Check out these unique destinations that reflect the genuine character of our region.
Veterans Memorial Hall & Museum
211 N. Main St., Rockford, veteransmemorialhall.com, (815) 969-1999
Many of us drive by this Neo-classical beauty every day, forgetting that we own it. Museum Director Scott Lewandowski invites us to stop in and stay awhile.
“Memorial Hall has always been owned by the people of Winnebago County, who approved funding after Civil War veterans advocated for it,” Lewandowski says. “It was built to honor local citizens who served in any U.S. war and has been a repository for relics and artifacts from those wars ever since.”
The hall was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, Rockford’s heyday era. As a downtown anchor, it supports community events like Stroll on State and Art Scene. Mostly, though, it focuses on serving veterans and telling their stories.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of World War I, one exhibit tells the story of Rockford resident Joe Prinzivalle, who came here from Sicily in 1909 at age 18 to work in a foundry. By the time he was 25, he was fighting for his new country on the European western front, alongside many other U.S. immigrants.
The names of Winnebago County veterans from U.S. wars are kept in the hall, which is abuzz with veteran group meetings. It hosts the county’s oldest VFW and American Legion chapters. The lovely vintage spaces are available to rent, including an auditorium with a horseshoe-shaped balcony.
Visit Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. There’s no admission fee. Check the website for special events and docent-led tour times.
Dalton Trumbo Exhibit
Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research (WCFTR), wcftr.commarts.wisc.edu/exhibits
It’s Red Carpet season. You may be surprised to learn that one of the best media history collections in the world is maintained not in Los Angeles, but in Madison, Wis., by the Wisconsin Historical Society and UW-Madison, at 816 State St., Madison, Wis.
The WCFTR is home to 20,000 movies, TV shows and video tapes; 2 million still photos and promotional graphics; several thousand sound recordings and a large collection of historical records and personal papers. This collection is mostly used onsite for research, but many exhibits are digitized for anyone to pull up from home. One example is a new exhibit about Dalton Trumbo, the subject of a 2015 film starring Bryan Cranston.
Trumbo earned a place among Hollywood elites through his screenwriting talent; he also won the American Booksellers Award for his anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun.” He was jailed and blacklisted for his political views after refusing to answer questions posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s McCarthy era. To support his family, Trumbo wrote under assumed names. Among his best screenplays were “Kitty Foyle,” “Roman Holiday,” “The Brave One” and “Spartacus,” starring Kirk Douglas. Sadly, his work won Academy Awards he couldn’t publicly claim. Trumbo was fond of writing while in the bathtub.
Learn how to access the WCFTR collection by calling (608) 264-6466 or pull up the digital gallery online at wcftr.commarts.wisc.edu/exhibits.
Rochelle Railroad Park
124 N. 9th St., Rochelle, Ill., (815) 562-7031, rochellerailroadpark.org
Trains have long captured the American imagination. An outing to this railroad park, touted as “the first park in the nation built just for visitors to see operating trains,” is a terrific way for family members young and old to spend time together. Visitors learn how important trains remain to our national economy as 80 to 90 per day pass through Rochelle, hauling millions of tons of merchandise.
Along with watching modern trains at work, visitors can see a 7-ton, 1928 Whitcomb locomotive that was built in Rochelle during World War I. In all, some 5,312 locomotives were built here and delivered around the world.
But the learning doesn’t stop with trains. Visitors can also explore a “hobo jungle” and discover how hobos fit into railway culture. Most were able-bodied Civil War veterans who rode the rails looking for work; they camped under rail overpasses. Another surge of hobos emerged after World War I. Many finding seasonal work at canning companies near Rochelle.
Stay warm by hanging out in the gift shop, which offers two large viewing areas, free wireless internet service, coffee and restrooms.
By tuning to 106.9FM, visitors can hear the dispatchers doing their work. By connecting to the internet, they can view two ATCS monitors for a premium train-watching experience.
The park is open 24/7 all year. The gift shop is open every day except Tuesday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.