Rockford is a mid-sized city located on both banks of the Rock River in far northern Illinois. Often referred to as "The Forest City", Rockford is the county seat of Winnebago County, Illinois, USA. As reported in the 2010 U.S. census, the city was home to 152,871 people. The metropolitan area has 348,360 residents as of the 2010 census. During the latter half of the 20th century Rockford was the second largest city in Illinois and is currently the most populated city in Illinois outside of the Chicago Metropolitan Area. The current mayor is Lawrence J. Morrissey, an independent re-elected to a second four-year term in April 2009.
1835–1865: Two settlements on the river
Rockford was first settled in 1834–1835 by Germanicus Kent, Thatcher Blake, and Lewis Lemon, who came from Galena and established themselves on the west bank of the Rock River.
Halfway between Chicago and Galena, the community was briefly known as Midway, but quickly became known as Rockford, because of the excellent ford across the Rock River. A post office was established in 1837. The settlement was incorporated as a village in 1839, and chartered as a city in 1852. The first weekly newspaper was published in 1840 and the first successful daily newspaper appeared in 1877. Between 1890 and 1930 the city had three daily newspapers.
Rockford Female Seminary was chartered in 1847, became Rockford College in 1892, and became fully coeducational in 1958. Its best known graduate is Jane Addams (RFS Class of 1881), the founder of Chicago's Hull House and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Rockford Public Library, the second such institution in Illinois, first opened to the public in August 1872; the library's first dedicated building, a Carnegie library, was completed by 1902.
Although Rockford was a sleepy country village for about the first ten years, it thereafter began to expand rapidly in size and industry and became the seat of Winnebago County. In 1851, the Rockford Water Power Company was organized and in 1852 the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad reached the city. These two events, which brought inexpensive power and transportation to the area, changed Rockford forever. By 1860 Rockford had become a significant, growing industrial center, noted for production of the John H. Manny reaper and other agricultural machinery.
1865–1900: Rockford's industrial revolution
In 1876, the Rockford Union Furniture Company was organized by a small group of men led by John Erlander, an immigrant from Småland, Sweden. It was the first of 25 area furniture factories that were formed as cooperatives. Many of the furniture companies were organized with laborers and craftsmen holding significant power, reflecting a different business approach from that of the old Yankee entrepreneur. By the 1880s the furniture industry was using the talents of Swedish-born craftsmen and capitalists, and by the first half of the 20th century Rockford was the second largest furniture manufacturing center in the United States (behind Grand Rapids, Michigan).
1900–1950: Wartime and economic changes
During the first half of the 20th century, Rockford underwent a number of changes that expanded its presence both regionally and nationally. Additionally, economic factors of the time led the city to diversify its industrial base. In 1910, the oldest surviving Harley Davidson dealership was founded in Rockford, Illinois. Kegel Harley-Davidson is also the world's oldest family-owned dealership as it was started by Joe Kegel in 1910 and is still operated today by his great grandchildren, Karl and Mark Kegel. In 1917, the U.S. Army opened Camp Grant, one of its largest training facilities in the nation, in order to train infantry for World War I. After the war, the facility was closed, then later turned over to the Illinois National Guard. During World War II, Camp Grant served as an induction center for the U.S. Army as well as a POW detention center. The USS Rockford, a Tacoma class frigate named for the city, was commissioned in March 1944 and earned two service stars during World War II.
In 1947, Loves Park incorporated, becoming the first suburb of Rockford. The agricultural implement industry was already in decline by the First World War, and the furniture industry was severely damaged by the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the end of the 1960s both were extinct in the city.
Era of movie palaces
The number of impressive movie palaces built in the 1920s and early 1930s speaks to the thriving economy Rockford had at the time. The Coronado Theater was the largest and most expansive of all these movie theaters in Rockford, complete with an orchestra pit, double balcony, highly ornate design and full array of theatrical and stage equipment. Coronado Theatre, "Rockford's Wonder Theater", was listed during 1979 to the National Register of Historic Places. The Coronado was also the first place Frank Sinatra sang a solo performance [with the Dorsey band]. Other theaters in Rockford included the Midway, Times, and State theaters.
Rockford: The Forest City
Rockford was well known for its elm trees, being the reason for its nickname, the Forest City. Of note are the parks and boulevard street layouts in certain parts of the city. Neighborhood parks and wide common grassy/forested areas forming boulevards are found in the older parts of the city. Many of the parks were part of the street layout put down in the late 1890s and early 1900s (decade) when subdivisions of that era were created. These parks typically were an entire city block, or in some cases larger. They would typically have a bowery, and sometimes a cement-lined pool. The boulevards tend to be in slightly newer subdivisions built in the 1920s. In the mid 1950s an epidemic of Dutch Elm disease more or less wiped out the population of elm trees. However, Rockford is still heavily lined with other types of trees.
