Most Rockfordians are familiar with the garishly modern Winnebago County Courthouse at 400 West Main Street, which is easily recognized by its filthy cement exterior and offensive “contemporary” style. It was not that much better at the turn of the 20th century, as far as I knew, until I received a copy of Eric A. Johnson’s Rockford: 1900-World War I. A pictorial history, the book displays what Rockford was before developers ruined some of her most prized landmarks, theaters, and public houses. (Among our most impressive buildings was the old court house, designed by Henry L. Gay in French-Venetian-American style between 1876 and 1878.)
Although it is not the angle Johnson himself took when compiling the postcards and writing the bylines, what Rockford locals once had was a beautiful and classic downtown with elegant residential neighborhoods to match—and now most of that is gone. Although the renovation of the Coronado Theater, the grandeur of Memorial Hall, and great preservation work done by various companies are all things that locals should be proud of, Rockford: 1900-World War I displays an entirely different city. The book offers 128 pages of beautifully preserved postcards that do not read “Just Saying Hi From Rockford, Ill.” and are accompanied by informative descriptions that help the reader to identify modern neighborhoods and how they looked in the city’s heyday. One of the most striking contrasts is presented by the old Rockford College campus, which was once host to predominantly Romanesque architecture and graced by the elegant Colonial-style Middle Hall, built in 1852. Today, the college (which was moved to a new campus in the early 1960’s) looks rather like a collection of ill-shaped cardboard boxes.
Additional eye-openers are the scenes of a bustling community at the Shumway Market, back in 1915. One postcard, donated by Midway Village and Museum Center, portrays hundreds of people shopping and perusing the marketplace on a sunny afternoon. Today, the weekend farmers’ markets offer nothing like the scenes in this book. As Johnson pointed out to me in an interview, however, the times have changed. “Most circumstances are beyond our control. Life has changed and Rockford culture has changed.” Nevertheless, the author (an Ohio resident) appeared to be fairly positive about the city and its growth. “I’m not a native to Rockford,” he said. “My wife is the one who introduced me to [the city]. I have brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and friends there. I became acquainted with Rockford through my wife. It’s where I came of age, and it was an exciting time in my life. I think I appreciated things that the average Rockfordian overlooks day-in, day-out. [The book is] my love-gift to the Rockford community.” Perhaps it takes a nonnative to step back and see the city through new eyes and to show the community the stark contrast between past grandeur and present disarray.
Rockford: 1900-World War I is a great addition to the few but important books published about Rockford. When I asked him why he chose to do a pictorial history, Johnson commented, “Written histories have been done. A lot more comprehensive histories have been done. These postcards are very beautiful and, to use a cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words. I tried to tell the interesting tidbits with these scenes that strike me as the average person’s view of the important people, institutions, and public areas.”
And so his book is a must-have for any local enthusiast. The most interesting cards are those that have messages etched across them, giving the reader insight into communications by Rockford’s locals almost a hundred years ago. In the chapter “Three Cheers for Rockford High School,” there is a photo of the football team with an arrow drawn to point at a sullen looking youth and the words “This is me. Ha! Ha!” Although the humor by George “Kitty” Kitteringham is completely lost on me (though his scrawny and rather hen-pecked appearance is amusing), the handwriting adds a comforting dimension.
There is also interesting information about Camp Grant, the old Harlem Park, Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Rockford, and the theaters that hosted the likes of Oscar Wilde, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bob Hope, and Susan B. Anthony. Now Rockford pulls in Cher and Kenny Chesney, with Weird Al Yankovic as the closest thing to a vaudeville show. I could have lived a happy life without ever seeing Susan B. or Sammy, but these people were once “stars” who provided the city with a connection to the outside world. This past spring, Aretha Franklin was slated to play at the recently renovated Coronado Theater but turned the gig down, citing the elegant new (if not a little over the top) venue as “a dump.” Seventy-five years ago, she would have jumped at the chance to play the same city that had been graced by so many popular figures in the cultural world.
Johnson’s book should be enlightening to the locals of all the other overdeveloped, undermanaged cities in America.
[Rockford: 1900-World War I, by Eric A. Johnson (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia) 128 pp., $19.99]