Telling Rockford’s Story: New Chapter Begins at Midway Village

As this beloved Rockford institution welcomes a new executive director and marketing director to the fold, there’s a strong sense of using success in the corporate world to shape the museum’s future.

A re-enactor portraying a German soldier teaches visitors about 1917 European borders during a World War I event at Midway Village Musuem in May 2021.

Lessons from the past are valuable in our personal lives and in our collective community life. Two new leaders at Midway Village Museum understand this on a personal and professional level. After spending decades climbing the ladder in corporate positions, both Executive Director Patrick O’Keefe and Marketing Director Luke Fredrickson concluded there comes a point in life when strengthening your own community can be more important than corporate advancement.

“I found I wanted to put my experience to work for the good of my own community,” says O’Keefe, hired in 2021 to succeed David Byrnes, who retired from the museum after 22 years.

“I suddenly felt being part of a community and investing in that community was more important than just thinking about career goals and the next promotion,” says Fredrickson. “It’s something younger people undervalue.”

Born and reared in Rockford, O’Keefe earned degrees from NIU, Rockford University and UW-Madison before working in sales, business development and marketing at Eclipse Inc. for 25 years. He also led Transform Rockford for two years and has been a lifelong community volunteer, serving on a variety of boards.

There’s more to life than the high-stress, for-profit corporate marketing world of helping salespeople to meet goals, says O’Keefe.

It was the COVID-19 pandemic that led Fredrickson to make a course correction in his career. He was born in Rockford but attended high school in Las Vegas. He returned to the area 27 years ago to earn his Bachelor’s degree at NIU and has since worked in the marketing departments of several companies in our region.

“COVID-19 drove home how much family means, and I could see my aging Dad was needing more help and I could see it was time to change priorities,” he says. “I love waking up and looking forward to going to work. It’s good for my soul to work for Midway Village and to think about building awareness of this great museum and helping people to connect with the rich history of Rockford. It’s all about telling stories rather than closing deals.”

The men share a vision for making Midway Village Museum an even more vibrant attraction in our community.

“Midway Village Museum’s mission is about collecting, preserving and interpreting the history of the Rockford region,” says O’Keefe. “We aspire to provide educational and enriching experiences that are also fun for our visitors. So, the question is, ‘What are we doing in the confines of Midway that people outside the gate value?’”

That question is leading to all sorts of new ideas, driven largely by the museum’s staff and its battalion of volunteers.

“We want to help the location become more of an educational setting and a destination site on par with other attractions in the Rockford area, while getting out the message that the museum is for everyone who wants to learn about Rockford and enjoy a variety of activities,” says Fredrickson.

One short-term goal is to open a living history Camp Grant exhibit next year, showing what World War I and World War II military trainees experienced there. When the camp opened in 1917, it was a huge economic boon for Rockford, but it also aggravated the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 for local citizens.

Long-term plans at the museum include hosting more field trips for children and providing more interactive activities. The new leaders also are working to make the entire grounds more engaging while emphasizing areas that have been overlooked.

More attention will be paid to the diversity of wildlife, the many historical gardens on the property, unique old trees and native plants, and a 14-acre piece of land that represents the earliest phase of Rockford’s settlement, Fredrickson says.

Plans include expanded tours of the Heritage Gardens, including signage of the property and implementing QR codes, so people can use their smartphones to get descriptions of what they’re seeing.

The outdoor Victorian Village is open for tours guided by a costumed interpreter Tuesdays through Thursdays, beginning May 1. The museum is expanding its living history experiences to every weekend, with self-guided tours and costumed interpreters in several of the buildings. Tours are by appointment on weekdays and on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Keep up with the latest events, activities, tours, exhibits and more by visiting the museum’s website,