Plainfield Town Focus
From rural roots to southwest suburban boom town
Yes, there are still plains and fields in Plainfield. But this southwestern suburb — deemed to be the oldest town in Will County — is anything but plain, and the fields are now the site of a spate of new residential and commercial areas that complement the natural topography of open land, small lakes and rivers.
Testament to the growth and expansion of Plainfield, the town’s population today is estimated at 43,000, compared to barely over 4,500 in 1990.
At the heart of this boom is downtown Plainfield, about 35 miles southwest of the city of Chicago. While retaining the small-town charm, brick-paved sidewalks, historic facades, and decades-old businesses of the earlier hamlet, this district has been revived in recent years with a variety of new shops and eateries.
The spike in residents, workers and visitors to Plainfield is attributed in part to the ongoing suburban expansion evident in other outlying areas. More interestingly though, it is also linked to the deadly, devastating tornado that changed the literal and figurative landscape of the community in the summer of 1990.
“When I was in high school here in 1963, I think we had about 1,800 people in Plainfield. After the tornado, the town just boomed,” says longtime resident Sue Hasenyager, operations director of the Plainfield Historical Society Museum
and a former teacher in the school district. She attributes the growth to people becoming aware of the town when the tornado landed, triggering extensive new building and development.
Lifelong resident Russell Flagg, whose ancestors Reuben and Betsey Flagg were original settlers, agrees that the storm begat growth. “I was on the fire department here and the town was projected to grow like other areas around Aurora and Naperville. But until the tornado, Plainfield was basically a rural town. After that, it just grew and grew,” Flagg says.
Today, Plainfield’s population includes thousands of new families, joining the many residents who can trace their roots back generations. Jokes Hasenyager: “I’m considered a newcomer, because I’ve only been here 58 years.”
Still, the town’s inherent folksiness remains. “Plainfield is a lot larger than many think but still has that small-town feel. We are seeing buildings being constructed and stores opening,” says Tasha Kitson, executive director of the Plainfield Area Chamber of Commerce, who is always open to new ideas on how the town can continue to grow.
Downtown, in Plain View
A stroll through downtown Plainfield brings to mind the quintessentially American yet fictional downtowns depicted on TV shows, such as Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls, Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show or Pawnee in Parks and Recreation, to name a few. For one thing, there are the brick-paved sidewalks, and the trees are strung with little white lights that glimmer in the evenings all year long, additions that came after a streetscape enhancement in 2009.
For another, there are the many independent shops, boutiques, bakeries, bars, restaurants and businesses that exemplify both the American dream and contemporary life.
Look inside some of the buildings and you’ll soon find other ways in which downtown Plainfield evokes old-time charm married to modern goods and services, from the tin ceilings inside Capri Sogno restaurant to the retro barber pole outside the Lincoln Way Barber Shop. Several businesses look like they have been there a long time, because they have. The barber shop first opened in 1881 and moved to its current site in 1901. It is still run by the descendants of founder Albert Worst.
Miller’s Old Fashioned Butcher Shop, housed in an 1894 building that was once a drugstore, recently marked its 25th year in town. In addition to a variety of meats, including a line of all-natural choice beef, the shop offers wild game processing, a service used by customers who patronize the various fishing and hunting clubs in the Plainfield area. The Village Flower Shop has been a fixture in downtown Plainfield for 30 years, offering plants and arrangements as well as flowers for weddings and other events. The Lockport Street Gallery, approaching 20 years, specializes in etchings by Louis Icart and Salvador Dali, plus works by other master and contemporary artists.
The many flourishing downtown restaurants have ensured that there is no proverbial rolling up of the sidewalks after dark in this town. Capri Sogno serves up classic Italian fare in a historic building that once served as an ice cream factory. Moe Joe’s Cajun ramps up the seasoning with Louisiana-style cooking and creole dishes. Front Street Cantina and Volar cater to those with a hankering for Mexican fare. Befitting a town with an all-American vibe, there are several American-style restaurants here, including HopScotch and Vine, Tap House Grill, Southern Bell’s Restaurant, Sovereign Tap, the Uptown Eatery and Tap, Larry’s Dinner, and Opera House Steak & Seafood, housed in a vintage building that’s been restored and decorated with a roaring 1920s flair (for a review of Opera House Steak & Seafood, see page 72 in Dining).
