Begalka: The sound of silence proves elusive

Dragsters line up for the annual Algonquin Hill Climb in about 1909. The McHenry County Board’s Planning, Environment and Development Committee is hoping to pass a more comprehensive noise ordinance this year.
Dragsters line up for the annual Algonquin Hill Climb in about 1909. The McHenry County Board’s Planning, Environment and Development Committee is hoping to pass a more comprehensive noise ordinance this year.

Noise is nothing new.

Nowadays folks grouse about much the same thing that folks complained about a century ago, from music to train whistles, guns to machinery, barking dogs to self-absorbed drivers.

Chicago health commissioner Dr. Arnold Henry Kegel singled out four types of “disrespectful horn tooters” in the Sept. 7, 1930, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune:

• “The lazy and ill-mannered motorist who sits behind the wheel while parked at the curb and uses his horn to call someone from a residence.

• “The smart aleck with a blast horn or some other queer noise-making device.

• “The driver who uses his horn more than his head in passing street intersections.

• “The simpleton who presses the sound instrument as soon as the traffic lights change from red to amber.”

Who among us have not encountered such “simpletons” on the road? You probably did this morning on your way to work.

A June 1906 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune referenced “nerve-racking noises” associated with the foundry, tucked into a residential neighborhood and “beneath the windows” of a parochial school.

“Persons living in the vicinity of the foundry complain not so much because of the noises of the daytime, but because they begin all over again at 7 p.m. and as night draws on, make sleep impossible,” the article stated.

Other articles at the turn of the century referenced ongoing noise complaints associated with midnight beer drinkers lounging along the Lake Michigan shoreline, as well as the racket of Illinois Central Railroad trains on the lakefront.

The Congress Hotel argued in 1913 that the din cost it $100,000 worth of business every year.

Dr. Samuel J. Jones, a Chicago anti-noise crusader who had a hand in creating the Society for the Prevention of Intolerable Street Noises, outlined a litany of obnoxious noises in 1900. They ranged from the “midnight howling of cats and dogs” to the screeching of elevated trains to bellowing of “leather-lunged” street vendors.

Jones also noted, “There are many ordinances prohibiting the making of needless noises that the police refuse to enforce. The people of this city are annoyed daily by noises for which there is not excuses and which could be prevented.”

Quantifying and regulating noise has been an ongoing problem within McHenry County – as well as elsewhere – for years. Kankakee County’s noise pollution ordinance defined unseemly racket as a “public nuisance that can be detrimental to the safety, health and public welfare of the people.”

Kendall County’s noise ordinance criticizes excessive noise for endangering physical and emotional health, interfering with legitimate business and recreation, depressing property values and “offending the senses.”

It limits noise in residential areas to 60 decibels during the day and to 50 decibels between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

According to the Center for Hearing and Communication, a whisper at 5 feet equals 20 decibels, rainfall generates 50 decibels, and a motorcycle clocks in at between 95 and 110 decibels.

Kendall incorporates the use of a sound meter. But for other counties, it’s more of a judgment call. Kankakee County states that noise from one property should not unreasonably interfere with “the enjoyment of life or with any lawful business or activity” on a neighboring parcel.

Will County uses a distance of 75 feet from a residential property line as its measure. Lake County sets a boundary of 100 feet, and Boone County’s newly adopted noise ordinance, which targets amplified music, creates a boundary of 500 feet from the property line.

“When you buy a piece of property, you should be able to enjoy it,” Boone County Board Chairman Karl Johnson said. “In our situation, we’ve had a couple of spots where they blare music late into the evening. In talking with our sheriff’s department, after they’d ask [property owners] to turn it down and then drove away, they’d turn it back up. The sheriff’s department wanted something that had a little teeth in it.”

Now those who refuse to be good neighbors face a fine of up to $500.

“We wanted something that eases us into this realm without being extremely restrictive,” Johnson said. “This probably isn’t a perfect ordinance, but it’s a starting point.”

Like Boone County, McHenry County seeks to make the sheriff’s office the enforcing agent.

And like Boone, enforcement would be a matter of discretion and not require police officers to tote a decimeter around. But the McHenry County Board’s Planning, Environment and Development Committee is aiming to pass a more comprehensive noise ordinance this year.

“I’d like to control more than amplified music,” committee member Mary McCann of Woodstock said. “We also need to address nuisance noises (including recreational shooting). People do crazy things late at night.”

In the years since County Board members have been researching a noise ordinance, McCann said they have learned several important things: Excessive noise enforcement falls under the criminal code and not public nuisance rules; recreational shooting is difficult to regulate under state law, but weekend shooting parties lasting hours might be controlled using the conditional-use permitting process; and the ability to ensure the public’s peace and quiet is legal – and it has precedent.

“There are 102 counties in Illinois, and 90 some of them have done it,” McCann said. “Counties have the right to declare what are public nuisances.”

• • •

Elgin textile artist Laura Wasilowski presents “Where Did I Go Wrong: Confessions of a Serial Quilter” at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 8.

Discover what drives a person to create multiple quilts about a blue chair, garden implements or unsung kitchen appliances.

After the lecture, which includes dramatic renditions from Songs of the Fuser, Laura will display her small quilts (“mini-series quilts”) and offer a trunk show of hand-dyed fabric and threads from the Artfabrik dyers.

A valor quilt presentation from the Gazebo Quilters of Huntley and the drawing for this year’s winner of the Heritage Quilters’ “Threads of Friendship” quilt will follow.

For information, visit

• Kurt Begalka is administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society & Museum. He can be reached at

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