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Rockford's Liberty Bell

As you entered the main entrance of Colonial Village you would notice a large bronze bell which was an exact duplicate of the original Liberty Bell now resting in a special enclosure in Philadelphia. The idea of a duplicate goes back to the late 1960’s, but it was not until 1970 when it was discovered that the foundry molds or copes and cores as they were called for the original Liberty Bell were still available at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, England. The same firm who cast the original for the Philadelphia Colonists.

 

Over a five year period between 1970 and 1975 there was a flurry of activity involving letters of inquiry, specifications, procurement details and finally an order for delivery of the new bell. During this period, plans for America’s Bi-Centennial Celebration were being formatted and became entwined in the procurement of the Colonial Village bell. While budgeting and financing plus other details took place under mall manager Carl Salmons, the Rockford Bi-Centennial Commission took over the Rockford Liberty Bell as its promotion project for the Bi-Centennial Celebration.

 

While there was some wrangling over the bell’s acquisition, everything was finally worked out. The duplicate bell arrived in Rockford after being shipped by ocean freighter from England to Baltimore and then by truck to Rockford. The Rockford Liberty Bell was dedicated at the Colonial Village Mall on July 4, 1975 to kick off the year long Bi-Centennial Celebration.

 

The story of the original bell has a great deal of history and intrigue behind it. Ordered by the Philadelphia colonists just before the beginning of our movement toward independence, it was cast and sent to them by the Whitechapel Bell foundry in London. However, before the British took over Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, the great bell was hastily removed and sent by heavily guarded horse drawn wagons along secret route to the back country of Pennsylvania. Here, in an old country church, it was hidden in a vault for safekeeping.

 

Once General Cornwallis was defeated, and the East Coast was free, the bell was hauled back tp Philadelphia. A great celebration took place on its arrival and re-installation. Historians tell us that the Liberty Bell was rung very enthusiastically, and it was at that time the famous crack appeared. Although the bell was repaired following the appearance of the crack, legend has it the bell was never rung again until the end of World War II.

 

The Colonial Village Mall Liberty Bell does not have a crack. This bell is not rung by a standard clapper because, at ground level, anyone standing nearby would undoubtedly be struck deaf if it were rung in the normal manner. The Colonial Village Bell is rung electronically at a much softer pitch.

 

On the side of both bells, there is the mark of Pass and Stowe. This mark came about because when the original bell arrived in America, a mold was made of it. The bell was broken up and recast just one time by Pass and Stowe who were loyal colonists and foundrymen by trade. The same mark was added to the Rockford Liberty Bell which made it an exact duplicate of the original in Philadelphia. Another point of authentic duplication is the headstock from which he bell is hung. The original bell was shipped from England with the headstock made of Sherwood Forest oak. To duplicate this, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry people secured Sherwood Forest oak from which to make the headstock for the 4,000 pound Rockford Liberty Bell. Today the bell can be found residing at Midway Village and Museum Center in Rockford.

Symbol

The Sculpture “Symbol” is the work of Kiev, Russia born artist Alexander Liberman, an internationally known artist, famed sculptor, painter and magazine editor, and was the project of the Rockford Council for the Arts and Sciences. The 47 foot high 30-ton sculpture painted a bright, glossy shade known as Liberman Red was designed for and built in Rockford at a cost of $117, 216, money raised by arts supporters who donated it to the city. Symbol was originally installed at the east end of the downtown pedestrian mall at West State and Wyman Streets in 1978 to much negativity and controversy. The sculpture's intent is to pay homage to Rockford's industrial heritage, the traditional economic mainstay of the city. Liberman said at the sculpture dedication. "To me, it symbolizes an uplifting spiritual feeling, and I hope a sense of exhilaration and stimulation."  He also commented on the actual act of building, "The engineers said this was the most difficult engineering project they ever had to face. That’s because there are so many points of contacts in it with one-inch steel".

Symbol suffered from a bad case of wrong place, wrong time when it was installed in 1978 crowded into the extremely unpopular downtown mall. The sculpture became the symbol of a dead downtown business section and the disconnecting of the east and west sides of Rockford on Rockford’s main thoroughfare. The mayor of Rockford at that time was John McNamara and to him, the sculptures initial bad impression on the people of Rockford could be blamed on the downtown mall area with its blocked off streets.

