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Elburn's Place At The End Of The Line

We continue our occasional series "Community Close-Up" in a village in transition. Since 2006, Elburn has been the last stop on the Metra line to and from Chicago. 

Annette Collier is one of those riders willing to sit on a train for an hour and a half.

She lives in DeKalb, but her family lives in Chicago. Collier sometimes brings her young daughter to keep her company, but today it's just her and her headphones. The Elburn Metra stop has helped ease crowding at the Geneva station. It's also popular among Northern Illinois University students. NIU offers a weekend shuttle from campus to the train stop.

Credit Jenna Dooley / WNIJ

"At first I didn't know they had a train out here," Collier said.

That doesn't come as a surprise. The Elburn stop is surrounded by corn fields. But the landscape is changing.

For the past several years, residents and city leaders have beenhashing out details of a massive housing developmentalong the tracks. Village president Dave Anderson expects to see a mix of new residents who will live in Elburn and take the train down the line.

"I think we are going to get not only some young couples and young families and singles, but we are going to have some folks that are retired and come out and they can get on the train right here and get to Geneva, to Wheaton, and to Glen Ellyn all the way into the city. That's an easy run for them." --Elburn Village President Dave Anderson

The anticipated growth over the next two decades has the potential to change the culture of the village of  5,500 residents. That may still seem small for a suburb, but consider this: The population was still in the hundreds just a couple decades ago.

Anderson ran a local grocery store until the train came in. He says he remembers when the commuter culture started emerging.

"I realized probably in about 1984 or 1985 that we were becoming suburbia because when folks came into the store they would not ask how many miles is it to DeKalb, they'd ask how many minutes. That's when I realized 'ta-da!' because, when I was growing up in Elburn, it was 18 miles to Aurora or 13 miles to DeKalb, et cetera."

Some things in Elburn are slower to change.

If you stop by the Kountry Kettle downtown on a weekday morning, it's the picture of a tightly knit community with bottomless coffee cups and farmers sporting "co-op" caps.

Credit Jenna Dooley / WNIJ
Regular patrons gather at the Kountry Kettle in Elburn

Diane Johnson has been a waitress for years and has a rapport with the regulars.

"I know a lot of their secrets too. It's kind of like a home; everybody knows everybody and talks to everybody."

That includes outsiders.

"One will be sitting here yelling at another one over here and people we have never met say 'we just love listening,' and they join right in," Johnson said.

Dennis Ryan is one of those regulars. He says lifelong residents are learning to adapt to the growing community.

"When the Jewel opened up here, Gliddon's Drugstore closed, but the Gliddons went up there to work as pharmacists," Ryan said. "For the first time in their life, they could take a vacation. They pretty well took care of the health of everybody in the town.  All the news in town was either known over there or over here before it was ever published."

Village President Dave Anderson expects Elburn will remain Metra's last stop west of Chicago due to its relationship with the Regional Transportation Authority.

"Kane County is part of the RTA, and we have an RTA tax that DeKalb County does not," he said. "Should DeKalb County decide, 'Hey we want to be part of the RTA and get the train,' they have to get the voter approval and then progress could begin. But I think we are a ways off yet."

In the meantime, Elburn has been adding modern conveniences for commuters, including drive-throughs and convenience stores.  Anderson says city leaders are trying to strike a balance.

"I would ask that any new folks that come in just relax for a little bit and see how things go. Why we do things the way we do -- not that they are right and not that they are wrong -- but understand the lifestyle," he explained.

Even if that means watching it through a window.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.
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