Features

Rockton: A Place to Call Home

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Join Paul Anthony Arco for a stroll down Main Street in Rockton, Ill., to see why this quiet village holds so many good memories and upcoming opportunities for residents and visitors alike.

Downtown Rockton is the place to be during the summer. Residents and visitors alike enjoy visiting the many shops and restaurants, or just sitting out and enjoying the warm weather. (Tom Holoubek photo)

Seven years ago, Vee and Angela Jevremovic, and their two young boys, moved to Rockton, Ill., because of the school district’s strong reputation.

“We had read a lot about Rockton’s public schools and decided to make the move for our children, Cooper, now 12, and Caleb, 8,” Vee Jevremovic says. “I like many of the ideas within the school and the projects the students are assigned. They offer the kids different experiences and hands-on applications. They’ve done a wonderful job with both of my boys. We couldn’t be happier.”

And since moving to Rockton, population 7,685, the Jevremovics have discovered so much more they enjoy about this quaint town. Summer means spending time in local parks, athletic fields, or the community swimming pool, before heading to one of several charming restaurants – like Rockton Inn, 102 E. Main St.; Sam’s Pizza, 130 N. Blackhawk Blvd.; The Flying Pig, 151 Hawick St.; or Fibs, 105 W. Main St. – all located downtown. It also means just hanging out close to home, enjoying backyard barbecues with neighbors and friends on a gorgeous summer day.

“It’s a very close-knit community,” says Jevremovic, manager of education program and events for the Rockford Chamber of Commerce. He’s also head coach of the Rockton Hononegah High School varsity soccer team. “My neighbors look out for my boys. I receive phone calls, saying my garage door is open. We get to know a lot of people from things that we do. We made the right decision to move to Rockton. We’ve made so many friendships and relationships, that it would be hard to move. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Rockton holds that kind of appeal for people. It’s a place known for its schools, culture, country feel, business opportunities and small-town charm. Talk to longtime residents, and they’ll quickly relate a story about the friendliness of the people and the ease of getting around. They may share a memory, perhaps of a wedding they attended at the historic Church by the Side of the Road, or a cherished event at the once-famous Wagon Wheel Resort.

Take a leisurely drive through neighborhoods and you’ll pass tree-lined streets filled with cozy homes, manicured lawns and neighbors chatting in front yards. Drive along the heart of Main Street, and you’ll find City Hall, the Talcott Free Library, a number of other restaurants, taverns and shops, and of course Dairyhäus, 113 E. Main St., which draws customers from all over the region.

Rockton is a destination for out-of town-guests who enjoy kayaking along the Sugar River, spending a day shopping at a variety of antique stores, or hitting the links for a round of golf at Macktown Golf Course. It also draws enthusiastic crowds for special events, such as Old Settlers Day, a four-day festival held each June that features a midway, parade and plenty of music, including local and national acts such as Uncle Kracker and Billy Currington.

Then there’s the RoRo Expo, an annual showcase of local businesses. The Rockton Christmas Walk helps ring in the holiday season every year with four days of festivities, including a holiday parade that glides down Main Street to the delight of 7,000 revelers, and a community tree lighting.

Many commuters call Rockton home, including pilots, business professionals, firemen and retirees. A couple of years ago, leaders surveyed residents asking what they enjoyed most about the community. The top three answers were schools, proximity and safety.

Ann Montgomery and her children, Alex, 3, and Cole, 7, enjoy family time together. (Tom Holoubek photo)

“Rockton’s small enough that you know everyone, but big enough to provide the services that people need,” says longtime mayor Dale Adams.

Cyndy and Jim Fogarty moved to Rockton in 1979. They’ve lived there for all but six years, when, in the 1990s, when they relocated to Milwaukee. But they missed their friends, the atmosphere and “the variety of pizza” found at Rockton restaurants like Sam’s and Marco’s, so they found their way back home, says Cyndy.

