Rockford’s bold entrepreneurs in the 1800s established banks, built furniture, opened factories and built a thriving economy. Gail Ravitts provides a glimpse of these local titans’ grand homes.
Have you ever noticed the sculpture, near the old Post Office in Rockford’s downtown, of three men struggling to pull a boat ashore? They are Rockford’s founders: Germanicus Kent, Thatcher Blake and Lewis Lemon. It was 1834. They were in a forest, so quite logically, they built a sawmill. They knew others would follow them and would need sawn wood to build houses. What houses those newcomers would build! Rockford’s population grew from 2,560 in 1850 to 31,050 in 1900, and everyone needed shelter. Bold entrepreneurs plunged into manufacturing farm machinery and machine tools, and established banks, a foundry and furniture – lots of furniture. They sometimes went broke, but when they were successful, they erected huge houses from which their wives, with their Spode teapots, ruled the town’s social life.
228 S. First St., est. 1843
The bright yellow-and-green Gothic Revival Daffodil Cottage in Haight Village Historical District has been a private dwelling for 171 years, and still is. It’s probably the oldest continually inhabited house in Rockford. If not the oldest, then certainly it’s the most charming. It was built by Willard Wheeler, a tinner from Canada, in 1843. When Rockford became a city in 1852, Wheeler was its first mayor.
The Cottage also harbors a mystery. The Wheelers fell on hard times, lost the cottage, and it was sold to Daniel Chapin in 1861. After Chapin’s death in 1884, his daughter Florence Littlefield Blackman came here from Chicago, bringing, among other things, a self-portrait of Rembrandt that her late husband had acquired on one of his many trips to Europe.
Upon Mrs. Blackman’s death in 1921, Louis and Ethel Marsh became the owners of the cottage. They found the portrait and loaned it to the Burpee Art Gallery. Laboratory testing revealed that the canvas was made of hand-loomed flax, as was used in the 17th century, meaning the portrait could be an original Rembrandt work. That is the last that is known of the painting.
In 1945, Dr. Frances Johnson, chairman of the Physics Department of then-Rockford College, purchased the cottage from Mrs. Marsh. The college campus was nearby at the time. Dr. Mary Braginton, chairman of the college’s Language Department, shared the cottage with her from 1946 to 1973. In 1974, Dr. Johnson received the Eye-Delight Award for her preservation of the Cottage. Dr. Paul and Sally Van Pernis purchased the house in 1984 and moved in after extensive restorations, done by their son David and son-in-law Kurt Bell, in 1987.
Dr. Van Pernis was a tireless researcher, and compiled data about the house for a 10-chapter booklet available at the public library, but he never was able to find the Rembrandt painting or results of the studies about its authenticity. The Van Pernises have passed on and younger folk now live there. When you go to garage sales, keep an eye out for a portrait on a very old canvas.
737 N. Main St., est. 1852
When a house is built of native limestone, as is the Manny Mansion, you know it is very old. It was built in 1852 for John Coleman, but was later purchased by John Pells Manny, who, with his family, lived there for many years. The Mannys all came from upstate New York, but lived near Freeport, Ill., before coming to Rockford. John P. was a cousin of, and often confused with, John H. Manny, inventor of a reaper that challenged the machines of the more famous Cyrus McCormick. This resulted in the spectacular Manny Reaper Trial of 1855, with $400,000 at stake. A young Abraham Lincoln was on Manny’s team, but the lead attorney, Edwin Stanton, did not give Lincoln a chance to speak at the trial. Manny won the case but died two weeks later, at age 30.
John P. had worked with John H. in Rockford’s Water Power District, producing cutting blades that stayed sharp longer than those of other reapers. After his cousin’s death, John P. went into the manufacture of reapers, but, in 1880, financial problems caused him to close the company.
The Mannys moved to smaller quarters, and in 1887 he invented a lemon squeezer – don’t laugh; lemonade was the most popular soft drink at the time – that provided him with a comfortable income. He was president of the West Side Cemetery Association from 1876 until his death. Ironically, it was while working at that cemetery that he drank the polluted water that led to typhoid and his death, in 1897.
Newspapers reported that “strong men wept” upon news of his passing. Many sincere tributes to his “even temper, abiding charity, his faith in men and his immovable trust” also appeared in the papers.
His blond marble monument, featuring a large ivy-twined cross, an angel, an anchor and an open book inscribed with the names of his family members, may be the most impressive in Greenwood Cemetery. It was sculpted in Rome by Leonard Volk, who also made one of only two life masks of President Abraham Lincoln. Today, the limestone house is used as office and classroom space for the Burpee Museum of Natural History.
Tinker Swiss Cottage
411 Kent St., est. 1865
Robert Tinker was born in Hawaii, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. As a lad of 19, he came to Rockford from Westfield, N.Y. His whimsical and romantic Swiss Cottage was inspired by his tour of Europe in 1862. Building of the Cottage started in 1865, and a conservatory was added in 1882.
