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Rockford History

Wagon trains carried early settlers from the east to the western areas. Such a train was photo-graphed in 1865 as it traveled along West State Street, the principal route from Chicago to Galena.

Sunday August 24, 1834, a mud spattered rattling lumber wagon, loaded high with business-like paraphernalia and supplies carrying four men who showed in every feature the sturdy elements of the early pioneer, came trundling over the hills of what is now the west end of Rockford and with the light of the evening sun at their backs, gazed long and feelingly at the valley of the beautiful Rock River, lighted with the glinting gold of the suns dying rays. They would pitch their tent not far from the mouth of a small stream, afterward given the name Kent creek. This was the very beginning of Rockford.

 

Thatcher Blake, Germanicus Kent, Lewis Lemon and Mr. Evans all of whom came from Galena made up that dauntless party of four who penetrated the wilderness of the beautiful Rock and settled in a region, a beautiful place, in natural situation with hill and dale, forest and stream, wild and rugged landscapes, the home of the Indians and the playground of the wild life of the region.

 

Perhaps a faint and shadowy vision of the future rose before them as they prepared their simple evening meal over an open fire with the lights and shadows playing about them. One can almost hear the crackle of the fire and see the flash and flicker of the flames. What an intriguing picture for an artist  to preserve on canvas for following generations. The settlement was given the name of Midway because of it being the half way point between Chicago and Galena.

 

Today that same sun that gladdened their days, the same moon that shed its silver sheen over their long lonesome night shines down on the spot where they settled. Yet what a difference in appearance of the place, that to them was so wild, so passionate of the depth of wilderness.

 

What a change has taken place over the years. Where there was trackless forest, the virgin soil, the untrampled river, now stands a magnificent city with a population of over 150,000 people and every modern convenience known to man with beautiful buildings and streets on the very spots where they would hunt or spend their leisure time.

 

Kent would build and operate a sawmill and Blake decided to farm the land. Lewis Lemon, who was Winnebago County's only slave, would buy his freedom by working for Kent.

 

Daniel Shaw Haight was the first settler on the east side of the river arriving here in 1835. Haight brings, in addition to his wife and child, his wife's sister, Miss Carey, and a hired man. Mrs. Haight and her sister are the first white women to visit and become settlers of Rockford. Shaw purchased an 80 acre plot, an area that was originally called "the Barrens" and contained a large stand of white oaks which served as Haight's hunting preserve.  Shaw built his first home on this land, a cabin in 1835 on the east side of the Rock River making him the first permanent settler of the east side. He would name his village Haightsville.  In 1837 Haight built a house on the corner of East State and Madison Streets, in which the first session of the Circuit Court was held. The house was moved and stood for many years on the northeast corner of South Second and Walnut Street until it was razed around 1906. Haight built a permanent home for himself at 525 E. Jefferson Street. Unfortunately, the Haight Home was razed in 1966 and replaced with a parking lot.

 

The first settlers of Rockford were soon followed by settlers coming from the New England states and other eastern states together with some strong personalities from England and Scotland who stamped the new settlement with their ideals and customs to such an extent that the cultural influences are felt to this day in its churches, educational institutions and civic spirit, a marvelous heritage.

 

A group of men came together to find a permanent name for the two villages and Dr. J.C. Goodhue suggested it be named after the "rocky ford" in the Rock River. The name was changed to Rockford in 1838.

 

On April 4th of 1839, Rockford which consisted of two separate villages, one on the east side and one on the west side of the Rock River, incorporated into one village. The controversy over location of the county seat that had raged for several years was settled on the first Monday of May 1839 by election result: Rockford - 320 votes, Winnebago (which was a small village located north of Rockford), 75 votes, Roscoe, 2 votes. On June 8 a commission selected a public square on the east side as a site (now known as Haight Park).

 

Rockford soon developed into a trading center for a large territory and manufacturing was carried on in a small way almost from the beginning in making the tools and machinery necessary for the farmers of this western country. From this small beginning Rockford went on to become the second largest manufacturing and retail area outside of Chicago and its population expanded rapidly. Rockford has changed much over the last 30 years and manufacturing is not carried out on the large scale that once put Rockford on the map, known around the world for the quality products that once proudly proclaimed "Made in Rockford, Illinois".

It was once said about Rockford: "Our fair city is famous the round world over for her diversified manufactures, and hence no depression in trades can shake her from her foundation. Although furniture is her leading product every factory engaged in its manufacture might close its doors, and still the city could go ahead with progressive strides and the whistles of her hundreds of other industrial enterprises sound with the same clearness as before. Wood, iron, steel, leather, wool, paper and every other conceivable material pour into the city day by day to contribute to the mighty aggregate of finished goods that go forth to every land on the habitable globe."   Eugene Brown & F. Ford Rowe, 1891

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