“Because there are so many people who’ve moved here from other areas, I think it makes Rockton a lot friendlier,” she says. Ten years ago she purchased and renovated a former machine shop which became Country Cottage, 122 S. Prairie St., an antique store that sells furniture, rugs, candles and other accessories.

“People like moving here, away from the craziness of a big city, but close enough if they want to get back to visit,” explains Cyndy, who’s a dedicated community volunteer for the Lions Club and Old Settler’s Day. “In Milwaukee, people never leave, so it was harder to meet new friends. The people of Rockton are the best. Even if you don’t know someone, they always say ‘hi.’ Residents here are supportive in so many ways.”

Dennis McCorkle is the president of the Rockton Chamber of Commerce. He works for his family’s furniture store in Durand, Ill., and the McCorkles also operate four area funeral homes, one in Rockton. McCorkle joined the chamber in 1992 and became president last year. The chamber board spreads the good word about Rockton and also partners with neighboring Roscoe Chamber of Commerce on many special events.

“Rockton has grown so much over the years,” he says. “I field phone calls from people moving into the area for the first time and from people who moved away and are coming back. They like the area because of its history and one of the best school systems in the area. The village has done a good job of keeping the look and feel of Old World charm intact. I like Rockton because it’s just the right size.”

History

Stephen Mack, Jr., a fur trader, is considered by many to be the first white settler in northern Illinois and the founder of Rockton, in the mid-1830s. He was born in Tunbridge, Vt., and attended college in Boston, but dropped out due to a serious illness. In 1818, he moved to Detroit to join his father’s fur trading company. Two years later, he moved to a trading post located in the village of Grand Detour in Ogle County, Ill.

During his time in Grand Detour, Mack met a teenage girl of the Winnebago tribe named Hononegah, who saved his life on more than one occasion. They married, and in 1829, moved to what is now the Macktown Forest Preserve, where Mack operated a trading post for six years.

Along with Mack’s two-story home and store, Macktown included a furniture store, a schoolroom, a shoemaker’s shop, a tavern, a trading post, fur trapper’s cabins, and other homes belonging to 200 to 300 residents. The Macktown homestead still stands and is open to the public.

For many, however, Rockton is synonymous with the Wagon Wheel resort founded by the late Walt Williamson. In 1936, the Rockford businessman, who founded Kelley Williamson Oil Co., secured a bank loan to open a filling station and root beer stand outside of Rockton, which soon developed into the 300-acre resort.

A fire in 1941 forced Williamson to rebuild the Wagon Wheel, using timbers saved from railroad trestles, utility poles and antiques, which became part of the resort’s appeal. During its heyday, the resort included a golf course, airstrip, restaurant, church, dinner theater and two ice rinks. Olympic champion skater Janet Lynn trained there, and the Wagon Wheel attracted celebrities such as Bob Hope, Shirley Temple and Gene Autry.

“The Wagon Wheel was a great place,” says Rich Spanton, a Rockton native and local business owner. “I remember many birthday and bowling parties, overnight stays, and school dances there. It was a place that most people in Rockton enjoyed at some point.” Many Rockton residents have some connection with the Wagon Wheel, either as former employees or guests.

Faced with stiff competition from Chicago resorts, however, the Wagon Wheel’s popularity began to decline when Williamson died in 1975. Following his death, the resort was purchased and sold numerous times. In 1993, another fire destroyed the 130-acre resort’s bowling alley, dinner theater and a half-dozen of its shops. That was the end of the Wagon Wheel’s glorious run. Today, the land that housed the resort is a subdivision. But it won’t soon be forgotten.

“People still identify Rockton by the Wagon Wheel,” says Mayor Adams. “I get calls from people who visited the resort 50 years ago wanting to know what happened to it. We need to use the momentum started by the Wagon Wheel to continue making Rockton a destination. Our purpose is to redefine Rockton.”

Rockton Today

Adams moved to Rockton 40 years ago and bought 15 acres of land just outside of town, as did his parents, not long after. The part-time mayor, who in 2001 retired from a career as quarry supervisor at Rockford Blacktop, started his political career as a village trustee before running for mayor 12 years ago.

