only compete until the age of 21 through the YMCA swim program. Andrew Butzow had chased this dream for several years. Drew Mateja (Marengo) and Oryi Tucker (Belvidere) swam the third and final legs of the relay and both swimmers swam their leg in just over 23 seconds. The Barracuda relay team got a best time of 1:36.58 and broke the Belvidere record! The boys were elated that they not only broke the record, but shaved 2 seconds off the old record! Their names will be added to the record board in the pool area of the Belvidere YMCA

Seated l to r: Doris McNeese, Mary Reh, and Marcella Spears Standing: Jean Thornhill

They all changed their last name over the years, but for decades in Marengo they were known as the Wright sisters. The oldest sister, Mary Wright Reh, turned 100 on May 24. She was honored with an open house at Indian Oaks Park on May 21.

Mary lived in Marengo until 18 months ago when she moved to an assisted living facility in Rockford where she can be near her sons, grandson and their families. Carrying on the tradition of staying in their own homes, younger sisters, Marcella Wright Spears, 98, and Doris Wright McNeese, 96, live in Marengo. The youngest sister, Jean Wright Thornhill, only 86, lives farther away— in Hampshire with her husband.

At Mary’s birthday gathering they enjoyed visiting with family and friends, including many Marengo neighbors. Most of all, they enjoyed visiting with each other. “Every time we get together I learn something new about days gone by,” commented Jean Thornhill. “I’m so proud of my three sisters!”

Jean is the only sister who never lived on the family farm, where the three older girls spent their first years until Mary was 10. She heard yet another new story this time: “I never had a doll,” explained Mary, “and—Jean doesn’t know this—but when she was born she became my doll. I dressed her up and carried her everywhere.”

When asked what she thought about reaching her 100th birthday, Mary shrugged and said, “I don’t really know. It just crept up on me.”

Thanks to generous donations and some enormous volunteer efforts, kids in Marengo now have a new playground to enjoy at Indian Oaks Park. We needed a little help building the playground and on May 13, Marengo answered the call. The local business community, elected officials, members of the fire and police departments, the school district and residents volunteered their time, whether it was serving food, assembling a slide or shoveling mulch. By that afternoon, kids were already putting the playground to good use.

The former playground, which had been in place for more than three decades, was removed in the spring of 2016 after the park district risk-management agency determined it was no longer safe. Without the resources in place to purchase a new playground, the community helped raise the more than $30,000 needed to replace it.

This was a true community effort. Thank you for making a difference for our park and for our kids! The new playground really sets the stage for an exciting summer at Marengo Park District. For the first time in four years, we are reintroducing our popular summer camp program starting on June 19.

We have six weeks of summer activities planned for 6- to 12-year-olds, including field trips, visual and performing arts, sports, games and much more. Kids enrolled in Summer Camp can also participate in Before Camp and After Camp time slots ranging from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Looking for something for the whole family? Our Movies in the Park had such a great reception last year that we’re bringing them back this summer.

We’ll be showing the movies “Sing,” “Finding Dory” and “The Lego Batman Movie.” Come out around dusk on the third Fridays in June, July and August to enjoy a family flick, and leave your wallet at home.

Indian Oaks Park was a hive of activity on Saturday, May 13. Volunteers were constructing new playground equipment.

Registration table volunteer Nicole Hamilton said, “I am here today to have my kids watch the new playground go up and be a part of the work. We’ve got the playground, children’s hand prints on picnic tables, disc golf, a drum circle, seed planting, river rock painting, and bird feeders - a lot of activities for the kids while the adults are building.

“We have people from Intren, the Police Department, park district volunteers, community members, and the 4-H is coming later. We have had 35 people register today, paramedics and fire rescue members are here as well, plus the kids, plus everyone who pre-registered, over 100 people total. We started at 8 a.m. and will keep going until it is done - we think it will be around 2 p.m.

“The goal is that everything will be done today,” said Beth Dixon. “Our next goal is to install a splash pad.”xxxxxxxxxxxx “We are trying to make our community better one piece at a time,” said Jolene Wright. “If my kids had had a football game today, I would have missed it and I have not missed even one of my sons’ games. That’s how important this is.”

A few of Marengo’s notables came out to help: Miss Lopez, principal of Locust School; Stephanie Keenum, teacher at Marengo Middle School; Mrs. Secor, 3rd grade at Locust School; Alderman Nickki DeBoer and Alderman Mike Miller; Greg Wright, president of School District 165 Board; Rick Czepczynski, of the District 165 School Board; members of the Fire Department and Police Department; Locust School provided breakfast and 4-H Eagles provided lunch.

Early Sunday morning Alderman Mike Miller was on site. He said, “This is a community built playground to keep costs down. We wanted good lighting to cut down vandalism and we wanted the playground near the buildings for our preschoolers. Intren donated $10,000 to make this playground happen and it will be named ‘Intren Playground.’

“We are still waiting for a few pieces to arrive. There will be digger machines for the kids to play with and a piece of the ‘treehouse’ has yet to come. We decided not to wait for them in order to get the playground built.

“Darryl Koeper builds golf courses. He donated his time and equipment. We had to build up the playground area a little and brought in clean fill from the Taco Bell construction site. Real Construction worked with us. Kunde Excavating was here for several nights. Mike Pottinger donated four truckloads of gravel for the sidewalk and called in favors.