Tinker married Mary Dorr Manny, John H. Manny’s widow, in 1871. Tinker’s eloquence and good humor were well known in the community, as were his many volunteer contributions to the city, especially in the parks, serving as the president of the first Park Board. He was a one-term mayor of Rockford, elected in 1875, and a longtime president of the Water Power district, the cradle of Rockford industry. His house and grounds are now a Rockford Park District museum full of authentic Tinker possessions; touring there is an experience not to be missed. To learn more about visiting, call (815) 964-2424 or go to tinkercottage.com.
813 N. Main St., est. 1893
On the north end of the Burpee Museum campus is the Queen Anne style Barnes Mansion, built for William Fletcher Barnes, during a severe financial depression in 1893. He housed the workers who built the mansion, many of them skilled Swedish-American craftsmen, in tents on the grounds, and provided them food. Their wages were $1 per day. The woodwork in the mansion is impressive, especially the large landing in the grand staircase, where musicians played for the Barnes’s fabulous parties.
The Barnes dynasty of machine tool production began in 1869, when W. F. and his brother John opened a shop in the Water Power district, where they produced machinery run by foot power, specializing in scroll saws. The company abandoned foot power for electricity, changed focus with the times, and built machine tools for the automotive industry and for the military. The company left town in 1998, but its early machines are highly prized by collectors.
For years, the Barnes Mansion held the entire Burpee collection, including an alligator, under the faithful stewardship of curator Milton Mahlburg. The exhibits have since been moved, and the mansion now holds offices and meeting rooms.
The Spafford Estate
501 N. Prospect St., est. 1863
The unique yellow-brick Spafford House sits at the end of a long driveway amidst tall trees in lovely, spacious grounds on North Prospect Street. It features a three-story tower, Italianate windows and dark, ornate bargeboards. Understandably, it’s an object of curiosity to many passersby. Built in 1863 or 1864 for Amos Catlin Spafford, it has always been occupied by members of the Spafford family, which must be some kind of a record. Also on the lot are a garage and a groundskeeper’s cottage. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Amos Spafford was born in 1824 in Adams, N.Y. He came to Rockford in the early 1840s and started a sawmill partnership with L. B. Gregory. He married Elizabeth B. White on the morning of March 25, 1850, and that afternoon left for the California gold rush, a rash decision he soon would regret.
When he returned to Rockford in 1854, he and Chester Briggs chartered the Third National Bank that later became the First National Bank and now is part of Chase Bank. Amos’s daughter Carrie was the intended bride of the dashing and patriotic Union Army Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a personal friend of President Lincoln. Col. Ellsworth became the first officer casualty of the Civil War, in May 1861, when he tore down a Confederate flag from a rooftop in Alexandria, Va.
As he carried the flag down the stairs, he was fatally shot by a rebel soldier. Five years later, when Carrie married Mr. H. Brett, Robert Tinker was one of the groomsmen.
1244 E. State St., est. 1863
Chester C. Briggs and wife Emeline came to Rockford in 1853 from Vermont, where he had edited the Burlington Gazette and was a leader in the fight against slavery and liquor traffic. In Rockford he joined Amos Spafford in founding the Third National Bank. Later he was the financial manager and prominent supporter of a company that was to build 28 miles of the Kenosha Railroad. In 1868, he joined the firm of Briggs, Mead and Skinner, dealers in agricultural implements, and eventually entered the real estate and insurance businesses. He died in Rockford on Jan. 24, 1892.
His beautiful Italianate mansion on East State Street was built in 1863. It has 12-foot ceilings, six marble fireplaces and a grand staircase. For years, starting in the mid-20th century, it was neglected and concealed behind an ordinary house. But in about 2007, Robert and Nelly Raleigh recognized its beauty and historic value, bought the property, replaced the offending house with parking space and spent 15 months renovating the mansion. It’s now a popular event space, especially appropriate for weddings.
Robert’s uncle, Ray Kleinhaus, is the manager there, and will gladly show you around if you call for an appointment.
1313 E. State St., est. 1873
Just up the hill and across State Street from the Briggs Mansion is the Lake-Peterson house, considered one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Illinois. It was built in 1873 for John Lake, who had come to Rockford in 1837, making him a very early settler. He prospered in the lumber business and became one of Rockford’s wealthiest and most important citizens. He lived in the house until he died in 1927.
Pehr August Peterson was six years old when he came to Rockford from Sweden in 1852. In 1875, he began his career in Rockford’s growing furniture industry. The Union Furniture Co. was organized in 1876 as a cooperative association, with John Erlander as president and Peterson as secretary.
