Rockford, Illinois, A River Runs Through It
ABOVE PHOTO: Tinker Cottage
By Renée S. Gordon
Rockford Illinois, 77-milles from Chicago, is the state’s third largest city. It straddles the Rock River and both the east and west areas of the city offer great shopping, trendy restaurants, a lively music scene, historic sites and numerous options for outdoor experiences. The city is extremely ethnically diverse and provides unique cultural experiences and events that can only be had in Rockford.
On August 24, 1834 Germanicus Kent, Lewis Lemon, an enslaved 22-year old, and Thatcher Blake left Galena, Illinois to explore the Rock River region. Eight months later the three returned to the western side of the river and began to construct houses at the mouth of Kent Creek on the site that would become the city of Rockford. Gene Horvarth’s Founders Memorial honors these three men with a monument placed at Main & Green Streets.
Germanicus purchased Lewis in Alabama for $450 in 1829 and agreed to allow him to purchase his freedom for $800, a deed he accomplished after 10 years of labor. It is documented that by 1871 Lemon supported himself by raising and selling produce and is listed as a member of Rockford’s Old Settler’s Society. He died in 1877 and is the only slave in the city’s history. His headstone in Greenwood Cemetery reads, “Born Slave-Died Free.”
In 1835 a group led by Daniel Shaw Haight settled on the eastern shore of the river. Haight built the first store and the first hotel. His village was referred to as Haightville, Kent’s as Kentville and the larger settlement was known as Midway because logistically it was halfway between Galena and Chicago. The town was officially named Rock Ford in 1837. Haight Village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1987.
On August 4, 1852 a train filled with immigrants from Sweden arrived in the city. Although Chicago was their original destination, the railroad conductor took them to the end of the line after learning of a cholera epidemic in Chicago. They disembarked n Rockford at 4th and Kishwaukee Street where many were forced to live in tents and shanties in a field they called “Kohagen” or pasture. The death rate approached 50 percent but the immigrants continued to pour into the city and a mere two years later the Swedish population reached 1,000. By the onset of the Civil War that population doubled and due to the skill of the Swedes in the early 20th-century Rockford was renowned for its handcrafted furniture.
A visit to the Ethnic Heritage Museum is a good place to start to get to know the real Rockford. The museum is charged with the preservation and presentation of the history of the African American, Hispanic, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian and Polish ethnic groups of the city. Each room is filled with artifacts, clothing, pictures and documents dedicated to the culture and contributions of a single group. The museum is located inside an 1850 house. www.ethnicheritagemuseum.org
The 137-acre Midway Village and Museum originally opened in 1974 on 11-acres donated by the Severin Family. It is dedicated to the collection and restoration of regional history and the exhibition of this history through tours, educational programs and events. Midway replicates an average rural village in Northern Illinois of the late 1800s. There are nine gardens and 26 authentically furnished structures. The museum’s collection exceeds 110,000 objects. www.midwayvillage.com
Rockford was established on the shore of Kent Creek in 1834 and 31 years later Robert H. Tinker built a 20-room Swiss-style cottage on the site. The house is a showcase for elaborate murals of Tinker’s European trip, a magnificent two-story library, 100 percent original furnishings and a conservatory with furniture crafted from tree roots. The cottage has a number of unique features that make a tour very special. The formal dining room has pocket doors with a smaller door set inside the larger doors so flawlessly that when closed they appear seamless. A 24-ft. long, spiral stair provides access to the upper level of the library. The staircase is made from a solid piece of wood but, because it had no banister, it was rarely used. The cottage was placed on the NRHP in 1972. It has been the subject of a Ghost Hunters episode.
Although there is no proof that Abraham Lincoln ever visited Tinker Cottage he does have a strong connection to the house and his one visit to Rockford in 1855 is interpreted there. Cyrus McCormick, who is credited with inventing the reaper, sued Mary Manny Tinker’s first husband John Manny for copyright infringement. Manny hired Lincoln as his lawyer for the Illinois portion of the trial. It was later moved to Ohio where Edwin Stanton, later Lincoln’s Secretary of War, took over. Lincoln’s fee for the case was $1500. Manny lived only weeks after he won the trial and Mary later married company employee Robert Tinker in 1870. www.tinkercottage.com
PHOTO: Founders Memorial
The Swedish Historical Society is situated inside the 1871 home of John Erlander, the first brick home in the city belonging to a Swedish family. The 14-room Italianate mansion has two floors of galleries that display the history of the Swedish settlers of Rockford through use of models, furniture, artworks, documents and a doll collection. www.swedishhistorical.org
The sole example of a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was designed for a person with disabilities is the Laurent House. Wright considered it one of his greatest accomplishments and included it among his selections of his 35 most important buildings and referred to it as “his little gem.”
