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Hidden history comes to light

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TROUT VALLEY – A half-buried vault projecting from the side of a grassy hill likely was used for tycoon John Hertz’s Prohibition-era stash of booze, a local historian said.  

Shirley Beene, an archivist who collects news clips and photographs of Hertz, is convinced that the vault is the place where Hertz kept the liquor that was served at his Gatsby-like summer parties in the 1920s on his sprawling estate, back when possessing alcoholic beverages was illegal.

Beene provided material for a book due out this summer by Arcadia Publishing: “Trout Valley, the Hertz Estate and the Curtiss Farm.”  

Hertz was the founder of the namesake rental-car company and owned a number of other companies, including the Yellow Cab Co. He was one of the richest men in the country.

He owned an estate, Leona Farms, that would become the villages of Trout Valley and Cary. The estate was about 900 acres.

On the estate, he employed about 100 employees – groundskeepers, servants and stable boys.

The bunker can be found in the backyard of a Trout Valley home. The vault was remodeled two years ago and converted into a wine cellar, Beene said.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Nancy Fike, administrator for the McHenry County Historical Society. However, she said Wednesday, it was the first that she had heard of such a cellar.

“The people that lived in the southeast part of the county were people of means who liked to party,” Fike said. “McHenry County changed in the 1920s. It was a postwar place of money and recreational pursuits. Golf courses were built, and powerboats were found on the Fox River. It was a time of summer homes.”

Hertz owned Leona Farms – named after his daughter –  from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s.  

From 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to consume alcohol in the U.S. The Prohibition Act of 1920 largely was viewed as failed legislation; some even say it increased the consumption of alcohol. Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

When Beene moved to Trout Valley nearly 36 years ago, some neighbors had been referring to the vault as “a root cellar.”

“You just have to look at this place,” Beene said, standing inside the bunker. “Concrete walls with a tall ceiling and a locked steel door like you would find on a safe or a bank vault? This a root cellar? Come on.”   

Hertz was friends with Will Rogers, Joe Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt. His son was married briefly to Myrna Loy, a big-time Hollywood movie star.

Beene said she had known about the cellar for years but kept quiet about it, respecting the wishes of a previous owner.

Recently she gained access to the cellar and allowed the Northwest Herald to take photos of the place. The owners allowed access with the understanding that their identities and the location of the bunker would not be revealed.

“I think history needs to be told,” Beene said.

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