BACK TO THE BREWERY — A Guest Article by Douglas Martin


Adaptive Reuse of a 19th Century Brewery to a 21st Century Brew Pub with Outdoor Beer Garden in Downtown McHenry, Illinois
by Douglas Martin

Constructed in 1868 by George Gribbler the building which housed McHenry Brewing Company and known for its signature Buffalo Beer, located at the southeast corner of Pearl Street and Green Street in the heart of the City of McHenry’s downtown (3425 Pearl Street) is currently home to Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company

Retired Marine Corps Colonel Curt Ames and his wife Linda purchased the building in November 2010 at an auction held within the structure with intentions of promoting the Chain O’ Lakes, City of McHenry and Veterans. Curt Ames served for 30 years in the United States Marine Corps, grew up in Pistakee Lake and currently resides in Johnsburg, Illinois immediately north of the City of McHenry.

The Fox River, which flows south from Wisconsin to Illinois into a series of fifteen interconnected lakes, including Pistakee Lake, called the Chain O’ Lakes. Chain O’ Lakes State Park, consisting of nearly 2,800 acres, is located within the recently established Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge.

The former McHenry Brewing Company building had been vacant since the late 1980’s when it housed the Whale’s Tail Restaurant, which served breakfast and lunch, until it was purchased in 2004. Following the building underwent five-years of extensive renovations including stabilization of the west wall which was structurally failing. In 2009 the former McHenry Brewing Company building opened as the Green Pearl Bistro, a smorgasbord-style restaurant serving eastern European cuisine.

The Green Pearl Bistro however closed less than one-year following its opening. Moreover, due to the money invested in renovating the building it was required to be brought into compliance with the Illinois Accessibility Code. This was a significant challenge which again left the building unoccupied due to the costs associated with complying with the Code.

Being located in a tax increment financing district enabled Curt and Linda Ames to partner and enter into a redevelopment agreement with the City of McHenry to pay for and be reimbursed for the installation of a handicapped accessible ramp constructed on the south side of the building. Ames, who had previously purchased processing equipment from a brewery which shuttered in California and shipped it back to McHenry County, proceeded with installing an eight-barrel brewing operation and realized his dream of opening a brew pub in the summer of 2013.

Curt & Linda AmesAmes and Linda have been operating Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company as a brew pub and processing 120 barrels of beer annually. Following its opening in 2013, Ames began with and maintains four beers on-tap but today has a data bank of 20 different blends.

Ames stated that his ales take between 21-28 days to process while the lagers require 45-60 days to brew. Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company’s two signature beers, Fox River Scotch Ale and the Colonel’s IPA, are accompanied by a seasonal brew as well as a new beer which changes weekly.

Ames, in keeping with the tradition of the original McHenry Brewing Company, maintains a “Bock” or stronger lager-style beer as one of his regular four on-tap offerings. Chain O’ Lakes also offers growlers and grumblers for customers to take home, produces non-alcoholic root beer and cream soda and does limited distribution to a few local taverns.

Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company draws varying crowds on different days of the week. Thursday’s crowd generally includes former Maines and other service men and women and weekends attract out-of-towners which include Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company as a stop on a McHenry County Pub Crawl.


Located one block from Veterans Memorial Park, the original town square and public gathering space and in the heart of downtown McHenry, Ames regularly serves at the City’s Thursday Night Summer Band Concert Series. The concerts, which draw 400-500 people weekly throughout the summer, have been a community tradition in the City of McHenry for decades. Following the addition of an outdoor beer garden in 2014 Ames has added to the list of special events which occur annually at Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company including: musical entertainment, participation in the annual Fiesta Days Celebration and McHenry’s Taste of Downtown to name a few.

In her book Images of America: McHenry and McCullom Lake (Arcadia Publishing 2007) Sandra Landen Machaj explains that following initial construction in 1868, the McHenry Brewing Company produced up to 1,200 barrels of beer daily was purchased by Gottlieb Boley in1880 and operated by a descendent of Boley’s until sometime in the 1930’s.


With the ratification of the 18thConstituional Amendment in 1919 commencing The Prohibition Era details of what actually occurred at the McHenry Brewing Company are somewhat sketchy but Machaj states the brewery produced malt and beer with no alcoholic content, which was purchased by consumers who added sugar and yeast at their private residences to complete the fermentation process.