Those looking for bites and drinks, meantime, can quench their respective tastes at other spots in downtown Plainfield. For cocktails and ambiance, belly up to the swanky Blu cocktail bar, a floor below Opera House Steak & Seafood. Noshing is the order of the day at Wine & Cheese by TCC. If you’ve watched an episode of Cupcake Wars, you might recognize the team at Millette’s Cakes, which specializes in custom-baked three-dimensional cakes for birthdays, weddings and other special occasions, and also offers a plethora of other baked goods.
Later this spring, just in time for warmer weather, Hazel Marie’s Ice Cream Shop is set to open. (Ice cream, in fact, is tied to the history of Plainfield as it’s been said that the ice cream sundae was invented at a drugstore fountain in town.)
If you’re the one doing the cooking, you can stock up on specialty foods, supplies and accessories at various businesses in downtown Plainfield. Simply Saucy offers sauces, rubs, marinades and dips, along with gourmet gifts and kitchen gadgets. The Tawny Tortoise — for “slow-paced shopping,” its motto suggests — carries a variety of specialty foods, along with dolls, books and other items for the home and kitchen.
You can also do some serious shopping downtown at retailers like 3 Chic’s Boutique, Just Ducky Gift Boutique, Me Tu Boutique Bella, and Sweet Pea & Me Boutique, among others. Those looking for a bit of “old” — or repurposed, to be more precise — can find an array of goods at On the Road Again antique store and Back on the Rack consignment store.
Browsing downtown to shop and eat can be part of a day trip, but Plainfield has all you might desire for an overnight or weekend outing, too. The Plainfield Inn, a historic hotel dating to 1851, was recently refurbished and reopened by the Myers family.
If you care to venture beyond the town center, there are other pockets of stores, restaurants and services in town, ranging from the ubiquitous Starbucks Coffee to the Hometown Furniture store on Highway 30, which dates to 1969.
Plain and Simple Things to Do
Like many suburbs, Plainfield offers a range of things to do for residents and visitors alike. “The Plainfield Area Chamber hosts many events, not just to promote our town but also to connect people with our business community,” says Kitson. For instance, she explains, the Chamber hosts 11 “Cruise Nights” during the summer. Every Tuesday night, proud owners of hot rods, Corvettes, Pontiacs, Chevys and Mustangs roar into town to show off their wheels to thousands of admiring onlookers.
Fall events include a Harvest 5K in September, a Homecoming parade in early October, a Spooktacular Halloween and, close to the holidays, a Candlelight Christmas in late November.
Flagg says that the Homecoming parade is a wonderful example of a village event that combines past and present in a fun new way. “Homecoming is a good thing, because it brings everyone back and gives you a chance to meet new people, too,” he says.
The year’s outdoor racing season gets off to a running start in Plainfield on May 27, Memorial Day weekend, with the annual “Run for the Brave” 5K at Plainfield North High School. The event supports military veterans and members of the armed services.
The popular Plainfield Farmers Market opens around the first Saturday of June, in time for the planting and growing season. Local farmers as well as those who travel to town from farms in neighboring states offer all kinds of produce and other farm-fresh items.
History Comes Alive
The EF5 tornado that ripped through town in 1990 caused damage to buildings and leveled St. Mary Immaculate Church (which was later rebuilt), but the downtown emerged with pieces of the past left standing. Many, if not most, of the businesses and restaurants in downtown Plainfield are housed in historic structures built by merchants and entrepreneurs back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Visitors can see where past and present meet by taking part in a historic walking tour of downtown Plainfield, either on their own guided by a brochure, or with a member of the Plainfield Historical Society. “We also offer a tour called ‘Wine about Plainfield’ that starts at the Wine and Cheese shop,” says Hasenyager, noting that Plainfield Historical Society is planning an upcoming event in June.
The walking tour includes a look at a variety of vintage buildings in the community, such as the Congregational Church, built in 1850; Chittenden Dry Goods store, built in 1876; and the William Wright House, one of the
oldest homes in the downtown district, built in 1850.
Other sites in Plainfield have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Plainfield Halfway House and the Flanders House, both on Main Street, and the Standard Oil Station/Andreasen Travel Building on Lockport Street.