By the 1890s, Rockford, with its 25 furniture factories, was second only to Grand Rapids, Mich., in furniture production. But the Union Furniture plant burned down in 1889 and the financial panic of 1893 closed 27 factories in one day, many of them furniture companies. Peterson managed to weather that storm and became the most important figure in Rockford’s industrial, commercial and civic development.
For the next 31 years, he served as president of Sundstrand Corp. and held stock in 50 Rockford-based companies. He was chairman of the board of trustees of SwedishAmerican Hospital when it opened in July 1918. He was a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, deeply religious, a supporter of many worthy causes and was personally generous to his peers and employees. His name endures on the P A. Peterson Center for Health on Parkview Avenue, another of his contributions to the community.
He bought the Lake house in 1918 and lived there with wife Ida until his death on June 10, 1927. He willed the house to the hospital and today it holds some of their offices. Both the house and its large carriage house were listed on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places in 1980.
404 S. Third St., est. 1871
Another Swedish immigrant, among many in the 19th century, was John Erlander. He was the first in town to operate a sewing machine, and with his partner, S. A. Johnson, opened the first men’s clothing and tailoring shop in Rockford. It was very successful. He and wife Inga built their elegant two-story red brick house with its bright white shutters and other accents, in 1871. In the parlor of that house, the Union Furniture Co. was organized, with John Erlander as president and P.A. Peterson as secretary.
The home is now owned by the Swedish Historical Society of Rockford. It has been lovingly restored, with original murals uncovered and historic furnishings and clothing on display; another house museum not to be missed. This year the Society is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the home as a museum. Every midsummer, a Swedish-style celebration is held on the grounds. To learn more about the home, call (815) 963-5559 or go to Swedishhistorical.org.
The Graham-Ginestra House
1115 S. Main St., est. 1857
This outstanding house was built in 1857 by Freeman Graham, a successful businessman and member of the Connecticut General Assembly. He came to Rockford in 1856, to manage Emerson, Talcott and Co., a successor to the Manny Reaper Co. He was one of the first settlers on the southwest side of Rockford and had several business interests, including the first sour mash distillery in Illinois. That would have made him popular in some circles, though not with the ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Women did not have the vote at the time and he was elected alderman of Rockford’s fifth ward.
Freeman’s rectangular, two-story house was built of Galena dolomite limestone, in a transitional style that incorporates the gabled roof and symmetrical designs of the Greek Revival style, but also displays fancy brackets under the eaves like those found on Italianate buildings. Its sturdy construction has allowed it to remain virtually unchanged through 137 years among the many diverse populations that have come and gone in its neighborhood. The interior features a curving staircase with a stunning stained glass window illuminating the landing.
Upon Graham’s death in 1896, the house went to his daughter, Julia, while his business interests were divided among his three sons. Julia and her husband, Henry S. Warner, secretary-treasurer of the Graham Match Co., lived in the house until 1927. The Southwest side had, by then, become an Italian enclave.
Leo Ginestra, a Sicilian immigrant mechanic and mobile home park owner, bought and lived in the house until his death in 1978. On June 11, 1979, the National Park Service listed it on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it is privately owned.
The Ethnic Heritage Museum
1129 S. Main St., est. 1857
The southwest side of Rockford is the city’s birthplace, where pioneers such as Germanicus Kent first settled and subsequent immigrant populations followed. It was also the location of the Water Power District, the cradle of Rockford industries, at the confluence of Kent Creek and the Rock River.
The modest house at 1129 S. Main St., built in 1857 near the Freeman Graham residence and now housing the Ethnic Heritage Museum, has had many inhabitants. The first were the Hicks family: Joel W., a teamster; his wife Thankful Hicks and children Benjamin, Avis and Mary. From 1877 to 1886 there was Washburn Mead, cabinetmaker and pattern maker, his wife Adelia and son Daniel.
Daniel received a degree in civil engineering from Cornell University and, in 1885, Rockford MayorAlbert Taggart appointed him Rockford city engineer. In that capacity, he surveyed the city streets to prepare for a municipal sewer system. Dr. T.J. Sprague moved in during the late 1880s, followed by Charles W. Smith, a barber, from 1894 to 1907, and another barber, William Lewis, from 1907 to 1911.
Occupants during the early 1900s included Ernest and Rose Prindle, Orson and Margaret Wolfe, John and Mary Sexton, Emory and Anna Herdklotz and Peter and Lillian Gulotta. Others lived there through the mid-1900s.
The Southwest Improvement Corp. acquired the house in 1987. Each of its six galleries represents one of the ethnicities that have lived in the area: Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Irish, African-American and Hispanic. Each features maps, photographs, vintage clothing, crafts, artwork and everyday artifacts typical of its ethnicity. It’s a nonprofit organization entirely run by dedicated volunteers. The Ethnic Heritage Museum is open for public tours on Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m., but guided group tours during the week can be arranged by calling (815) 962-7402.