When Bull Valley asked a focus group what they thought when they heard the town mentioned, the answers were not great for its image.
The answers, Village President Emily Berendt said, included “speed trap” and “high taxes.”
What they didn’t hear from those asked was about the historic Stickney House that houses Village Hall offices, its rolling acres, parks, horse trails or hiking paths, she said.
The village wants to change those perceptions with its Living with the Land framework, and it is working with resident Hennie Reynders, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Explaining what town leaders mean when they talk about “Living with the Land” is more complicated than it sounds.
The town has a full, multipage booklet it published on the concept, as well as trifold brochures and eight card-stock flyers with information on individual portions of the overall idea. A website also aims to help explain what the village wants to do at www.livingwiththelandinbullvalley.com.
It is a wholistic approach to how we as a village can showcase what living with the land can mean.”— Hennie Reynders, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor and Bull Valley resident
It is not, Berendt said, in any way tied to the referendum attempt in April seeking resident approval of home-rule status that failed. Any projects associated with the concept will be funded through grants.
Neither, Reynders said, is Living with the Land an attempt to exclude anyone from moving into the village.
It is a framework on how the village wants to develop and be perceived.
“Living with the Land is a philosophy, started by Hennie looking around” the village and Stickney House, Berendt said.
The plan started with Reynders.
He has lived in Bull Valley for eight years and wondered how his expertise – and those of his architecture students – could use Bull Valley and the home as part of a seminar project.
His students toured the house and village last fall and again this spring to see what they could suggest to help the town develop its identity.
With input from those students, the philosophy evolved into a plan to finish restorations on the Stickney House at 1904 Cherry Valley Road and make it an events venue, move Bull Valley’s village offices into a barn on the property, use a portion of the barn as galley and retail space, and conserve other resources in village limits.
Bull Valley and McHenry County’s history is tied in to Illinois history in ways that not everyone may recognize, Reynders said. He and the students dove into that history as they crafted a plan.
“The big shift came when we started realizing this kind of landscape is a cultural landscape too. It is the natural landscape of farming, of small family farms, and a history of pioneering” in the valley the town is named after, Reynders said.
Students developed a tag line for their work and that is where living with the land came from, Reynders said. “People in the past were living on the land. Living with the land - that is changing one word, living and not on. It is a wholistic approach to how we as a village can showcase what living with the land can mean.”
The philosophy “embraces the idea ... to protect what we have here for future generations and pay it forward - this investment for future generations,” he said.
Since the village was formed in 1977, it has tried to prevent wholesale development, Village Trustee Mark Newton said.
“Where we are today with this project, this conceptual framework – it is meant to provide a visible example of what the village represents,” Newton said.
Neither, he said, does the village have a main street or a center of town that helps identify it for residents or the greater area. By developing the Stickney House, barn, and other lands around it, that town center becomes visible.
“This ties together the past, present and future – the original intent here of people practicing conversation, that says we are living with, not abusing the land, not taking down the forest and leveling the topography,” Newton said.
As a member of The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, he worked with the group to help purchase Thompson Road Farm – 324 acres near the intersections of Thompson Road and North Fleming Road along Route 120 – in March 2022.
That land will be a park in Bull Valley. Final plans for that park are not finalized.
The conservation group’s purchase “basically bought this farm to preserve it from dense development” including possible gravel mining, Berendt said.
The most visible part of what the village wants to do is the renovation of the Stickney House, Berendt said. That work is at a standstill until offices can be moved to the barn on the five-acre site.
Once village offices are moved to the barn, half of it will be spaces for the community including galleries, venues, meetings and events. With the outdoor space and landscape around the house, the board also wants to link to the horse and walking trails.
Bull Valley, Berendt said, “can become a model landscape of what native landscapes can look like.”