Rockford’s Amazing Sports Legacy

Originally published on Rockford Buzz.


Rockford has been very excited about sports lately. Native Fred Van Vleet has managed to bring Rockford together in a way that nothing has for decades. Though most people have forgotten, Rockford has celebrated a rich heritage of great athletes almost from the very beginning.

The city was a part of the first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players back in 1865. The man making Rockford buzz back then was Cap Anson. Some believe he was the best baseball player of the entire nineteenth century. Cap played  third baseman for Rockford’s Forest City Base Ball Club in 1871. Cap would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Another baseball star to play for the home town team was Albert G. Spalding. A.G., as he was called, was born in Byron in 1850. Spalding was a pitcher for the Rockford Forest City Nine, though the newspapers stated that he excelled at all aspects of the game. Spalding left Rockford and made his way to Chicago where he played for the Chicago White Stockings (the team would later become the Chicago Cubs). Legend has it that his pitching was the reason that Chicago won the first ever National League Pennant in 1876. Later Spalding would travel to bring the sport to the world.

In the 1920’s if you were to ask anyone who the best coach in Rockford was chances are they would say “Honk Garret. Prior to moving to Rockford, Honk was a coach at Hyde Park High School in Chicago. He was hired by the Rockford High School Association to coach all of the athletes in football, basketball, baseball, and track. Some of the best athletes in the Midwest were fortunate to be coached by this very talented African American man. He would lead his football team to the state championship in 1909 and 1910.

After he retired from coaching at the high school level, he opened up a gymnasium for amateur boxers in the 300 block of East State Street. He also managed the Olympic Athletic Club (O.A.R.), one of the first of its kind. The newspapers from the 1920’s talk about the events that he arranged, one mentioned that there was a crowd of 400 spectators at the Pioneer Hall for a boxing competition. 

Honk was proud of turning these talented boys into exceptional young men. But the achievement he was most proud of was his own son William.  

William attended Rockford High School and was skilled on the track and the basketball court as well as the football field. Everyone who watched this extraordinary young man was in awe of his speed and great athletic ability. William (according to one newspaper) “won the respect of every man and boy who were his team-mates, companions, and every spectator who ever watched him play.” 

But what made William even more unusual and why he really inspired so many people was the way he handled himself. As an African American, Bill, as he was called by his team-mates, was often the target of insults and foul tactics from players on the opposing team. In fact, there were times when the opposing team refused to even play against him. Bill never let this break his determination to give his very best and he always returned the sneers with his amazing smile. 

When William died of a sudden illness in 1924, he was only 20 years old. His untimely death shocked and saddened many. His funeral was attended by an astonishing 1200 people. The newspapers stated that the crowd was made up of people of all races and walks of life. People who knew or were trained by Honk, those who loved to watch William play sports, young men who had been motivated by him or his father, friends, and complete strangers all gathered to pay their respects for the humble, gifted young man. 

It was said that watching William play was so thrilling that everyone who saw him admired and respected him. Maybe that was his real talent, to play sports so well and with such humility and dignity that it made all who watched him focus on his talent and not his color.

One of Honk Garret’s athletes that became a super star in his own right was Sammy Mandell. During the 1920’s and 30’s Sammy became a household name in Rockford when he won the Lightweight Boxing Champion of the World. Sammy trained with Honk at his boxing ring in down town Rockford. After training, Sammy began his amateur fighting career at Camp Grant and was only 16 years old when he had his first professional fight.  

It was not long before Sammy’s lightning fast footwork and his devastating left hook earned him the nickname of Rockford Flash. Sammy also had something else going for him. Unlike most of the boxers of that time period, he was considered to be very handsome, which earned him the nickname of The Sheik. This name was chosen because of his resemblance to the very popular actor of the day, Rudolph Valentino. 

Another thing that made Sammy Mandell stand out was the fact that even though he reached a place of national recognition, he remained humble and proud of his beginnings. His family came from Sicily in 1906. His mother passed away shortly after the family arrived in Rockford and his oldest sister filled the void left by her mother’s death. After he won his title, Sammy would buy his sister and father their own homes.  

In 1923, before Sammy won the Lightweight Champion title, Rockford held a grand banquet to honor their hometown hero. The Knights of Columbus threw the grand bash at the luxurious Nelson Hotel. 10,000 people lined the streets along the route just to get a glimpse of this hometown boy. The crowd went wild when he flashed his famous grin. 

Sammy won the Lightweight Championship title in 1926 when he was twenty two years old in the first legal fight in Illinois at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. He fought Rocky Kansas. Sammy held the title until 1930 when he lost to Al Singer. 

His signature fight took place in 1924 when he faced Jack Bernstein. Sammy broke his hand in the second round. Bernstein realized that Sammy’s hand was broken and gave him such a horrible beating that most watching were surprised that the fight was not stopped. Those four rounds were agonizing to witness. Those spectators were never sure if Sammy found his bearings or he had been pushed to his limit. But when the bell rang to begin the seventh round, Sammy came out of the corner with one arm hanging uselessly at his side and gave Bernstein the beating of his life. The fight was a draw and Sammy’s reputation was born. 