McNamara and the Rockford city council eventually decided to tear out the east–west portion of the downtown mall, reopening West State Street to through traffic. In the process Symbol the work that Alexander Liberman had seen as “a symbol for renewal and hope” was dismantled and left to rust in an empty lot along the river. One Rockford alderman even went as far as suggesting the city’s public works department finish the job and bulldoze the pile of steel cylinders into the Rock River. In the picture above we see Mayor John McNamara sitting on the east bank of the Rock River shortly after the east-west section of the mall was torn out speaking of the future improvements he envisioned for the downtown area.

Many people in Rockford agreed with the alderman who saw Symbol as a waste of time and money and wanted it scrapped, many did not understand what the Symbol stood for and claimed it only symbolized a period of Rockford they would rather forget.  However in the end fans of the Symbol sculpture won out over the scrappers. In city council chambers Mayor John McNamara cast the tie-breaking vote, and the city council approved Symbol’s move to a new site in Rockford’s Sinnissippi Park along the banks of the Rock River along the busy recreation path. Symbol was cleaned up and moved to its current location in 1984. Today it is a Symbol of pride for many in the Rockford area and if nothing else it sparked an ongoing arts movement in Rockford.

The Brightest Downtown In The World

In 1961 a committee was formed and assigned the task of making street lighting recommendation’s to the city council members who had decided that something had to be done to improve street lighting in the downtown area after national research done earlier that year showed that well-lighted streets were safer, attracted more shoppers, and helped put them in buying moods, businessmen and merchants said. The current lighting system had been in place since the 1920’s and had become outdated. Business and professional men felt that a brighter downtown area would improve business, decrease crime and improve real estate values. They were also convinced that the new street lights were one of the things necessary for the survival of downtown.

In late 1964 it was decided to install 120 light standards made of prestressed concrete, ground to a uniform terrazzo like finish that stood 33 feet 2 inches in height. Three curved bracket arms supported the luminaries on each standard with three light units each. The light units called luminaries  were attached to the poles with three luminaries per pole. The luminaries  contained the light source, reflector, shade, electrical appurtenances and lens and were made into a sealed unit. The center light in each fixture served as a night light, burning from dusk until dawn while the two outside lights would be illuminated from dusk until midnight when they went off.  Out of the 357 luminaries 336 of them were 1,000 watts and 21 were 400 watt mercury vapor, with color corrected lamps.

Rockford Morning Star photo

On the fair and clear night of April 30 1965 a crowd estimated at more than 25,000 people gathered in downtown Rockford, stretching for a block in every direction to celebrate the inauguration of a lighting system that made Rockford’s downtown the brightest in the world. An outdoor stage was erected at the intersection of State and Main Streets for the lighting celebration.

Miss Illinois Pat Quillen and Miss Wisconsin Angela Gina Baldi jointly flipped the switch at 9:15 p. m. that officially turned on the bright lights of the new twenty square block lighting area bounded by the Rock River on the east, Winnebago Street on west, Park Street on the north, and Chestnut Street on the south. An aerial bomb signaled the actual turning on of the lights, which built in intensity for five minutes before reaching their peak output. The ceremony was preceded by a fireworks display, and followed by stage shows featuring a number of recording artists. There were also performances on stage by the WGN Barn Dance Troupe from Chicago.

The lamps provided a total candlepower of 4,354,350 and were installed at a cost of $252,535 with downtown property owners paying 77.4 percent of the cost, while the city paid for 22.6 percent from its public-benefit fund. The brightest areas of downtown were State Street with 93 lights in five blocks and Main Street with 108 lights in five blocks. Downtown businesses stayed open as late as midnight during the April 30, 1965 celebration.

Rosendahl

Being of a thrifty nature and willing to do any kind of work, however hard, it did not take the early Swedish settlers in Rockford many years before they built themselves homes and had a little money saved, a sure sign of good citizenship and reliability. Later they invested their surplus savings in business enterprises of various types, the most noteworthy of which were the furniture factories, which for a long time played a leading role in the industrial life of Rockford. But all of the business ventures attempted by the Swedish element here did not turn out successfully. Most noteworthy of the failures is the Swedish stock corporation organized in the summer of 1869. A Swedish physician, Dr. C. W. Floren, believed that he had found in the woods several miles north of Rockford a spring with mineral water containing medicinal qualities situated on a scenic site along the Rock River at 4500 North Second Street. The spring was located just north of where the wooded hills would later be known as Sinnissippi Park.

