By Michael Kleen
Disembodied footsteps, a rocking chair that moves on its own, and phantom figures would be enough to spook anyone. For Steve Litteral, executive director of Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum & Gardens, however, it’s just another day on the job. At 411 Kent St. in Rockford, Tinker Swiss Cottage is rich in local history and home to a few hair-raising reminders of the past.
The museum sits on a bluff overlooking Kent Creek, where Germanicus Kent and Thatcher Blake built a sawmill and grinding mill in 1834. This settlement steadily grew until it developed into the bustling city of Rockford, which was incorporated in 1852. Kent’s original retention ponds, which he used for his grinding mill, are still on the museum grounds.
Tinker Cottage’s ornate gables cast a shadow on a far older remnant of the area’s past: a Pre-Columbian burial mound, which is located a few yards from the mansion. It has been archaeologically dated to 1000-1300 AD, and contains the remains of an unknown number of Amerindians from the Oneota culture.
The mansion itself was built in 1865 by Robert H. Tinker, husband of Mary Dorr Manny Tinker. Mary was the widow of John H. Manny, owner of the Manny Reaper Works. Robert and Mary met in 1856 and married in 1870. Robert Tinker designed his home to resemble the Swiss cottages he had seen during his European travels.
Robert Tinker was mayor of Rockford from 1875 to 1876, and a founding member of the Rockford Park District. After his first wife died in 1901, he married her niece, Jessie Dorr Hurd. Robert died in 1924. In 1942, Jessie Dorr Hurd Tinker left Tinker Swiss Cottage and all of her belongings to the Rockford Park District. Because of this, 99 percent of the items in the museum are original. It is truly a window into the past.
Over the years, many visitors have wondered whether the museum is haunted. While no one can say for certain, dozens of people have had strange encounters while touring the mansion grounds. Kathi Kresol, purveyor of Haunted Rockford Tours, was surprised when an extra guest appeared during a stop at the cottage in 2007.
“One lady approached me as we were loading the bus at the end of the visit,” Kathi recalled. “She looked at me and said that it was really neat that I had a lady dressed in a long, white dress with dark hair put in a bun sitting on the bench right before the suspension bridge. I was a little confused, and explained to her that I had no one along that was in a white dress. It was the first time I saw the color drain from someone’s face! She got very pale and started to shake as the realization sank in. I truly believe that she saw the ghost of Jessie Tinker and didn’t even realize it until I told her!”
In October 2012, Tinker Swiss Cottage was featured on Syfy’s Ghost Hunters. The Atlantic Paranormal Society documented every inch of the museum while filming the episode. At one point in the evening, a rocking chair began to move on its own. According to Litteral, the rocking chair has done that several times during the course of regular tours.
Another group of paranormal investigators captured an audio recording of a woman’s voice saying, “I don’t like trains … I don’t like trains … trains bring death” in the library as a train passed by outside.
Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum hosts haunted tours on Friday nights from 7 to 10 p.m., in addition to its regular daily tours. It is a wonderful way to experience a different side of this historic landmark. Whether you encounter the unseen, you will always learn something interesting about Rockford’s past.
From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 2013, issue