By Kathi Kresol
The Grinnell Senior Center sits on one of the most historic streets in Beloit, Wisconsin. According to the Historic Preservation booklet, “A Guide for Property Owners,” published in 1997, Bluff Street is one of the first residential streets in the city.
The neighborhood was formed shortly after the building of the first bridge crossing the Rock River in the late 1840’s. It hosted some of the most elaborate and distinctive homes built in the early days of Beloit.
Though the Grinnell Memorial Hall now has a different purpose than when it was built, it stills has a distinct purpose for the city. Today the center hosts classes, exercise instruction, nutritional meals and concerts to active older adults. It offers a vibrant place to, as their website claims, “Live your life and forget your age!”
When the Grinnell Building was built its original purpose was as a hall for veterans. It was built in 1937 at the request of Emma Grinnell who gave the city $100,000 to build a memorial for her late husband, William. William fought in Company F. of the 35th Wisconsin Volunteers during the Civil War. He also was a founding partner of the Beloit Iron Works in the 1880’s. Emma donated the $100,000 in William’s name to create a place to host events to honor all of the Beloit veterans.
Before the building could begin, they needed to tear down the old home that stood on the property of 631 Bluff Street. The house had at one time been owned by the Lee family and was described as one of the finest houses on Bluff Street. It had seven arches across the first floor and a cupola that over-looked the budding city.
It was during the demolition of the old home that a mystery was discovered. When workers were bringing down the 18 inch thick walls of the old house, they uncovered a small tin from the rubble. The tin had the letters “Dickie.” carved into it. The curious workers took the small tin to the Superintendent of the dig, Paul B. Kennedy.
When Kennedy opened the tin, he discovered the well preserved body of a canary placed on a tiny silk pillow.
There was also an old New Year’s greeting card dated 1886. On the back of the card were the following words: “If in years to come anyone should find this box, please bury it again, just as you find it. It holds the oldest and most knowing bird in America. I loved him and I shall miss him.”
The other side of the card was written, “Dear Little Dick. May you find wings that will bear you far from all imprisonment to a land ‘tis evergreen and summer is everlasting-where old age never comes-there you may sing your glad song with many others who have gained life and liberty by death. Peace be to his aches. The card was signed only by the initials “N.C.”
The little coffin and its dedication touched Paul B. Kennedy and he decided to hunt for the owner of the initials N.C. The word leaked out and the local newspapers from Rockford all the way to Milwaukee, carried the story of the little canary and the owner who loved him. Within a week, a woman named C.W. Merriman came forward with the answer everyone had been searching for.
Ms. Merriman grew up on Bluff Street and had a little friend by the name of Nellie Tuttle Clark. Nellie lived in the old Lee home as a child and later as an adult. Nellie had been an animal lover who had owned many pets including birds. “This is the kind of thing Nellie would do.” Mrs. Merriman said as she remembered her friend.
The newspapers carried this little story and the response was immediate as well as surprising. The officials in charge of the building and Paul B. Kennedy were overwhelmed by the amount of people who contacted them. Everyone wanted to know what they planned to do with the tin and Little Dick’s body. The interest must have been intense because the officials decided that though they could not replace the bird’s body back into the original walls, they could place the tin into the walls of the brand new building.
In a news article dated Sunday, October 4, 1936 the headline read, “A Canary from 1886 is Given a New Home.” The article stated that on a sunny afternoon all building noise ceased as the workmen gathered around Paul B. Kennedy. They were joined by many members of the community. Kennedy placed the small tin with the loving notes written by a young girl over fifty years before into the newly built wall. The article ended with “Dickie was laid to rest once again.”
But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Apparently, Dickie comes back to visit every once in a while. Visitors to the Grinnell Memorial Hall claimed to hear the song and the beating of wings of a small bird inside the building. In the beginning the sounds of the bird’s warbling would cause folks to become concerned for the trapped bird.
But over the years that concern has been replaced with air of acceptance. People theorize that the little bird was grateful to its owner and the officials that replaced its body back into the walls. They think that the little bird comes back every once in a while to express his gratitude with a little song.
Nellie, too has returned to the location that once held her home. Apparently, visitors and staff have felt the presence of the young woman. There is a small area by the main entrance that now contains a small shop where visitors can purchase items. The staff has named it “Nellie’s Nook” in honor of the young girl. Though research has yet to reveal many facts about her, the story of Nellie continues to touch people over one hundred and twenty years after she laid her dearest friend to rest.
Kathi Kresol has been researching the area’s history for over a decade. She shares the stories she finds in her events through Haunted Rockford, in her published books, and in these articles. Kathi is offering a tour of the historic Graham-Ginestra house this Saturday, March 14 at 7:00p.m. More information and tickets can be found at www.hauntedrockford.com or by calling Kathi at 815-871-4239.