Walter “Gov” and Madeline Bolger have deep roots in the McHenry County soil they work. The Bolger family has farmed in McHenry County since just after the Civil War, and Gov himself has been a resident of the county for over 90 years now.
From their 80 acres south of McHenry, they’ve watched the county change over the years, sometimes in ways that have made them nostalgic for a vanishing way of life. So the Bolgers decided to place an agricultural easement on 69 acres of their land, with a stipulation that it may only be used for farming by any future owners.
“We didn’t want to ever sell the land for housing” said Madeline Bolger. “Our son might be interested [in farming] someday; we wanted agricultural things going on the land.”
The Bolgers have a long history in McHenry County. The first Bolgers came from Ireland in the 1800s. The generations of Bolger men passed down names along with the land: Thomas, Walter, Thomas, and now Walter “Gov”. One old Bolger family story has it that some Potawatomi Indians came down from Wisconsin one day when a woman was washing her clothes. One of the Indian women took a drink from the wash water, and “she spit it out real quick.”
Gov has farmed all his life, and owned his own farm since he was 32. The Bolgers raised dairy cows as well as corn, hay and garden vegetables. Most of the non-dairy produce stays on the farm, but Gov used to sell eggs to local restaurants, and he’d still set up a sweet corn stand from time to time well into his 80s.
Gov acquired his nickname from a milkman at Riverside Dairy, an old McHenry institution. The milkman told him, “You’re gonna be the governor some day.” Gov was happy being an independent farmer, growing his crops and fixing his own machinery.
Madeline Bolger grew up on McHenry’s Main Street. Her mother came down from Appleton, Wisconsin, and her father was a doctor from McHenry County’s Freund family. Dr. Freund toured Europe, and tried to open a hospital to bring European-style medicine to the states. It didn’t take, so the Freunds opened a tire store on Main Street. The family lived in an apartment over the shop.
She recalled when everything the family needed could be found on Main Street. “We walked all over, we didn’t have a car for a while,” she said. “We didn’t have to go two or three miles to get something.”
The stores Madeline remembers read like an encyclopedia of small-town Americana: the PD Schaefer meat market, the dry goods store in the Stoffel building, a drug store, a hardware store, a men’s clothing store, and barbershops. A hotel down the street from their tire shop used the lot next to them to grow its own produce.
“The only thing we would go out of town for was shoes,” Madeline said. “We’d go to Elgin or Waukegan.”
McHenry boasted several dance halls, but Madeline says most couples met through school. That’s where she met Gov – the Thursday Night Club hosted by the high school, a social event where local teens played sports and took turns bringing potluck meals. They married at Saint Mary’s in McHenry.
Today, the Bolgers feel McHenry has become more sprawling and less close-knit, and is losing its small-town character. Madeline has observed that farming has shifted to the north and west, and that no new farm families are trying their hand at the land. She shared her experiences trying to sell part of the farm:
“We thought there might be people who would want to buy some of this land, and raise vegetables, trees, flowers maybe. We had a couple that came here, and they wanted almost the whole farm, but my husband didn’t want to sell it to them. He said, maybe in five years. Five years came, and I called the couple, but they weren’t interested any more.”
The Bolgers hope their easement will preserve some of McHenry County’s rural character, and save the land for a family who will till the soil again. They also hope it will bring back some of their birds. Guv said that the endangered bluebird likes to nest in old wooden fence posts, and Madeline misses the songs of field birds like bobolinks and meadowlarks.
“The meadowlarks, they had the most beautiful song,” Madeline said.
With the preservation efforts of the Bolgers and others like them, they may sing again.
Madeline Bolger of McHenry passed away September 28, 2013. The Bolgers were the first local family to place a conservation easement on their family farm – 69 acres south of McHenry on Barreville Rd. Madeline’s funeral mass was held at St. Patrick’s in McHenry, on October 2, 2013.
Thanks to Intern Mark Hertvik for writing up this oral history in 2009.