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Midway Village:
Bringing the Past to Life

Article and Photos by Kathleen Walls
(unless noted otherwise)

Police Station on right and community well and Law Office to left (now restrooms)

Midway Village in Rockford, Illinois is a few miles and a hundred plus years from modern downtown Rockford. It's 137 acres of yesterday. Here you do more than learn about the past, you relive it. The village contains 26 buildings all dating from between 1830, the year Rockford, originally called Midway because it was halfway between Chicago and Galena, was founded, and 1904. Most are authentic buildings moved to the village site. Six are reproductions differing only in scale from the original building. The oldest building in the village dates to 1840.

The Amos W. Woodward Millhouse   Credit Rockford CVB
 The most picturesque building in the Village is the Amos W. Woodward Millhouse. The antebellum mill with its water wheel is located on the edge of the Museum’s Severin Lake and is a replica of an operating water-powered machine shop. The mill's original proprietor,

 Amos Woodward  used the actual mill as his machine shop. He went on to invent a mechanical governor which worked in conjunction with a water wheel to operate equipment and was the start of the present day Woodward Governor Company,

Kit, who led our tour, gave us a bit of history as we went. He showed us a railroad hotel.from around 1858. The Montanye family opened a hotel  originally called the Montanye House in Caledonia, It was renamed the Chamberlain Hotel when the Montanye's sold it in 1878. This hotel was a lot like a boarding house in that they served meals as well as provided lodging. This one is a replica at three quarters original size but really gives  a feeling of what life was like then. 

Carlson-Russ General Store Kit shows us some of the store's stock

Every village needed a general store. In Midway Village you would shop at Carlson-Russ General Store. These places sold everything a person might need from ribbons to rawhide. This one is reminiscent of the ones run by Abraham Lincoln in New Salem before his political career.

Inside the blacksmith shop

Another "must have" in every turn of the century village was the blacksmith shop. There was no forge going when we visited but it is easy to imagine a burly man in a leather apron pumping a bellows to bring a piece of iron to the white hot stage so he could shape it into a horseshoe.

The village has all the buildings you would expect to find to run and maintain a village in that era,  law office, town hall, police and fire stations.

Inside the one room schoolhouse

The one room school house is filled with desks of graduating sizes.  Kit explained, "It was not uncommon for the older kids to help teach the younger ones while the teacher was busy explaining something to one of the older  students."

He also commented that since all the grades were in the same room, "Heaven help the younger brother who tried to get away with anything. The older brothers always told on him."

The church Inside it is simple but beautiful

The church is simple and beautiful. It has a working bell that can be rung by simply pulling the rope. When you gaze out its window you are looking into the graveyard complete with tombstones. It stops short of having real corpses buried beneath them.

J.L. Clark Hardware Store is a bridge between past and present. John Lewis Clark moved to Rockford in 1857. He was an artist and tinsmith who became a hardware maker.  His son, Harold, joined his father in the hardware business in 1898 and together  founded  J. L. Clark Hardware. They had several stores over the years. The building in the village is one from 1904.

 J.L. Clark Hardware Store

They were also successful manufacturers of several products, some of which you still see today. They developed "Gem Flue Stopper," an inventive device that was used to plug up the hole in a wall when a stovepipe was removed.  As a child I lived is houses that had such devices. I wish I had looked then to see if they were Mr. Clark's product.  The scrap tin was decorated and fashioned into tin containers for many products. Another useful invention they developed in conjunction with Ray_O-Vac was small batteries sealed in steel to make them leak proof. These became the industry standard for all the batteries you see today.

Rockford Memorial Hospital

Anyone who had been upset at treatment in a hospital needs to look at the replica of old Rockford Memorial here in Midway village as it would have looked in 1885 and they will be thrilled to return to their modern facility. Kit explained "Nurses were trained for about two years. Doctors did not have to go to college then. They just went to a private medical school for two years where almost everything was lectures."

Ladies, imagine having your baby whlle strapped into this chair!

The hospital is filled with odd treasures, such as a "Birthing Chair." The device is a cross between a barber chair and a gynecologists examining table. It is a sturdy black leather chair with stirrups and straps. Most women chose to have their babies at home with the help of a midwife. After seeing that chair I would have done the same.

Before the computer age, it took a lot of machinery to print a newspaper

One of the buildings you might not have expected to find in a frontier town the size of Rockford which only had less than 15,000 people is a newspaper office. However not only did Rockford have a newspaper, it had two dailies,  four weeklies, a paper in Swedish and an Italian one. Those were the two main groups of immigrants during that time. Rockford Star formed in 1840 as the voice of the Democrats. The Express, already established, represented the Whigs. Rockford was strongly Whig and, in July, 1841, put the Star out of business by the simple method of throwing its type into the middle of the room and dumping ink all the ink. The owners took the hint and gave up.  Rockford Pilot succeeded the Star and used the same press. Other early newspapers were  the Forum, the Democrat, the Republican and the Free Press. The presses at the Village are authentic to some of these papers and are still usable.

The homes in the village range  in time from shortly after its founding to the early 1900s.

The Brown House was built by one of Rockford's earliest carpenters, Mowry Brown . Brown moved into northern Illinois area in the 1830s. He moved first to Alton where he met his furture wife,  Lucy A. Pease. who , like him, descended from New England farmers.

In the late 1830s he and his new wife  moved to the newly established town of Rockford. There he practiced his carpentry trade as well as farming his own land. It is believed hi built the house that is now in Midway Village in the early 1840s, making it one of the oldest surviving structures in Winnebago County. It's a beautifully crafted small Greek revival home.

The Breckenridge House was moved here from the corner of Spring Brook and Mulford Roads in Rockford. It was the pre-Civil War home of the village seamstress. The garden is lovely so leave time to prowl around.

Marsh House is representative of the days shortly before the Civil War.

  Russell and Abigail Marsh were pioneers of Rockford. They settled there the winter of 1838.  Their son George purchased land near them at North Alpine Road.  When he passed away in 1888, his nephew George W. purchased the land.  It is believed that the Marsh house was built in the 1860s by either George or George W.  

1905 barn and the Pepper House

The Pepper House, circa 1875 -1890, is a cozy two story frame farmhouse that seems to invite you inside. It is where the interrupters dress for the tours. What a way to get into the spirit.

The Ralston House (1890s – 1904) shows the Victorian influence. It is decorated inside to show the lifestyle of prosperous villages. The downstairs parlor was a showcase of their treasures.

There are many other historic structures preserved in this village as well as a museum dedicated to dolls over time, the Old Dolls’ House Museum. Also a interesting exhibit relating the history of Rockford's favorite toy, the Sock Monkey. A aviation exhibit shows Rockford's contribution to that industry. And for sports fans, The Girls of Summer, and exhibit showcasing the Rockford Peaches, one of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (or AAGPBL), founded by Philip Wrigley to keep the "National Pastime" alive during the war years.  It lasted from 1943 until 1954. All together there are over 100,000 artifacts in the museum and the Village. It's a place you could spend days reliving an interesting part of Rockford's past.

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