Ken and Phyllis Laurent married in 1940 and Ken joined the Navy in 1942. Ken developed a spinal tumor and during surgery the nerves were severed on his lower spine rendering him paralyzed. As he spent several years in the hospital he and his wife began to investigate housing options that would accommodate his handicap.
In 1948 Phyllis came across “Love Affair of a Man with His House” in House Beautiful magazine. The article introduced them to Wright’s architectural-style and how it could meet their needs. Ken penned a three-page letter outlining his needs and in July of 1949 they contracted with the architect. In May of 1952 the completely handicapped accessible home was finished. In 1959 an addition was designed. Wright died prior to its completion and his apprentices finished it using his plans.
The house is a single story, 2500-ft., ellipse with three bedrooms. Wright also designed the furnishings with all seating slightly lower than Ken’s wheelchair. The ceilings are 7.5-ft. tall with an open floor plan and the house is best viewed from a seated position. It is truly a Rockford jewel and it will open for tours in June 2014. Reservations are required. While touring I suggest that you keep in mind that the house dates from 1952 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not enacted for another 38 years. www.laurenthouse.com
Anderson Japanese Gardens can be described as a spa treatment for the soul. The relaxing, meditative and tranquil gardens are open to the public. Master Craftsman Hoichi Kurisu created the gardens based on designs by Linda and John Anderson and the labor of love is ongoing. There are 40 areas denoted on a self-guided walking trail that includes a traditional Tea House, Floating Deck, Sukiya-style Guest House, waterfalls, bridges and ancient carvings. Reservations are required for a guided tour and the gardens are available for special events. www.andersongardens.org
Rockford’s souvenir and gift options are as varied as their cultures. Visitors can take home really special handcrafted items that can only be found in the city. The Rockford Etsy Team makes it easy to see what is available and even make purchases online. The team is comprised of businesses and individuals who offer handmade and vintage pieces for sale. www.rockfordetsyteam.wordpress.com
Daniel Nelson, owner of Chocolat by Daniel, is a graduate of L’Ecole Du Grand Chocolat in France. He creates his mini-masterpieces from the finest chocolates from around the world and uses only the purest ingredients with no added sugar or artificial flavoring. You must taste it to believe it. www.chocolatbydaniel.com
The city’s most recognized product, the Sock Monkey, is no longer made in Rockford. After more than 100-years the company was sold. Now the Red Heel® socks are made in Iowa, but the product is still a Rockford original. www.foxsox.com
John Nelson was among the initial wave of Swedish settlers in 1852. Seventeen years later he patented the first sock knitting machine. In 1880 the Nelson Knitting Company was incorporated and became the first international manufacturer of socks. The company began adding red heels to their socks to make them easily identifiable. The name of the original creator of the Sock Monkey has been lost to time but in 1951 Nelson’s began enclosing instructions for the Sock Monkey with the Red Heel® Socks.
Rockford, only 70-minutes from Chicago, is filled unique experiences that make Rockford a singular destination. All the details and planning tools are found online. www.gorockford.com
I wish you smooth travels!
A major exhibition, “American Moderns, 1910-1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell, opens at the Delaware Art Museum on October 5, 2013. Fifty-seven major artworks will explore cultural changes as conceived by modern artists of the time. It closes January 5, 2014. www.delart.org
Celebrate Philadelphia’s HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH from September 15th- October 15th. The celebration will take the form of a variety of events and experiences from a performance of the comedy “Mujeres de Par en Par” at the Arden Theater to the Puerto Rican Day Parade on the Parkway. Join in the fun. www.visitphilly.com/articles/philadelphia/hispanic-heritage-month-in-philadelphia
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