On his advice and under his leadership, a group of Rockford Swedes organized a company and purchased all of the ground in the immediate vicinity of the “health” spring. Among the organizers, besides Dr. Floren were Reverend Gustaf Peters, pastor of First Lutheran Church, John Nelson, inventor of the knitting machine, Jonas Larson, Andrew Hollem, A. P. Nelson and John Wiegell. The company proceeded to erect a large health resort with baths. An outstanding gardener was secured from Sweden who laid out a most remarkable and beautiful park and garden modeled after some of the famous parks in Europe. An artistic fountain was erected in the middle of the grounds and on one side a music temple was built. Pathways were laid out including one that led to and ran along the Rock River, it was planted on both sides with shade trees and vines so as they grew up they would form a natural roof over the picturesque path at which side the Rock River flowed. The bath cure resort was given the Swedish name of Rosendahl. The development of the property used up large sums of money, but the sponsors of the project fully believed that this would be returned with dividends when the resort became known.

The contractor and builder of Rosendahl was P. M. Ryd who immigrated from Smaland, Sweden to the United States in 1854. During his first years in American, Mr Ryd was a bridge builder, and worked on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. He came to Rockford in the latter part of 1855 and had a part in erecting the Chicago & Northwestern Bridge here, the first railroad bridge to cross the Rock River at Rockford. Besides building Rosendahl, Mr. Ryd went on to build the first church building of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church congregation. Mr. Ryd also was the contractor on five or six furniture factories and many private residences. The Rosendahl Water Cure Resort would open to the public on June 1, 1871.

When the fame of the Rosendahl resort was at its height, a regular “bus” service to and from the resort was operated by John Bennett, one of the first Swedish settlers in Rockford. The bus was a democrat wagon with three seats, and without any top. Patients at the resort were mostly women and the bus wagon being shy of springs except in the seats, it is certain that the patients received considerable jolting on their return to the city from the institution. Nevertheless many are said to have shown improved appetite on returning to their homes, whether this was due to the cure given at the resort or to the outdoor trip home is hard to say. The first real steamer in Rockford, the “City of Rockford” was built and owned by John Nelson and a few associates. This boat primarily was intended to make regular trips to and from Rosendahl. The health resort business not being enough to support the operation of a steamer, the boat was used for pleasure and picnic parties, landing the picnickers wherever desired up river. The steamer operated by the sons of John Nelson, was highly prized by the young people of Rockford of that time. The boat was built on the east bank of the Rock River just north of the Chicago & Northwestern railroad bridge under the personal supervision of John Nelson. Its first trip on the Rock River was made on the Fourth of July in the early 1870’s, taking a large party of picnickers to Rosendahl. But the institution failed to attain popularity, and the project was abandoned after the original $10,000 investment was depleted. Possibly because Rockford was not ready for a water cure establishment patterned after those in Europe, Rosendahl was abandoned. Even though Rosendahl was never completed, it became a tourist attraction.

Rosendahl having proved a failure as a health resort but situated in a most beautiful location and with many acres of available ground adjoining it, if expansion was desired, was offered free of all incumbrances to the board of directors of Augustana College and Theological Seminary on condition they would locate here. The college board of directors looked with favor on the offer of the Rockford men and the college would have located here if it had not been for the opposition of the Minnesota conference, the leaders which insisted that the institution had to be located at some point where there was a direct railroad connection with Minnesota. The result was that because of the lack of direct railroad communications at that time between Rockford and Minnesota, the Augustana College was situated at Rock Island instead, where it is still is located to this day.

In 1885 it was written as follows of Rosendahl. “Although Rosendahl at one time was the most beautiful place in the vicinity of Rockford, now is uncared for and only a few objects here and there tell the story of its former beauty, yet many picnic parties still use the spot and through the park one can hear happy laughter from the throats of young people. Even today many traces of the institution’s former beauty can be seen but most of the pathways are overgrown and the trail along the river is such a tangle of bushes and vines that it is almost impossible to break one’s way through.” Rosendahl, the Swedes bath cure, was later remodeled to accommodate the Ransom Sanitarium which operated until 1914 when it became the Wilgus Sanitarium, a rest home for persons with nervous disorders. It was later called Elmlawn Sanitarium and then became Elmlawn Hospital. In 1964 it was remodeled and converted into the Elmlawn apartments. The building was demolished in 1970.