While visiting with Ames he provided a guided tour of the building and showed me the former brew house adjacent to but at one time connected to the current Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company, which served as the former grain room. Ames talked about the malt beverage produced in the adjacent brew house which was transferred through an underground corridor in the basement where yeast was added in a “hidden fermentation vessel” and became alcoholic beer.


The beer was conveyed underground through the “Prohibition Tunnel” to a building north of Pearl Street which served as a local speakeasy. When the historic Pearl Street bridge in the City of McHenry was constructed over the Fox River to the east of Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company and Pearl Street was exposed the “Prohibition Tunnel” was uncovered. Whether fact, fiction or a combination it provides a definite allure which Ames has encapsulated and kept alive in the present day operation of the Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company.

Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company is part of a rapidly growing national trend of brew pubs and microbreweries opening nationwide. According to Colliers International, a Seattle-based commercial real estate brokerage firm, in 2014 Chicago led the nation with 1.6 million square feet of brewing space and was second in the nation with 144 craft breweries.


Following passage of the 21st Constitutional Amendment in 1933 which repealed the 18th Amendment, McHenry Brewing Company continued as a legal brewery until its closure around 1943. The building has since housed various businesses, mostly restaurants, ceased as a brewery until Ames reopened the Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company in 2013 and brought back the brewery to Downtown McHenry, Illinois.

Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company is certainly an excellent example of adaptive reuse of an historical building but its contribution to the City of McHenry extends well beyond the physical walls of the building. Curt and Linda Ames advocate, support and exemplify the altruistic values citizens and business owners of the City of McHenry strive to continually maintain specifically: embracing the preservation of the City’s historic fabric and cultural traditions, promotion and commitment to downtown revitalization and philanthropic responsibility to the larger community whenever the need may arise. Additionally, since opening Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company has contributed to the financial revitalization of downtown McHenry.

During the warmer weather months, Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company’s outdoor beer garden provides an ideal venue for patrons to experience the community’s annual Fiesta Days Celebration and numerous other summertime events while enjoying outdoor entertainment including local bands and food truck operators which showcase their unique cuisine.

Beer Garden

Special events and tourism are vital components to the City of McHenry’s economic well-being. They bring people together, enhance and contribute to quality of life and provide opportunities for businesses to showcase themselves and their products and services. The City of McHenry which plays a large supporting role along with other stakeholders, including Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company, and countless volunteers collaborate, for the benefit of the entire community on numerous events which everyone in the community can enjoy.

All the aforementioned events are within walking distance of Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company, and Curt and Linda Ames embrace are active participants and promotors of many of these activities which encourages other businesses to do the same. The location and nature of the Ames’ business also provides a tourism destination for many outside of the City of McHenry, which provides an excellent synergistic opportunity for other downtown businesses to capitalize, particularly the numerous locally-owned and operated restaurants downtown McHenry hosts.

Vietnam MemorialChain O’ Lakes Brewing Company’s location is particularly significant and symbolic, in the heart of downtown McHenry and within walking distance of Veterans Memorial Park, the premier downtown gathering space and for many in the City of McHenry, their “Third Place.”

Curt Ames, a retired Marine Corps colonel, along with the City of McHenry are extremely avid supporters of those who currently serve or have served to protect our country. The City of McHenry is fortunate to have three Veterans organizations: McHenry VFW #4600, American Legion Auxiliary Post #491, and the Polish American Legion of American Veterans Post #188.

The Vietnam Memorial pictured below, located in Veterans Memorial Park, was donated by the McHenry High School Class of 1964 and dedicated in 2014. The monument honors four McHenry High School graduates killed in Vietnam: John Granath Jr., killed at 20; Glenn Davis, killed at 22; Carter Freund, killed at 22; and James Ambrose, killed at 23.

Brewery2The City of McHenry is a diverse attractive community that has managed to maintain its historic small town charm and identity with unparalleled access to recreational opportunities. A vital component of McHenry is its downtown which stretches from the Fox River west to Crystal Lake Road. McHenry’s downtown is considered the economic, historic and cultural heart of the City. The City of McHenry is fortunate to have three distinct downtowns, each with an individual entity which contribute to the City’s rich history, growth, development and redevelopment: including West McHenry (Gagetown), currently Main Street, Centerville (today Green Street) and Water Street (currently Riverside Drive).

