Pictures of what once was: Rockford 1900-World War I

Most Rockfordians who have had minor traffic violations (or perhaps worse) are familiar with the garishly modern Winnebago County Courthouse, 400 W. State St. As far as I knew, it probably wasn’t that much better at the turn of the 20th century, at least until I received a copy of Eric A. Johnson’s Rockford: 1900-World War I. A pictorial history consisting of old postcards with pertinent information and anecdotes beneath them, the book displays what Rockford looked like before developers ruined some of its most prized landmarks, theaters and public houses. The old courthouse was probably one of our most impressive buildings, designed by Henry L. Gay in a French-Venetian-American style between 1876-1878.

Although it’s not the angle Johnson himself took when compiling the postcards and writing the bylines, the fact remains that what we once had in this town was a beautiful and classic downtown area with elegant residential neighborhoods to match—and now most of it’s gone. Although I’ll be the first to say that the renovation of the Coronado Theatre, 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 don’t read “Just Saying Hi from Rockford, Ill.”) and informative descriptions beneath that help the reader to identify present neighborhoods and how they once looked. One of the most striking contrasts is in the old Rockford College campus, which was once host to predominantly Romanesque architecture as well as the elegant Colonial-style Middle Hall built in 1852. Now the college looks sort of like a collection of ill-shaped cardboard boxes.

Another eye-opener was the scenes of a bustling community at the Shumway Market back in 1915. In a picture donated by Midway Village and Museum Center, the postcard portrays literally hundreds of people shopping and perusing the marketplace on a sunny afternoon. Have you visited the weekend farmer’s markets lately? I can assure you that besides just the differences in attire, the present-day markets are nothing like the scene in the book. But, as Johnson pointed out, the times have changed. “Most circumstances are beyond our control. Life has changed and Rockford culture has changed.” However, 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-laws, sisters-in-laws, and friends there. I became acquainted to 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. It’s (the book) my love-gift to the Rockford community.”

Rockford: 1900-World War I is a great addition to the few, but important books published about our city. When asked why he chose to do a pictorial history as opposed to written, Johnson commented: “Written histories have been done. A lot more comprehensive histories have been done. These post cards 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.” The book is a must-have for any local enthusiast. Not only are the pictures clear and excellently organized, but the informational captions are educational and well-written. The most interesting post cards are those that have messages etched across them giving the reader insight to communications made by Rockford’s locals almost 100 years ago. In the chapter “Three Cheers for Rockford High School,” there is a photo taken 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, the handwriting adds a sort of comforting dimension as if to let the reader know this picture meant something to somebody once.

There is also interesting information and pictures about Camp Grant, the old Harlem Park, Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Rockford and the theaters that hosted the likes of Oscar Wylde, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope and Susan B. Anthony.

Johnson is a retired journalist who still acts as managing editor of a monthly publication in his new hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. He used postcards from his own private collection, as well as donated cards from Midway Village & Museum Center, and collectors Mary Lou Yankaitis, Matthew J. Spinello and Mark D. Fry. He also gathered historic information with Jerry Kortman and George “Doc” Slafkosky of J.R. Kortman Center for Design, where the book is available for purchase. You can also pick a copy up at Midway Village & Museum Center, Canterbury Books and Tours, Walden Books, Borders, Barnes & Noble, the Rockford College Book Store, and through Johnson will be at this year’s On The Waterfront Festival to sign copies of his book at the World Marketplace, between East State and Madison streets. A copy of Rockford: 1900-World War I costs $19.99.

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