“I’ve always loved Rockton and wanted to get more involved,” he says. “I like the quaintness, the availability of activities and the access to the tollway. Rockton has always been an attractive place to live and work.”

When Adams was elected in 2001, the village’s annual sales tax revenue was about $200,000 a year; now it’s $1 million. The additional revenue has allowed the village to fix streets, develop parks, and train village employees.

Adams has strengthened the business community in many ways. For example, he attends the International Conference of Shopping Centers, a vehicle which helps him to grow the town.

“We’ve been aggressively going out looking for businesses,” Adams says. “We don’t wait for people to come to us. We’ve been fortunate to be able to bring new business to town. We’re reinvesting for the future and have been successful in bringing the pride back to Rockton.”

Over the past six years, Rockton has welcomed Walmart, Farm n’ Fleet and Casey’s General Store to town. “It’s great for our community,” says Fogarty. “If I run out of stickers, tape or some other items, I don’t have to travel to Rockford or Janesville. It’s all right here.”

An AutoZone parts store is in the works, OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center is building a 5,000 square-foot medical clinic near Walmart and SwedishAmerican Health System is constructing a 30,000 square-foot facility. “The addition of two outstanding medical facilities will be a welcome addition to our community,” says Adams.

There are existing companies that have provided stability for the local workforce. Chemtool Inc. bought Beloit Corp. and has 300 employees; Paperchine, which provides service and parts for paper-making machines, opened in 2000 in the former Beloit Corporation’s research center, located next door to Chemtool. Paperchine has twice been named one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. by Entrepreneur magazine.

In addition, Rockton is using grant money it received to build athletic fields. Called the Rockton Athletic Fields, the complex has four baseball fields and will add three football fields, a soccer field and parking, as funding becomes available.

“Business is solid and growing,” says the Chamber’s McCorkle. “That’s all beneficial to the community. We’re doing it the right way, by not bringing it all downtown and making a hodgepodge of buildings. By locating business on the outskirts of town, it makes it easy for shipments to get in and out of town. I think citizens respect that.”

The hope among local business owners is to one day bring a hotel to Rockton. Currently, the closest hotels are located in South Beloit, Beloit and Rockford. “We could justify a small 30 to 40 room hotel,” says Adams.

The most appealing site for a hotel is the former Sonoco paper mill located along the downtown riverfront. The 100-year-old structure was abandoned five years ago and village officials are talking with the current owners in hopes of acquiring the building.

Rich Spanton is one who would like to see that happen. Spanton and wife Chrissie own Copperstone Inn, 6702 Yale Bridge Road, a seven-room bed and breakfast located 7 miles from downtown Rockton. The couple bought the property and began renovating it in 2005. It has 5,000 apple trees, raised organically, and a wedding pavilion that will host 75 weddings this year. Spanton also owns Mastercraft Exteriors, a national roofing, siding and gutters company.

“It’s a big project, and it will not happen overnight,” he says. “But it’s something we need. It would be great if we could bring back that Wagon Wheel feel. It would be beneficial for Chemtool, Taylor Co., my company and other businesses who welcome visitors into town.”

Spanton has lived mostly in Rockton for 34 years, aside from short stints in other parts of the country for his work. But he was drawn back home to be closer to family and friends.

“I love the nostalgic feeling I get being back home,” he says. “I enjoy walking around, seeing the landmarks and feeling the history of our town.”

Spanton, like so many others who call Rockton home, is optimistic about the small town’s future.
“We’re seeing more downtown traffic, shoppers, restaurants, and things to do,” he says. “I’m encouraged by the synergy between entrepreneurs and local residents to rejuvenate Rockton.

“People are coming up with ways to make our town a great place,” he adds. “I think we can bring back the heyday. It might not be like the same as the Wagon Wheel days, but people are excited about the potential. This is a new era for Rockton.”

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