Crotty Hobby Museum

Vera, Edna, Marie and Irene Crotty were collectors. Vera was the first of the four sisters to start a collection and collected silver souvenir spoons. Edna Crotty followed with a button collection, Marie was the next to get the collecting fever and she became interested in antique hat pins while the last of the four sisters to start a collection as a hobby was Irene, her specialty was dolls and doll carriages. They lived together at 715 Napoleon Street, Vera was a member of the circulation department staff of the Rockford Morning Star, Marie was office manager for the H. J. Collins Real Estate Agency, Edna was a singer and an active member of the Mendelssohn Club and Irene, also a singer taught private dramatic classes.

 

In late 1940 the sisters would purchase the house at 1508 Kishwaukee Street at the southeast corner of Broadway. The large home was formerly occupied by the late Lars Noling and his wife.  Noling was a Swedish immigrant to Rockford in 1864. He made a successful career as a real estate developer, industrialist, and politician. He served in the Illinois General Assembly 1893-99.

The sister’s collections would grow over the years, they were invited to various clubs and functions to lecture on their collections, their collections were shown in several area locations such as show windows of downtown stores and at different hobby shows in town including an annual hobby show in the Crystal Room of the Nelson Hotel. The sisters decided to open a museum where they could highlight their collections on the first floor of the spacious house where they could be viewed by the public for a nominal admission charge. The four sisters had their living quarters on the second floor of the large home.

 

The Crotty Hobby Museum would open to the public in May 1941; the sisters would greet the visitors daily from 10 a.m. to noon, from 2 to 5 in the afternoon, and from 7 to 9 in the evening. Marie’s collection which had grown to over 12,000 hat pins, and was reputed to be the largest in the world, was housed in the parlor. Irene’s extensive collection of dolls of all sizes, from many lands, and many generations was housed in the sitting room, where there were also on view doll carriages, cradles, and trunks full of doll clothing, some of it dating back many decades. Edna’s nationally celebrated button collection that included more than 25,000 buttons was displayed in the dining room, where a huge table was practically covered with the buttons and there were even buttons on the walls. Edna at the time was president of the National Society of Button Collectors; her collection included buttons from world celebrities as well as buttons from many lands. Another room held Vera’s souvenir spoon collection, numbered at more than six hundred silver spoons, with the spoons grouped according to the states of the union or country from which they came. A guest book was kept at Crotty’s Hobby Museum that revealed that more than 600 visitors from 31 states, Washington, D. C. and Canada had visited the museum by October 1941 Many of the persons who had inspected the collections had hobbies of their own representing over 232 different hobbies. The museum would remain in operation until 1947 when the sisters moved to Long Beach, California due to old age and health issues. This ended the now forgotten chapter in Rockford history.

Dutch Elm Diesease

Long before the Indians came, or before Kent, Blake and the pioneers arrived, thousands of beautiful trees were here. As a result of those trees, Rockford became known as the “Forest City”. Listed here are just a few of the well-known varieties; elms, maples, sycamores, cottonwoods, golden willow, oaks, pines spruces, poplars, catalpas and many other varieties. Before the onslaught of the dreaded Dutch Elm disease, a fungus spread by bark-burrowing beetles in 1954, there were, in addition to all the other trees, 55,000 beautiful elms providing both shade and beauty throughout the city.

 

The first case of the disease was reported by state naturalists that year. No one knew much about it, and it was ignored. Rockford chose to look the other way. When the city looked back, its elm trees were practically gone. Beginning in 1958 professional foresters and tree experts tried to awaken the city to the danger of this dread disease. Dr. Richard J. Campana, state plant pathologist, warned that within three years Rockford would lose 30,000 of its beautiful elms. Nevertheless, in 1960 a special forestry tax referendum was defeated by the voters. This was a death blow to the elms.

 

Two years later, in 1962, another referendum was held. This time the voters authorized a special tax of five cents per $100.00 assessed valuation for five tears. While the title of “Forest City” was in jeopardy, because of the loss of so many trees, Rockford gained the doubtful honor of holding the longest bonfire in the history of the Midwest. Burning the diseased trees lasted over nine years. Rockford lost much of its once beautiful canopy of trees that lined our streets. Picture courtesy of RRStar

Weber Quartette

The celebrated Weber Quartette was organized in the fall of 1888 for campaign purposes and called the Tippecanoe Glee Club, they were in demand for celebrations as well as funerals. The group was also known as the choir of the State Street Baptist Church and consisted of Myron E. Barnes, first tenor; Charles G. Rogers. second tenor; L. Judson West, first bass and manager: Frank H. Andrews, second bass. Mr. Andrews was succeeded about one year after by his brother, Henry Andrews, who when he moved to Montana, was succeeded by F. D. Emerson. Mr. Emerson's genial ways' and fine voice, together with the fact that he was a Mason added greatly to the quartet's popularity. Barnes taught for years in private studios and at Rockford and Beloit Colleges. He also directed church choirs, choral groups and opera productions in the area. He lived at 504 North First Street.

