Crystal Lake's sister-city partnership with Holzgerlingen, Germany, reaches 20-year mark

Crystal Lake’s sister city of Holzgerlingen, Germany, is an older sister – much older.

Crystal Lake’s first white settlers came in 1836, and the city as we know it today was created in 1914 with the consolidation of two separate towns. As for Holzgerlingen, it was first mentioned in writing in 1007. As for its first settlers, they arrived several decades or several centuries – historians aren’t quite sure – before a couple named Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place to stay in Bethlehem.

Against that timeline, 20 years is a historical drop in the bucket. But it was two decades ago that Crystal Lake and the town about 25 miles southwest of Stuttgart forged a bond that still exists today.

“It’s a true friendship,” said Tom Neis, owner of Neis Insurance and former chairman of the search committee that sought out a sister city.

Crystal Lake started searching in 1992 for a sister-city match in Germany, without a lot of success – the committee early on chose to search Germany rather than sister cities in China, Argentina and several other countries. But, as is the case in a lot of partnerships, the solution was sitting in both Crystal Lake’s and Holzgerlingen’s backyards all along – a business they both had in common.

The search committee had repeatedly wooed German cities of comparable or larger population, only to get repeatedly rejected. The job of translating the correspondence ended up with Al Betz, a German-born employee of Eisenmann Corp. in Crystal Lake, a worldwide, Germany-based manufacturer of systems for car painting, air pollution control, biogas and other applications.

Betz concluded that Crystal Lake would have better odds with smaller towns – because Germany is so urbanized, a town of similar size has little in common with a comparable American counterpart. 

It so happened that Peter Eisenmann, chairman of the Crystal Lake plant, had a candidate in mind – Holzgerlingen, which also happened to be home to an Eisenmann plant.

“They were barking up the wrong tree. We went to City Hall and said, ‘You guys are doing it all wrong,’ ” said Betz, who with his wife Karin now own two businesses, BetzDesign, which designs window treatments, and Northwestern Sunrooms.

So Crystal Lake, then with about 25,000 people, began talks with Holzgerlingen, population 10,000 or so. Neis and the search committee, now aided by Karin Betz and local businessman and later McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, began speaking to city leaders and visiting their small town. Among the commonalities they found was the feel that both towns have as suburbs of big cities and bedroom communities in which many people commute to go to work.

Also, Crystal Lake had something of an “in.” Michael Wanner, a Holzgerlingen City Council member who had studied at Northwestern University, interned at Eisenmann’s Crystal Lake plant and was mentored by Al Betz.

It was Wanner, Al Betz said, who wanted the sister city agreement to be driven by the people, not the respective governments. Wanner died in an accident in 2002 – a tree was planted at the Dole Mansion in his memory.

“He said, ‘Let’s not start with the top. Let’s start with the people,’ ” Al Betz said.

The people of Holzgerlingen were so enthusiastic that they built a boat to enter in the 1996 Crystal Lake Cardboard Cup Regatta, which took place the month before the sister city partnership became formal. Dubbed “Pabbedeggel Oins,” or “Cardboard One” in the Swabian dialect of German the villagers spoke, it turned out to be “indestructible,” according to Neis. 

The boat, which as part of its design philosophy of durability over speed included a working beer keg, is kept at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum in Union. While a Belgian airline volunteered to fly the boat over for free, Koehler said the red tape involved required the help of the city’s U.S. representative at the time, Republican Don Manzullo, to help cut through it.

Since 1996, there have been exchanges of groups and students back and forth, as well as Crystal Lake residents visiting Europe who make it a point to stop in Holzgerlingen. 

Of the trips to Holzgerlingen that Koehler took as a representative of Crystal Lake, the one he most fondly remembers is the one in which he participated in the 2007 parade celebrating the city’s founding a millennium prior – in Germany, the official “birthdays” of cities tend to be the first time they were mentioned in writing.

“We were over there when they celebrated their 1,000th anniversary. One thousand years, if you can imagine,” Koehler said.

However, enthusiasm for the partnership has waned somewhat in recent years, Neis and Al Betz acknowledge. While Betz said the Sept. 11 attacks took some of the steam out of frequent travel, Neis said it’s time for a younger generation to step up and rekindle it.

The friendships that have been forged have been lifelong, Neis said, especially for that of his daughter’s best friend, who ended up marrying the daughter of Holzgerlingen’s mayor.

As for Crystal Lake’s mayor, Aaron Shepley called the sister city partnership a good relationship maintained by a team effort that has transcended one person or group.

“Over they years, you’re always going to see some waxing and waning regarding what people can commit to the relationship, but there’s always that thread that keeps us connected, and that’s where people like Al and Karin and Tom and Ken, and people who have been there since the beginning, help keep that connection going,” Shepley said.

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