“Steve Doyle, a park district employee, is still donating time this morning to complete the area for the community. Everyone pitched in and there were a lot of good comments on the Forum last night.”

Further information can be found online at www.


As I was reading through Let’s Go by Wayne Pierce, which is a book about the history of the 325th Glider Infantry during WWII, a name I recognized appeared: Lt. Clarence Knutson. I ‘ve written stories about Knutson and his brother, Marine Private Charles Knutson, who both were killed in action. My only sources for these stories were old newspaper articles. Pierce furnished me with contact information for Karen (Knutson) Cini, who is Clarence’s daughter. Karen and I have corresponded since my initial contact in 2004. I would like to thank her for sharing about her father.

This stone marks the grave of Sidney Babcock, a private in the 15th Illinois Infantry. Sidney was too sick to travel and was left at the train depot in Keokuk, Iowa, where he subsequently died in a hospital.

The sacrifices of many local soldiers fade from the memories of local communities. Every once in a while the dust gets blown off the pages of some old newspaper or diary and the sacrifices of these warriors of yesteryear are revealed. I found two such stories while scouring obscure issues of the Marengo Journal from the year 1861. The first of these two experiences, the drowning of Charles Morris of the 15th Illinois Infantry in the Pecatonica River in Freeport, Illinois, was related to readers in last month’s issue of the Marengo-Union Times.

Sgt Riley and Shadow

30 years ago, a young recruit named Rodney Riley would join the Marengo Police Department; confident, ambitious and fresh from the police academy. He would go on to serve the same community for 30 years, developing his skills and becoming a true asset to the force. Achieving rank of Sargent would be proud accomplishment, but when he was assigned a partner a new sense of pride was realized. Officer Shadow joined MPD in 2010, being reassigned to Sgt. Riley in October 2011. The pair would attend extensive and continued training, maintaining their status as a Certified K-9 team by the state of Illinois. After 6 years of working together, Officer Shadow and Sgt. Riley will turn in their badges and retire together from police work. On April 28 an informal gathering of appreciation took place at City Hall, providing Marengo residents and their coworkers a chance to say thank you for law enforcement careers dedicated entirely to one city, its families, businesses and visitors. Wishing you both the best and hope to see you at Settler’s Days!

As you know, after 12 years of being Mayor for our great city, I will no longer be a part of public life. I wish only the best to incoming Mayor John Koziol, and hope he will be able to continue the progress that has been made over the past few years. I am sure he will be able to meet challenges that most certainly will come before him and the city. I have talked with John, and I am sure he will seek nothing but the best for Marengo.

In recent years it has been a struggle for our community, given how we have been effected by the “Great Recession” and the continual state government log-jam, caused by the political bickering (is that not a strong enough term for it?) going on in Springfield. Still, we have maintained a solid financial footing due in large part to the work and sacrifice of our very conscientious staff. We should be proud, as I am, of their commitment to our city.

I need to thank the City Council members with whom I have worked with over the years. The advice and support that they have given me has been outstanding. Collectively, they have provided diligent oversight while making decisions that has, and will into the future improve the quality of life in our community.

I also need to thank the State Senators and Representatives representing Marengo that have helped and partnered with the city in gaining support and funding for projects within our borders. Same goes for those McHenry County Board members, particularly from our District Six, that have helped Marengo grow and diversify its economic base.

Finally, I need to acknowledge you the citizens of our community in the support and good will that you have extended to me. It has been a very humbling experience working for you, and for that I will be forever grateful.



After the U.S Army garrison at Ft. Sumter surrendered to Confederate attackers on April 13, 1861, a wave of patriotic fervor swept across the United States. Men everywhere scrambled to get their names on enlistment rolls and to pitch in to save the Union. In McHenry County meetings were held in most communities and military companies were organized. The first of these units that were accepted from our county came from Algonquin, Woodstock, and the Marengo – Union area, and were eventually formed into the 15th Illinois Infantry Regiment with other companies recruited in Illinois’ First Congressional District.

In the early months of the war people felt compelled to act and didn’t give too much thought to the consequences of their actions. For example, when these military companies were formed under the state’s authority there was no concrete time of service defined. Some men thought that they were enlisting for 30 days; others thought that their obligation was for three months, while others believed that they were enlisting for the duration of the war. Yet, they enlisted and were surprised later. Another consequence that wasn’t fully grasped is the fact that some soldiers would never return home. This consequence became apparent to the citizens of the Marengo very early in the war.


Marengo Area News Briefs

Marengo Area News Briefs

An artist’s depiction of the proposed retail shopping mall at 20009 E. Grant’s Highway (Route 20). Photo Courtesy of City of Marengo NEW STRIP...

Read more
Settlers’ Days 2017 Celebrating “The Farm Life”

Settlers’ Days 2017 Celebrating “The Farm Life”

It is the most wonderful time of the year…Marengo Settler’s Days October 5th-8th. The theme this year celebrates the Farm Life, and...

Read more
Former MCHS Football Player Continues Winning Ways

Former MCHS Football Player Continues Winning Ways

Eric Mackey, 2017 graduate of MCHS, and star quarterback for the Marengo Indians, is now a freshman at Rockford University and playing...

Read more