CRYSTAL LAKE – As George Mueller gazed out the window of his Mueller’s Interior furniture store, he saw the familiar sight of traffic on Route 14.
For nearly 20 years, the road known as Northwest Highway has been the key to his dream of owning a successful business that even managed to expand during difficult economic times.
“It is the street paved with gold,” said Mueller, reflecting on the vast business expansion he has seen in two decades. “It is the artery, the main vein of Crystal Lake. Take that away from the city, and we’re done.”
Now lined with hundreds of businesses stretching from Route 31 to Route 176, Route 14 has become the economic driver of Crystal Lake and a catalyst for the sustained growth it experienced in the 2000s.
But it wasn’t always box stores and boutiques for Crystal Lake’s main road.
Crystal Lake Councilman Ralph Dawson has lived in the city since 1939. Where he now sees Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, he once saw chickens and cattle on the vast farmland that surrounded the then two-lane highway.
While Route 14 was lined with mostly farms and homes, Dawson said, there was still plenty of character and fun times to be had at the roadhouse where a Walgreens now stands or any of the four restaurants in what was known as the Virginia Corridor, where Route 14 and Virginia Road run into each other.
It started to change in the 1950s, Dawson said, when the two main grocery stores left the downtown area for Route 14 locations. Soon after, businesses started slowly following, including a 24-hour truck stop that was a hotbed for long-distance travelers, especially for the milk trucks taking deliveries from Harvard factories to Chicago.
“Downtown really did die there for a while,” Dawson said. “When you pull the big two food stores out of there, that’s what happens. The trend was clear that 14 was going to be where the growth was going to happen.”
By the 1960s, Route 14 was starting to take the shape it has today as businessmen interested in the increasingly attractive real estate flocked to the area. Mr. A’s Italian Beef – one of the longest-tenured businesses along the highway – came in 1968 after owner Bob Amoroso was advised by his grammar school gym teacher that Crystal Lake would be a great place for a second location.
Amoroso opened a location on the corner of Dole Avenue and Route 14 and has been there ever since, although he expanded the building in the 1970s. Now operated by his younger brother, Mick Amoroso, the business still is bringing in customers as other companies around them have come and gone the past 45 years.
“I remember when it first opened, we would see people riding a horse every now and then and that was a shock compared to Chicago,” he said. “But if you’re looking for traffic, this spot is great for that. You’re coming through here first when you come to Crystal Lake.”
The same visions of success that Route 14 gave the Amoroso family are stronger than ever for today’s entrepreneurs, said Gary Reece, president of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Reece said a few hundred thousand feet of retail space filled up within the first six months of the year as businesses such as Texas Roadhouse, Greek’s Pizzeria and Jasters Craft Beer and Winery are set to open.
“There are hundreds of opportunities for people to shop, eat and go to the movies. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what the economic impact is,” Reece said of Route 14. “You have a lot of big boxes and major players along 14. It is the main drag through town, there is no doubt about it.”
After 74 years of watching Route 14 change, Dawson said it is still amazing to think about how the whole city changed with the highway. Although he has no problems green-lighting new businesses for Route 14 as a councilman, he still finds himself thinking of the 1940s version of Northwest Highway.
“It was much more fun when it was smaller; there were interesting characters,” Dawson said. “I loved my youth. I loved what the town was like, but the truth is we would be stagnant if we stayed that way.”