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History of Rockford

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Rockford was first settled in 1834-1835 by Germanicus Kent, Thatcher Blake, and Lewis Lemon, who came from Galena and established themselves on the west bank of Rock River, and Daniel Shaw Haight, who founded a settlement on the east bank. (Lemon, a slave, later bought his freedom, but stayed in the area as a truck farmer.) Before the Civil War, the area was dominated by settlers from New York and New England, while Southern Illinois was dominated by settlers from Kentucky and Tennessee, many of them former slave owners.

Halfway between Chicago and Galena, the community was briefly known as Midway, but quickly became known as Rockford, because of the excellent ford across the Rock River. A post office was established in 1837. The settlement was incorporated as a village in 1839, and chartered as a city in 1852.

The first weekly newspaper was published in 1840 and the first successful daily newspaper appeared in 1877. Between 1890 and 1930 the city had three daily newspapers. Rockford Female Seminary was chartered in 1847, became Rockford College in 1892, and became fully coeducational in 1958. Its best known graduate is Jane Addams (RFS Class of 1881), the founder of Chicago's Hull House and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Rockford Public Library, the second such institution in Illinois, first opened to the public in August 1872; the library's first dedicated building, a Carnegie library, was completed by 1902.


Winnebago County War Memorial

Although Rockford was a sleepy country village for about the first ten years, it thereafter began to expand rapidly in size and industry and became the seat of Winnebago County. In 1851, the Rockford Water Power Company was organized and in 1852 the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad reached the city. These two events, which brought inexpensive power and transportation to the area, changed Rockford forever. By 1860 Rockford had become a significant, growing industrial center, noted for production of the John H. Manny reaper and other agricultural machinery.

Started in 1876, the Rockford Union Furniture Company was the first of 25 area furniture factories that were formed as cooperatives. By the 1880s the furniture industry was using the talents of Swedish born craftsmen and capitalists, and by the first half of the 20th century Rockford was the second largest furniture manufacturing center in the United States (behind Grand Rapids, Michigan). Many of the furniture companies were cooperatives, reflecting a different business approach from that of the old Yankee entrepreneur, with laborers and craftsmen holding significant power. The agricultural implement industry was already in decline by the First World War, and the furniture industry was severely damaged by the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the end of the 1960s both were extinct in the city.

Life Magazine described Rockford in 1949: "It is as nearly typical as any city can be". However, from 1950 to 1989, more than half of the earnings in Winnebago County came from manufacturing, far above the national average. Rockford's 20th century industry revolved around machine tools, heavy machinery, automotive, aerospace, fastener and cabinet hardware products, and packaging devices and concepts. The city's industrial background has produced many important and interesting inventions, among them the Nelson knitting machine, airbrush, electric brake, electric garage door opener, dollar bill changer, and electronic dartboard. Some Rockford concerns of historical interest are: Air Brush Manufacturing Company, Free Sewing Machine Company, Haddorff Piano Company, Hanson Clock Company, Hess & Hopkins Leather Company, Norse Pottery Company, Rockford Brewing Company, Rockford Silver Plate Company, The Barber Coleman Company, and Rockford Watch Company. Woodward Governor Company, an innovator in control systems for large machinery and aircraft propulsion, originated in Rockford.

Rockford has been known as a town that makes toys. The Testors Company still makes model kits and paint and glue supplies for these kits. The Nylint company produced heavy duty metal scale toys of construction equipment, such as dump trucks, from 1946 to about 2001, when they went out of business. Tootsie toys, headquartered in Chicago, had a satellite factory in Rockford, where small single piece die cast cars where made for many years. Although not toys themselves, the red-heeled socks which are used for sock monkeys were originally manufactured in Rockford. Industry in Rockford has been led by Sundstrand Corporation which was the merger of Rockford Tool Company and the Rockford Milling Machine Company in the early 20th century. Hamilton Sundstrand (acquired by United Technologies in 1999) has manufactured many industrial, aviation, and aerospace products.

In 1910, the oldest surviving Harley Davidson dealership was founded in Rockford, Illinois. Kegel Harley-Davidson is also the worlds oldest family owned dealership as it was started by Joe Kegel in 1910 and is still operated today by his great grandchildren, Karl and Mark Kegel.

The USS Rockford, a Tacoma class frigate named for the city, was commissioned in March 1944 and earned two service stars during World War II. Camp Grant, a training depot used during World Wars I and II, was torn down in 1947 and became the site of the Chicago Rockford International Airport by late 1954, and of Seth B. Atwood Park in 1956. Machesney airport, located north of the city, originally a private airport starting in 1927, was later used by the army air corps during World War II, later was a municipal airport and is now no longer an airport but home to the Machesney Park Mall.

During the early to late 1940s the Rockford Peaches (of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League) were one of the first all-female baseball teams in the world. They played their home games at Beyer Stadium which was razed several years ago. A placard displays where the stadium once stood, along with additional historical information. Although the 1992 motion picture "A League of Their Own" features the Rockford Peaches, all of the characters playing on the team were fictional, and the team did not participate in the league championship series in 1943 as depicted in the film. The Peaches won the league championship in 1945, 1948, 1949, and 1950.

Coronado Theater

Coronado Theater

The number of impressive movie palaces built in the 1920s and early 1930s speaks to the thriving economy Rockford had at the time. The Coronado Theater was the largest and most expansive of all these movie theaters in Rockford, complete with an orchestra pit, double balcony, highly ornate design and full array of theatrical and stage equipment. Coronado Theatre, "Rockford's Wonder Theater", was listed during 1979 to the National Register of Historic Places. Other remarkable theaters in Rockford included the Midway, Times, and State theaters.

Rockford was well known for its elm trees, being the reason for its nickname, the Forest City. But in the mid 1950s an epidemic of Dutch Elm disease more or less wiped out the population of Elm trees. However, Rockford is still heavily lined with trees. Of note are the parks and boulevard street layouts in certain parts of the city. Neighborhood parks and wide common grassy/forested areas forming boulevards are found in the older parts of the city. Many of the parks were part of the street layout put down in the late 1890s, early 1900s when subdivisions of that era were created. These parks typically were an entire city block, or in some cases larger. They would typically have a bowery, and sometimes a cement-lined pool. The boulevards tend to be in slightly newer subdivisions built in the 1920s.

The 1960s saw expansion of the manufacturing segment in the area. Near the outskirts of Rockford in Belvidere, a Chrysler car factory was built in 1965 which initially assembled the Chrysler Newport and other large cars and now produces the Dodge Caliber and similar cars. Sundstrand, now Hamilton Sundstrand, a division of United Technologies also expanded during this time period making aircraft parts.

Starting as early as the 1990s Rockford has had the ignominious honor of being listed at times as one America's worst cities by the Rand McNally corporation and Money magazine, sometimes being ranked one of the top ten worst cities. This may have been due to the lack of jobs and high number of outdated or closed factories. Crime on the west side of town was endemic, with huge areas of old established neighborhoods in extreme blight. The homicide rate in these areas was quite high. Many houses were vacant with no one wishing to buy them. The city government has developed many programs to attempt to address these problems and has seen some success.

Source: Wikipedia

 

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