Rockford was founded in 1834 by Germanicus Kent as the village of Midway because it was approximately midway between his home of Galena and the city of Chicago. Kent, a land speculator, established a settlement on the west side of the Rock River and was soon joined by Daniel Shaw Haight, who established a town on the east side of the Rock. While the settlements quickly became known as Kentville and Haightville, the area continued to be recognized as Midway until 1837 when the founders and several respected members of their communities met in Chicago and officially changed Midway’s name to Rock Ford.
Rockford Female Seminary was chartered in 1847. It became Rockford College in 1892, fully coeducational in 1958 and is today recognized as a top liberal arts institution. In August of 1852, the year Rockford was officially chartered as a city, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad arrived, spurring ecomonic growth in the region. Shortly thereafter, the newly formed Water Power District erected a huge dam harnessing the power of the Rock and facilitating industrialization. By 1872, Rockford was the home of Illinois’ second public library and 1877 it saw the successful launch of a daily newspaper.
While the earliest settlers were from New York and New England, beginning around the 1850’s immigration drove the population growth of the region and it became a virtual melting pot. The Irish arrived in the early 1850’s followed by the Swedes. In many areas of Rockford the Swedish lanquage was as common as English well into the 1920’s. Other ethnic groups also appeared including the Italians, Poles and Lithuanians, and more recently Laotians, Vietnamese and Hispanics.
By the turn of the century, Rockford was recognized as a vital industrial hub and was a manufacturing center for machine tools, furniture, agricultural equipment and more. Many nationally known manufacturers called Rockford home including Ingersoll Milling Machine Company, Greenlee Brothers, Barber-Coleman and others.
The early 20th century found Rockford an important military center as well. Camp Grant was established at Rockford in 1917, training thousands of soldiers for World War I.
Rockford’s fascination with sports, and particularly baseball began shortly after the Civil War, with the success of the Forest City Baseball Club. Some of baseball’s earliest icons began their careers in the Forest City, including Albert Spaulding, Ross Barnes and Adrian Anson. Then from 1945 to 1954, Rockford again gained national recognition with the All American Girls Professional Baseball League team, the Rockford Peaches.
Like many industrialized cities, Rockford’s industry took a major hit following World War II. Many core industries including furniture and agricultural equipment manufacturing were nearly extinct by the 1960s, while others including machine tool and fastener manufacturing are a fraction the size that they once were. While the mid-80’s found Rockford with record level unemployment, today Rockford’s economic base has evolved to include an abundance of professional and business services, in addition to manufacturing, resulting in a strong local ecomony. Rockford is now a thriving commercial hub for the region, as well as a cultural and entertainment center.
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