By Shane Nicholson
DOWNTOWN — Hidden in the mess of boxes and books in the back of the building that houses The Times was a treasure trove of local history.
More than 40 boxes of abstracts, records detailing the purchase history of properties throughout the county, were among the relics left behind by former Times owner Frank Schier. Now, downtown resident and property owner Kyle Bevers is leading efforts to preserve the pieces of Rockford’s past.
The scores of public records were uncovered while the building was being prepped for an estate sale over the summer, and they remained in place once the sale was complete. Schier had acquired the records at some point over the past decades and kept them in a mountain of bankers boxes in the building’s top floor. Bevers, after seeing the collection while fixing the auto lift in the rear of the building, the former REO Speedwagon automotive dealership, decided the abstracts were worth saving.
“These really tell interesting stories about, not just Rockford but all of Winnebago County,” says Bevers. “Divorces and land battles and the Indian treaties and Presidents—it’s all in here.”
The names throughout the opening pages of each of the volumes are a whos-who of Rockford’s founding days: Kent, Church, Haight, Crosby, Wyman, Lecuyer (née Mauh-Nah-Tee-See). Titles and land grants deeded across the county formed the towns, neighborhoods and commercial districts which still remain today.
Beyond that, the path of Manifest Destiny can be seen carving its way through Winnebago County across the thousands of pages of text. More than 2,000 volumes, some more than 200 pages thick, recount the country’s drive to the west coast through the 19th century. Land granted to “half-breeds” by the U.S. government make up large portions of the current downtown Rockford area, all of which required the signature of the President and his underlings as prescribed in the First Treaty of Prairie du Chien.
The books detail the history of properties throughout Winnebago County, from the 1830s through the 1960s.
But those volumes bury what many would feel should be the most basic of information contained within their pages. Bevers says the most difficult part of organizing the abstracts is pinning them down to a single address. Many of the books start with tracts covering large swaths of Rockford and Winnebago County. Those hunks of land were slowly subdivided and chipped away over the decades, whittling down to a recognizable street number in the current city.
“You can’t just open one up and there’s the address,” Bevers said. “Some of these, they’re using an old piece of limestone in one corner as a marker and maybe that fence over there as another. Well, that limestone and that fence aren’t there anymore, so we’ve got to do some digging to find where they go.”
Bevers says it takes around 20-30 minutes with each book to narrow down an address—if one can be found at all. Ultimately, most of the abstracts come to end during the 1960s. That can leave pieces of land covering multiple modern city blocks.
“It’s great when I can say this book goes to so-and-so house on such-and-such street,” says Bevers, “but some of these, we just can’t do that. Some of them still take up entire neighborhoods or subdivisions.”
Local architect Gary Anderson calls the collection one of the most valuable pieces of the city’s history that he’s seen.
“They’re priceless periscopes into these properties and people,” Anderson said. “It’s really important that we preserve these documents—these are really important things. It’s pretty phenomenal that we even have something like this.”
The original intent was to see the books delivered to today’s homeowners once the addresses were identified. But after consultation with Anderson and others, Bevers feels the best option is to find a location to house the massive archive of the city’s early history.
Kyle Bevers looks through a box containing more than 45 historical abstracts that were pulled from the back of the building that houses The Rock River Times. Bevers estimates that there are 1600-2000 total books in the collection.
“I’m hoping they can end up at the library, since they already have a similar collection,” Bevers said. But he cautions that having an organized method by which to trope through the volumes of text must be in place first. “They’re no good to the average homeowner or the average citizen trying to find out about some history. Without some kind of system in place, they’re just a bunch of boxes of books.”
Anderson agrees: “Having a central repository – I know it takes up space – but if there’s a way we could catalog these things, they’re a tremendous resource. When they started getting rid of these (abstracts) years ago, it was a great loss. I don’t know how many more of these kinds of things exist, but whatever we have left in the community we need to keep hold of.”
Bevers says he hopes to complete a searchable database to stand alongside the collection, allowing local historians and landowners to look back into Rockford’s past. Anyone willing to assist in the identification and organizing of the abstracts can email The Rock River Times at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Historical Project.” R.