The Christmas spirit of the Illinois Cottage
By Kathi Kresol
The Illinois Cottage was opened in August of 1918. The old Lindsey Home, located on Kent Street was acquired through the Illinois Federation of Women’s Club with assistance of the Spafford family. Its purpose was to aid single women who came from other communities while they searched for employment or girls who were found after curfew. One such young girl came to Rockford with her new husband. The couple had only been married a few days when they arrived and she had no idea that her husband was wanted for forgery. She stayed at the Illinois Cottage after her husband was arrested until arrangements could be made for her to return to her parent’s home.
One article describing the home mentioned that during the time of the opening there were many young girls that followed the young men to Rockford when they were stationed at Camp Grant. Some of these girls could not find employment and had no way to support themselves.
Later the purpose of the home was expanded to include caring for handicapped children. The Visiting Nurses Association would refer the children to the Cottage. Most of the children came from very poor circumstances and were handicapped due to to malnutrition or disease. These children would receive medical care, proper nutrition, and an education while living in the home. For some of the children this care was life changing; without it their handicaps would have made them incapable of becoming independent and able to support themselves.
The children who were able attended nearby public schools while those who were bedridden were taught at the cottage. Clubs allowed the children to earn money for shoes or other clothing. The Fairy Club allowed the young girls to embroider bibs, rompers, and towels that would be sold in the gift shop.
In order to continue the funding of the Illinois Cottage many events and tours were held in the home. Several famous visitors to Rockford were brought for a tour of the home. Jackie Coogan, a child star, and Tom Mix, an actor who was best known for playing in early westerns, were both visitors.
One of the most touching stories in the history of the home involves a little boy who stayed there in 1931. He came to the home weighing 23 pounds and horribly crippled from a severe case of rickets that had bent his little legs.
The little boy was sent to the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Chicago for surgery to straighten his legs. He was returned to the Illinois Cottage where his care was continued. Within a few months the little boy’s weight increased and he was walking normally.
There were numerous organizations in Rockford that worked very hard to ensure that the children had all they needed. But it was during the Christmas holiday that the true generosity of the Rockford community was revealed. Gifts of clothing, furniture, toys and fruit were delivered from all parts of the city. Whole classrooms of children would visit to perform concerts and programs for the children.
Christmas Eve was started with a special luncheon cooked and served by local Kiwanis groups, who were major contributors to the cottage. In the evening, the cottage sponsored a large party and opened its doors for all the neighborhood children.
In the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, a truck arrived and picked up around 70 children who then made the rounds in South Rockford. The children and their escorts sang Christmas songs as the neighbors came outside to join them. The newspaper stated that “the familiar music served as a beautiful reminder of the significance of the holiday”.
The truck returned the children back to the cottage for a very special meal. Santa Claus would arrive afterward with a sack filled with gifts, the first ever for many of the children. The gifts were donated from families, businesses, and local churches and were given to all the children including the neighborhood visitors. Then the children were tucked into their beds with stomachs filled with food and clutching their new toys.
These stories of the Illinois Cottage prove that the Rockford Community was built with the generous, caring spirit that continues still today. As the quote from the movie Scrooged starring Bill Murray reminds us, “It’s Christmas Eve! It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!”