Recognizing the importance of the downtown, the McHenry City Council took a series of steps to maintain and enhance their three downtown areas by establishing a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District in April 2002 and a Downtown Plan including a plan to construct a mile-long Riverwalk through the downtown with an ultimate goal of physically linking all three downtown areas.

Additionally, Downtown Design Guidelines and a Downtown Overlay District provide the regulatory tools to ensure the historic fabric of the community is maintained, as well as providing opportunities to capitalize on the City of McHenry’s proximity to the Fox River.

The Comprehensive Plan and Development Policies, adopted by the McHenry City Council in 2008, states: A goal of the Plan is the preservation, enhancement and expansion of the qualities which make life more enjoyable and unique to the City.

These include:

  • A friendly, small town atmosphere;
  • The presence of open spaces, lakes and Fox River and its tributaries which are attractive, unique and add to the quality of life;
  • An employment and shopping base which is diverse and affords the City with a sound economic base;
  • Historic commercial and residential areas which give the City a sense of place, identity and a tie to the historical accomplishments of earlier generations.

On September 15, 2008 the McHenry City Council adopted the Main Street Sub-Area Plan, which says “The goal of the Main Street Sub-Area Plan is to provide guidelines that will foster redevelopment of the area into a mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, taking advantage of public transportation options, while maintaining the existing historical integrity of the sub-area.

Further on August 31, 2009 the McHenry City Council adopted the Core Downtown Sub-Area Plan and its vision is the following: “The vision of the Core Downtown Sub-Area is as follows: Historic downtown McHenry connects the community to its small town roots. Providing a wide variety of community-oriented businesses downtown blends retail, professional services, civic and residential uses into a unique and dynamic neighborhood that attracts people of all ages.

Another tool, to encourage adaptive reuse and historic preservation is The City of McHenry Landmark Commission Façade Improvement Grant Program, administered by the City’s Landmark Commission, which recommends projects to the McHenry City Council for final consideration and approval based on the following criteria and qualifications:

  • Structure must be located within the limits of the City of McHenry, zoned and used for commercial purposes;
  • The structure shall be a minimum of fifty (50) years of age for consideration;
  • All proposed work shall comply with the applicable City, State and National building and preservation codes;
  • All proposed materials and work shall be sensitive and appropriate to the original design and style of the structure. The project should be sensitive to the streetscape and appropriate to the character of the neighborhood.

CurtEach of McHenry’s downtown areas and buildings tells its own story, some taking advantage of the City’s Façade Improvement Grant Program, such as The Bike Haven. In January 2012 The Bike Haven located in a former Napa Auto Parts building at 3319 W Pearl Street, approximately two blocks east of Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company and adjacent to Veterans Memorial Park, was awarded a Façade Improvement Grant to assist in installing large storefront windows similar to the style that existed on the building over 60 years ago.

Other buildings similar to the former McHenry Brewing Company transitioned from their original use and utilized for other purposes, some for well over half a century underwent a renaissance and now are home to land uses consistent with the original, such as the case with the Chain O’ Lakes Brewing Company.

About the Author:

Doug Martin-crop-smDouglas P. Martin is Director of Economic Development at the City of McHenry, Illinois, a position he has held for 14 years.

Doug has worked for municipal and county governments in diverse planning and senior administrative capacities in Northeastern Illinois for more than 18 years.

He writes a weekly blog, McHenry Market Pulse, to educate, engage and foster communication with residents and businesses on issues pertaining to economic development.

Doug serves as a peer reviewer for Practicing Planner, published by the American Planning Association and has written and co-authored several articles including:

  • Hometown Favorite Places Spotlight: Veterans Memorial Park, McHenry, IL – Illinois Municipal Review September 2012; Practicing Planner Vol. 6/No. 4/2008 Special Feature Commentary;
  • Planning for Growth with Development Scenarios – American Planning Association PAS Memo August 1997 and
  • Cellular Facilities: A Survey of Current Zoning Practices – American Planning Association Zoning News April 1996 (Michelle Gregory with Douglas Martin).

Doug is an International City/County Management Association Credentialed Manager; member of the American Institute of Certified Planners; earned an Associate in Risk Management; holds a BA in Sociology from North Central College and an MA in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He can be reached at

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