Guest Column: Lithuanians in Rockford: A remarkable journey

February 10, 2010

By Genevieve Sandona

The best way I can write a brief history of Lithuanians in Rockford, what was called “South Rockford” in particular, is to trace the story of my parents and connect their story to the present days. My father emigrated from Lithuania in 1907, as many others did in the early 1900s. My mother crossed the ocean in 1909, also from Lithuania. They met at a boarding house in Chicago in 1915 and married in 1916.

After attending barber college in Chicago, he and Mother found their way to Rockford, and Dad opened his own barber shop at 1410 S. Main St., just a few blocks from where the Ethnic Heritage Museum is now located, at 1129 S. Main. Their apartment was upstairs, over the shop; they remained there until 1924. The building has long been torn down, but it was in the vicinity of what is now Familia Fresh Foods, which is at 1414 S. Main St.

There were many Lithuanian businesses along South Main Street in the 1920s, 1930s and some into the í40s: dry cleaners, a photographer who also gave violin lessons, the Fair Department Store, a tavern, hardware store, and grocery store. Even a pharmacy. On Ogilby Road, just off South Main, many of the bungalows were occupied by Lithuanian families. Many Lithuanians as well as Italians lived on Kent Street, Island Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, West and Sanford streets. It is important to note that Sts. Peter and Paul Apostles Church, now serving the Hispanic community and a diverse neighborhood, was once known as ìthe Lithuanian Church.” It is located at 617 Lincoln Ave.

Many immigrant families enjoyed affordable entertainment on South Main at the Rialto and Capital theaters. The former has been torn down; the Capital remains and is now a restaurant. There were dish giveaways at both theaters, and Mother collected an entire set.

When I was a child, Mother and I attended many movies at the Rialto (mostly Westerns) while Dad went to meetings at the Lithuanian Cultural Society nearby. This was the origin of the Rockford Lithuanian Club, now on Indiana Avenue.

I wrote this with the aid of memory, conversations, and visits to the downtown Rockford Public Libraryís Local History Room, a most amazing place. Here I was able to check on dates and names in city directories going back to the early and mid-1900s. Although I didnít grow up in South Rockford- now called the Southwest Quadrantñ its history is also part of my history.

Genevieve Sandona is a lifelong resident of Rockford.

From the Feb. 10-16, 2010 issue

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