 

The groups first notable engagement was obtained by L. Judson West in Chicago for the Traveling Men's Association of Chicago. This engagement took place in Central Music Hall and the group appeared in full dress with red, white and blue silk sashes worn in Legion of Honor fashion in place of vests. Their reception was tumultuous and they were re-called six times. Thomas Cratty, the famous Chicago lawyer, was the speaker on this occasion. That engagement resulted in the Weber Quartette being hired for ten days to sing in Hershey Hall on Madison Street at a noon day men's meeting. Following this, the group had gained fame in concerts in 29 states, touring some 2000 miles by train and horse drawn vehicles. In 1889, the Weber Quartette sang at the inauguration of President Benjamin Harrison. Harrison was indifferent to it except he recognized the fact that It was a necessary adjunct, and he had his private secretary, Mr. Halford write the quartette a letter thanking them for the song. "What's the Matter With Harrison." and stating that its popularity had much to do with his election.

Why the group from Rockford gained much of its popularity and national attention when quartets in the large cities were passed by might be the fact that every member of the quartet was a born musician. While quartets made up of soloists seldom make a success, it is a fact that every member of this quartet was a soloist. Another reason that contributed to its success was the large amount of music written or arranged exclusively for them by people who took an interest in them. The music too, was new to the audiences they sang to. The citizens of Rockford were proud of their quartet. Thomas G. Lawler, John L. Sherratt and William A. Talcott and the daily papers, and particularly The Star, never failed to use their influence to promote the group. The Quartette would merge with the Weber Concert Company that consisted of Harry Diamond, a young man who played violin and Miss Ila E. Irvine and the Weber Quartette. The musicians disbanded around 1892.

Rockmen Guardians

If you have ever walked along the Rock River recreation path next to the Rock River just north of the downtown YMCA, you may have noticed four figures made out of rocks. Just where did these come from and how did they get there?

 

When the work of Milwaukee artist Terese Agnew caught the attention of industrialist John Anderson, (known for his Japanese gardens and an avid art lover), and his wife Linda, along with the help of the Art in the Parks Committee enlisted Agnew to bring some art to Rockford.

Agnew decided to honor the pioneers that used to cross the river near the Fordham Dam and Davis Park more than 150 years ago. She wanted something more than a man on a horse as her sculptural tribute to those pioneers as many other cities already had a similar statue. She wanted something unique for Rockford.

 

The idea of four large rock figures standing sentry over the recreation path ensuring safe passage became her project. Agnew hauled 40 to 100 pound rocks from the small Wisconsin town of Red-granite in her small white pick-up truck back to her studio in Milwaukee. She got together with an old stone cutter who taught her how to shape the rock and she searched for the right recipe for the mortar that would hold the rocks together. She found the high-tech pneumatic drills she would need to drill holes in rock that was almost as hard as a diamond.

As we stand in front of the imposing twelve foot tall field-stone and red granite figures today that weigh in around three tons apiece, we rarely think of the struggles that Agnew went through to produce this wonderful treasure for Rockford. At the onset the work was painfully slow; the first sculpture broke drill bits, caused nerve damage and exhaustion and the hardest part was finding rocks that would cooperate with Agnew’s desires to mortar them into the sculpture. After the first sculpture, things started to come together more readily for the rest of the figures in the project.

In May 1987 with the help of community volunteers who came together to hammer, drill and plaster the large rocks into two boulder chested men with big flat feet, sturdy legs and helmeted beak noses along the recreation path. She named the statues Rockmen Guardians, two more rock figures would join their counterparts in October 1988, they are all awe inspiring and slightly mysterious. The Rockford art installment would be Agnew’s first permanent public sculpture, and her first work commissioned for a public park outside of Milwaukee.

On a side note, these days the artist has mellowed a bit and her work has evolved from sculpture to densely embroidered quilts by a process she calls drawing with thread.

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