1950–2000: A changing manufacturing center
Life Magazine described Rockford in 1949: "It is as nearly typical as any city can be". However, from 1950 to 1989, more than half of the earnings in Winnebago County came from manufacturing, far above the national average. Rockford's 20th century industry revolved around machine tools, heavy machinery, automotive, aerospace, fastener and cabinet hardware products, and packaging devices and concepts. The city's industrial background has produced many important and interesting inventions, among them the Nelson knitting machine, airbrush, electric brake, electric garage door opener, dollar bill changer, and electronic dartboard. Some Rockford concerns of historical interest are: Air Brush Manufacturing Company, Free Sewing Machine Company, GC Electronics, General Cement Manufacturing Company, Haddorff Piano Company, Hanson Clock Company, Hess & Hopkins Leather Company, Norse Pottery Company, Rockford Brewing Company, Rockford Silver Plate Company, The Barber Colman Company, and Rockford Watch Company. Woodward, Inc., formerly Woodward Governor Company, is an innovator in control systems for large machinery and aircraft propulsion and originated in Rockford. Woodward remains a substantial employer in the area, although the Corporate Headquarters have moved to Fort Collins, CO.
Rockford has been known as a town that makes toys. The Testors Company still makes model kits and paint and glue supplies for these kits. The Nylint company produced heavy-duty metal scale toys of construction equipment, such as dump trucks, from 1946 to about 2001, when they went out of business. Tootsie toys, headquartered in Chicago, had a satellite factory in Rockford, where small single-piece die cast cars were made for many years. Although not toys themselves, the red-heeled socks which are used for sock monkeys were originally manufactured in Rockford.
Industry in Rockford has been led by Sundstrand Corporation which was formed by the merger of Rockford Tool Company and the Rockford Milling Machine Company in the early 20th century. Hamilton Sundstrand (acquired by United Technologies in 1999) has manufactured many industrial, aviation, and aerospace products.
The 1960s saw expansion of the manufacturing segment in the area. Near the outskirts of Rockford in Belvidere, a Chrysler car factory was built in 1965 which initially assembled the Chrysler Newport and other large cars and now produces the Dodge Caliber and similar cars. Sundstrand, now Hamilton Sundstrand, a division of United Technologies, also expanded during this period making aircraft parts.
Two different Rockfords
After World War II, Rockford underwent a high rate of population growth. By 1960, the city's population was over 125,000, nearly a 50% increase from two decades before. Although the city's population had been concentrated evenly on both sides of the river up to this time, several infrastructure changes would change Rockford forever.
In 1958, the Northwest Tollway (Interstate 90) was completed. To minimize its impact on neighborhoods, the highway was routed not through the city itself, but near the Winnebago-Boone county line several miles from what was then the eastern city limits. The only access to I-90 was an exit on State Street (U.S. Route 20), which was the city's main east-west thoroughfare. The interstate access would lead to a shift in commercial growth from downtown to nearly exclusively on the east side for the next four decades. In 1964, Rockford College relocated its campus from south of downtown to a location near the eastern edge of the city of the time. A year later, Rock Valley College was opened even further to the east. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, new-home construction shifted almost entirely to the east side. In the mid-1970s, a pedestrian mall was constructed downtown. Intended to increase foot traffic for struggling downtown businesses, it had the reverse effect; many shoppers who still spent money went to indoor malls in the area along with strip malls that sprouted up on the east side throughout the 1980s and 1990s. After decades of controversy, the last part of the downtown pedestrian mall was removed in 2009.
"The Big Orange Box"
In 1979, construction began on the MetroCentre, a 10,000-seat multi-purpose arena located on the west side of downtown. It opened in 1981 with concerts by Dionne Warwick and The Rolling Stones. The MetroCentre, nicknamed the "Big Orange Box" due to its monochromatic appearance, also has played home to a number of Rockford's professional sports teams along with hosting other events.
2000–present: Building a new image
Since the end of the 1980s, Rockford has had the ignominious honor of being listed at times as one of America's worst cities by the Rand McNally corporation and Money magazine, sometimes being ranked one of the top ten worst cities. This may have been due to the lack of jobs and high number of outdated or closed factories. Crime on the west side of town was endemic, with huge areas of old established neighborhoods in extreme blight. The homicide rate in these areas was quite high. Many houses were vacant with no one wishing to buy them. The city government has developed many programs to attempt to address these problems and has seen some success. In February 2009, The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories on Rockford and its mayor focusing on various challenges faced by the city, including higher unemployment and lower education levels of workers compared to some cities.
New commercial and residential development have begun taking place in the downtown area. The Main Street Corridor (Illinois Route 2) is also expected to be redeveloped. Construction from the downtown area, south to US Highway 20 was expected to begin in 2007. In 2007–08, the MetroCentre in downtown Rockford underwent a number of interior and exterior renovations.
Looking into the future
The Rockford economy has suffered since the decline of the manufacturing industry in the late 1980s. Many of the family-owned companies that once inhabited Rockford were acquired by larger companies; the larger companies then relocated the products being made to lower wage parts of the United States or sent them overseas altogether. The city's new focus relies on high-technology businesses, tourism generated by museums and its park system, and the westward growth of the Chicago metropolitan area.
On September 28, 2007, Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist of the rock band Cheap Trick, announced plans for a $25 million restaurant and hotel on the city's far northeast side called "Rick's." The restaurant would have a music theme featuring thousands of guitars and memorabilia that Mr. Nielsen has collected. Groundbreaking was expected in late 2007 with a grand opening in the second half of 2008. As of 2011, this project has not yet materialized. Instead, Swedish American Hospital has begun construction on a new cancer center out near the Riverside Blvd interchange with Interstate 90. A new shopping center is being planned for the northeast corner of the riverside interchange as well.