Voices from the Grave: taking in the Burson House

Home of the original Sock Monkey creator up for sale

By Kathi Kresol
Contributor

It is not often that an opportunity comes along to purchase a property of historical value but that is exactly what is being offered in the sale of 1401 Clifton Avenue. This unique house was built in 1866 and was the home of one of Rockford’s industrial pioneers, William Worth Burson. It is said that he designed several of his inventions in this house, including the one for the knitting machine that he and John Nelson partnered to create.

William Worth Burson’s personal motto was: Integirty, Industry, and Perseverance. These words meant so much to him that they are part of his burial marker at Greenwood Cemetery. William was born in Venago County, Pennsylvania to parents Samuel and Mary Burson. The family moved to Illinois in 1839 settling eventually in Fulton, where Samuel bought some land and became a farmer.

William attended college at Lombard College located in Galesburg, Illinois. William would later boast that not only was he a member of the first class to graduate from the college, he (because his name came in the beginBursonning of the alphabet) was the first person ever to graduate from Lombard. William also met his future wife there.

William’s background in farming would later be the springboard for his inventing machinery. In the 1850s William worked on improving the designs for rakes and reaping machines securing patents for his ideas in 1856. It was his designs for a binder that would eventually bring William to Rockford. He obtained a patent for a twine binder in 1861 and improved on the design changing it to a wire binder in 1862. William attended reapers trials with this invention in 1862 and received quite a bit of attention. The Chicago Tribune mentioned William saying, “The great feature of the day which never failed to draw a crowd was the grain-binder of W. W. Burson. He had an ovation that must have been gratifying to him.” Ralph Emerson from Rockford met William at these trials and signed a contract with him. William moved to Rockford fulfill the contract.

Emerson supposedly introduced William to John Nelson and they became involved in a partnership to develop an automatic knitting machine. According to Charles A. Church in his Past and Present of Rockford and Winnebago County, Illinois, “and after much tedious labor on the part of both gentlemen a power machine was perfected.”

The men received patents for their designs in the next several years eventually turning their sights toward the issue of creating a machine would knit the socks automatically. They hoped to improve on this design to make it available for the home. In 1871, their machine they designed could knit 80 pairs of socks in one day. Their greatest breakthrough came in 1873 when the parallel row machine was developed. This machine was the real start to Rockford’s knitting industry.

Burson left the partnership in 1878 and once again turned his attention toward harvesting inventions for a while before returning to the knitting industry. William opened his own knitting company, the Burson Knitting Company in 1892 on Cedar Street. William continued to invent machines and was granted an impressive 50 patents by the time of his death in 1913.

Though William Burson and John Nelson were in partnership for the major inventions that helped Rockford’s knitting industry begin, Nelson’s name is more readily remembered. Perhaps it was because the Nelson Knitting Company pursued the famed “Sock Monkey” after creating the Red Heel Sock in 1932 to “help their socks stand out.” According to Laura Furman at the Midway Village and Museum Center, the Nelson Knitting Company learned of the monkey dolls that were being made from the socks in the 1950s and after a long process secured the patent in 1955.

Jack Kooistra, the present owner of the Willam Burson home would like to see Burson remembered for his contributions to Rockford’s industrial business. “I am trying to raise awareness of the sale of this very special house. The city of Rockford has come to rally around the Sock Monkey in recent years. In my opinion it would be a shame to see the house where the knitting machine was invented have anything done to compromise the integrity of the architecture. The sale of the Burson home is a phenomenal opportunity for someone to buy a piece of Rockford history.”

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