Into The Wild: Wilderness at the core–The natural pleasures of Tinker Swiss Cottage and Gardens

In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and The Rock River Times presents this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit

By Katie Townsend
President, Four Rivers Environmental Coalition

From the original tract of 35 acres, now compacted into a much smaller microcosm of wild Illinois, is the remaining land of Rockford industrialist Robert Tinker. Allow me to introduce you to Rockford’s “first wilderness,” located in the heart of Rockford at 411 Kent St. Think of the historic cottage, carriage house and barns as “cairns” or ancient trail markers. Proceed to these beacons, but stay outside. (Note: Do not forget an indoor tour of the museum later!) Wander around community gardens, marvel at giant oaks, cross the bridge to get the full experience of tawny limestone bluffs and enjoy a frozen glaze over Kent Creek.

What are some of the treasures that the Tinkers left us? The booty is rich if you have urban naturalist tendencies. When in season, red-tailed hawk, snapping turtle, red fox, noisy American crow and magnificent great blue heron (affectionately known as the pterodactyl to the eco advocate students) show up undaunted by the fact this is the middle of the city. There are the simple pleasures of prairie plants that poke up at the forest’s fringe, white oaks that serve as symbolic watch towers to a Native American burial mound and a creek worth fishing for catfish.

The bluff top is enhanced by cultural and historic buildings. Beverly Broyles, executive director of Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens, provides a few thoughts of Robert Tinker to take along as company on this particular excursion: “Mr. Tinker, a renaissance man, original naturalist and park commissioner believed in all that related to nature. He expresses this worldview in benches made from the roots of trees or ‘rootwood’ that he found on the property. It extends to the gardens and parks he designed throughout Rockford.”

Tinker’s journals reflect her words: “JUNE, TUESDAY, 25, 1867; Planted 21 hills of ‘Buckeyed potatoes—from the seed of 4 from Mrs. P. Manny.”

Another entry: “JUNE, WEDNESDAY, 26, 1867; Planted some early Yorks up in S.E. corner of my lot + sweet corn in N.W. corner. … Heard a Robin in my place, caught 1st Ephemera or long soft fly” (insect used for bait when trout fishing).

Does this place make a difference for the people of south town? Listen to the words of resident Panama Russey—Eco Advocates student involved in leadership in the gardens through the eco advocate program in conjunction with Angelic Organics Learning Center, Comprehensive Community Solutions and a host of additional partners—as he shares about tending the gardens and impressions of the landscape: “The experience from the gardens is very interesting. Actually, I am a part of growing three gardens on the museum land through a group called Eco Advocates. I happened to be one of the original participants. Our growing space was to help the community by selling affordable, organically-grown vegetables. I uncovered a trowel that is possibly a historic artifact. Robert Tinker came right to mind as a gentleman farmer. Was he planting? Was he weeding? I will never know.

“Nature around and over the gardens is fantastic,” Panama continues. “The different types of prairie plants that were here centuries ago surrounded by white oak trees make me feel right at home. This is important because it is a welcoming spot for our neighborhood.”

I reflect on the significance of this place as I sit on a rootwood bench under a special oak tree. This hybridized place-holder combines the traits of two species. There are visible bur oak traits with furry acorn caps, twisted branches, and leaves with a deep sinus to the mid stem. Then, blended with the classic leaves and bark coloration of our state tree, the white oak. The tree is an analogy at the birthplace of Rockford where the traditional, wild and urban co-mingle.

For more information about Tinker Swiss Cottage and Eco Advocates affiliates, visit Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens online at; Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc., online at; and Angelic Organics Learning Center online at

Katie Townsend is a regular contributor to the Into the Wild Series and serves as president of the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and Urban Farm Educator with Angelic Organics Learning Center.

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