The Plainfield Historical Society Main Street Museum sheds more light on the history of the town and region. Open to visitors on Saturday mornings and by request, the museum houses a variety of artifacts from the past and features a series of exhibits. “We’ve just started a display about the early pioneers, the Flagg family, who came in the 1830s. As part of the exhibit, there is an original newspaper from New York from the day President Lincoln died,” says Hasenyager, adding that the display will be expanded later this year. A new exhibit showcases a vintage doll collection owned by Darcy Reed, who inherited dolls from her mother and aunt. Another exhibit features a collection from resident Jean Helm, who is an internationally known painter of fine china.
Plains, Ponds and Waterways
Although Plainfield is situated on open, flat land, there are several waterways that have made the area a popular site for private fishing and hunting clubs and a destination for those who enjoy the great outdoors.
The Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve, run by the Forest Preserve District of Will County, spans more than 800 acres. A 320-acre portion of the site was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1992. The 200-acre lake and surrounding wetlands attract all kinds of wildlife, including birds like blue heron and egret that breed, nest and live in islands on Lake Renwick, a popular site for bird watching.
While visitors are restricted during the breeding season, there are guided bird viewing events and other public programs. For a closer look, mounted scopes are available for bird watchers. Visitors can hike or run along the crushed limestone trails around the preserve or cycle the asphalt Lake Renwick Bikeway.
The DuPage River winds through parts of Plainfield and was instrumental in its founding as a site for mills and fur trapping. Today, the river remains a focus, as the village has been working on plans for a downtown riverfront park. The ambitious project is occurring in phases and has involved the construction of a new pedestrian bridge on Lockport Street, the opening of the DuPage River Trail along the DuPage River, an expansion of Electric Park near the river, and ultimately the development of a new Riverwalk Park.
Visitors and residents also enjoy a lake view at Settlers’ Park, south of the Village Hall near downtown. In addition to natural elements like a small lake, open land and walking trails, the park features an amphitheater, playground and war monument. In the summer, people gather to enjoy concerts and movies.
The community’s’ rural roots are alive and well in other natural areas around town, including the restored prairie in Mather Woods and in the dozens of parks within Plainfield.
Down on the Farm
Another indication that Plainfield remains tied to its centuries-old rural history is the fact that the community is home to many working farms, some of which are open to visitors.
Bronkberry Farms, which re-opens for the season during the third week of April, is run by fifth-generation farmers who grow corn and soybeans. They now sell a variety of vegetables and plants as well as foodstuffs like honey, jam, pickles and canned goods. On May 21, Bronkberry Farms will host a craft fair with local vendors.
Another working farm open to the public is Anderson Tree Farm. In addition to selling a variety of trees and offering landscaping services, Anderson Tree Farm offers produce and fresh eggs. An on-site party room is available to rent for special occasions. At Christmastime the farm draws visitors for its selection of Christmas trees.
Other Highlights of Plainfield
• Plainfield settler Reuben Flagg provided the lumber for the first frame home in Chicago. In fact, Plainfield has been dubbed the “Mother of Chicago,” because the growing city relied on Plainfield for wood and other supplies.
• Historic Rt. 66, at an earlier time one of the longest highways in the nation, runs through Plainfield. So, too, does the historic Lincoln Highway, another of the country’s longest roadways that once linked New York to San Francisco.
• Another example of the mutual support of farmers and businesses is Nevin’s Brewing Company, which delivers spent grain from making beer to local farmers to use as feed for livestock and for compost. Nevin’s completes the farm-to-fork chain by purchasing meat and vegetables from farmers for its menu items.
• The Plainfield Park District, which is working on a master plan to guide the future of its venues and programs, runs the Normantown Equestrian Center stable, which is open to the public. The site includes an indoor riding arena, two outdoor riding arenas, stables and a classroom. The center offers riding lessons for both beginners and advanced riders.
• With new residential developments drawing more people to the village, Plainfield is expanding its dining and shopping options. Soon to open are Freedom Brothers Pizzeria & Alehouse, DNA Athletics and Riverfront Kayak. They are joining recent new ventures such as Mora Asian Fusion, Clocktower Shoppe, Jane Fine Jewelry and JC Licht Paint Company, among others.
• Meeting the needs of its growing population, the school district includes four high schools: Plainfield Central, Plainfield South, Plainfield North and Plainfield East.
• Actress and “Spicey” Saturday Night Live star Melissa McCarthy grew up in Plainfield and gave a hometown shout-out in her speech after winning an Emmy award in 2011, declaring, “I’m from Plainfield, Illinois and I’m standing here, and it’s kind of amazing.”Edit Module