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Leona Farms estate was a refuge for Hertz

TROUT VALLEY – Chicago gangsters controlled the unions in the first half of the 20th century, and for one union-busting tycoon, Leona Farms in southeastern McHenry County was a summertime getaway and fortress.

John Hertz, owner of the Yellow Cab Co. and founder of the namesake car-rental company, made enemies in Chicago because he employed non-union cab drivers, said Lisa Damian Kidder, author of a book due out this summer, “Trout Valley, the Hertz Estate, and Curtiss Farm.”

Damian Kidder said she read newspaper reports of gangsters shooting at Yellow Cabs in Chicago. Damian Kidder is a Trout Valley village trustee as well as an author.

The 900-acre Leona Farms, named after Hertz’s eldest daughter and owned by Hertz from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s, was a safe haven that allowed the tycoon to unwind and recreate during Prohibition and the Great Depression.

About 600 acres of the Hertz estate became the village of Trout Valley, and 300 acres became the village of Cary, Damian Kidder said.

“My father and my uncle worked for him,” said Robert Harper of Trout Valley. “Hertz would land on the Fox River in a seaplane, and my uncle would pick him up and drive him to his mansion.

“... When he was in town, state police would guard the front gate [at Cary-Algonquin Road]. He had about 100 people working for him on his estate.”

Damian Kidder said the Hertz-built barn, where the Trout Valley Homeowners Association now has its meetings, has gun turrets in the third-story loft.

Hertz lived on Leona Farms with his wife, Fannie. They threw big summertime parties, which Damian Kidder called “Gatsby parties.”

Hertz’s mansion had been turned into a high-end restaurant, Villa d’este, which mysteriously burned to the ground about 40 years ago before the new owner took possession of it. But still standing is the slightly smaller mansion that Hertz built for his daughter, Leona.

What now is Cary’s Village Hall was Hertz’s farm office. Next door stand the brick stables that once were home to thoroughbred Reigh Count, winner of the 1928 Kentucky Derby. The former stables now are a private residence.

The amenities of Hertz’s summertime playground still are being used today by residents of Trout Valley.

“There are many Hertz-era landmarks still standing, including a Roman-style swimming pool with stone balustrades and a stone stairway, open to residents,” Damian Kidder said. “Many of the polo fields and bridle paths Hertz built are still here, and so are the trout ponds.”  

Hertz-bred trout were served in local restaurants.

“One large fishing hole is called ‘Tom Sawyer Pond,’ stocked with big bass,” Damian Kidder added. “You often see little boys fishing there. It’s very Americana.”

Leona Farms was the grist for Hollywood gossip. Hertz threw large parties attended by the well-known. Guests included Walt Disney, Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.

Hertz’s son, John Hertz Jr., was married for a short time to Myrna Loy, a Hollywood actress who told the tabloids that she divorced her husband because she could not stand that he was in his father’s shadow.

The Hertz show ended in the 1940s, when John Hertz and his horses moved to Kentucky. He sold the farm to Otto Schnering, founder of the Curtiss Candy Co., inventor of the candy bar. Schnering created the Butterfinger candy bar. His Baby Ruth was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

Schnering raised prize bulls on the property and renamed it Curtiss Farm.

History in pictures

Due out July 28 is the book “Trout Valley, The Hertz Estate, and Curtiss Farm,” written by Lisa Damian Kidder, a Trout Valley trustee. Introduction and afterword by Bob Baker, mayor of Trout Valley. The book is a pictoral history of the Hertz Estate [a.k.a. Leona Farms], later to become the Curtiss Farm. The book is selling for $19.99 and available at local retailers and online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com.

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