Sammy would participate in 168 fights that included 28 knockouts and 8 losses. Sammy stayed in Rockford after losing the title and opened a gym with his brother where they trained new boxers. Sammy, Elizabeth and their son Richard moved to Chicago after World War II where he acquired a job as a collector for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. In October 1962, Sammy Mandell was inducted into the Illinois Sports Hall of Fame.   

These men are just a few of the many athletes who have been shining stars for Rockford. Though they have been mostly forgotten, they once stood in the limelight, admired by thousands as they claimed fame for the Forest City through their hard work and determination.


Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Rosemary Peterson – An Unsolved Murder

Originally published on Rockford Buzz.


The two young girls that lived at 3013 Edelweiss Road in Rockford were getting ready for bed around 11:30 on the night of December 4, 1979. They lived in a duplex that was a mirror image of their neighbor’s place and they heard strange noises coming from the bedroom of the adjoining apartment. The girls would later describe the sounds as “loud thumping” and “muffled screaming”. At first, they were curious but that quickly turned to fear and concern. The girls knew the young couple that lived next door. They noticed that 23-year old Rosemary’s car was parked in her usual place. Rosemary lived in the apartment with her 23 year old fiancé, Willard. The girls noticed that his car was missing from the parking area. They figured that Willard was working late and Rosemary was home by herself.

The two girls were concerned enough to go around to the front of Rosemary’s apartment and knock on the door. They called out to the girl and asked if everything was alright. A man’s voice answered saying,  “Rose and me just had a fight.” The girls assumed that Willard must be home after all and returned to their apartment.

They were even more startled a few minutes later when they heard Rosemary shouting for help and asking them to call the police. The girls didn’t phone the police but raced around to the front of the building. They found the front door unlocked and entered the apartment. What they saw in the bedroom was too horrible for them to comprehend.

Rosemary was on her bed with one arm tied to the bedpost with a neck tie. Part of her clothing had been removed and the girls could see that she had been stabbed numerous times. One hand was almost completely severed from the wrist. A machete and four steak knives were left on the floor. When they arrived, even the seasoned police officers were stunned by the brutality of the attack on Rosemary. The fact that many of them had sisters or daughters the same age as Rose made them even more determined to catch the man who had hurt her.

Rosemary was taken to St. Anthony Hospital where the doctors rushed her into surgery. Though they worked on her for hours and gave her 50 pints of blood, Rosemary died the next evening, without regaining consciousness. The injuries inflicted on the once pretty girl were horrible to see.  Her cause of death was a blow to the head and the massive blood loss she sustained from her injuries.

Everyone who knew Rosemary couldn’t believe that the beautiful and bubbly girl was gone. It was even harder for them to understand the motive for the vicious attack. Since the door showed no signs of forced entry, the police theorized that Rosemary knew her attacker and let them inside. Her friends and family were adamant that Rosemary would not have opened the door to a stranger. 

The police worked diligently to solve this case. The only clues they had were the murder weapons and a pair of blood soaked pair of gloves. Every detective on the force was assigned to work the homicide and by the end of the first week, more than 50 interviews had been conducted. They started the investigation by taking a closer look at her fiancé, Willard.  Willard’s co-workers stated that he had been at work the entire time. The police also spoke to dozens of Rosemary’s co-workers both at her current job and her former one at the Belvidere Chrysler Plant. No one they questioned to could give them any insight into the case. None knew of any motive for someone to hurt the popular young woman.

People in the neighborhood were frightened by the attack and many replaced locks and armed themselves. As police worked their way through the quiet streets in the surrounding area, they noticed other emotions, as well. Some of the neighbors felt guilty that they hadn’t heard the life and death struggle that was taking place mere feet away from where they lived. Other people living in the area were angry that someone had come into their safe neighborhood and attacked one of their own. They spoke of revenge and of bringing the man responsible to justice. 

But that justice would never come. This December will mark the 40th anniversary of the attack on Rosemary Peterson.  Police have spent years working through the theories and rumors. They have followed every lead and talked to hundreds of people. In the beginning, the authorities thought they would solve it quickly. They were sure that someone would talk, whether it was the perpetrator bragging or someone he had told about the vicious attack. 

There was new hope in 1981 when Police Chief Delbert Peterson brought Crime Stoppers to Rockford. Rosemary’s murder was featured along with several others. A reward was offered and a dramatization of the crime was shown on local television stations. No new leads surfaced.

Hope for a solution has all but faded now and as of this writing, no one has been held accountable for the brutal attack on Rosemary Peterson. The newspapers haven’t mention the case in a while but Rosemary’s case is remembered on the Illinois Cold Case Files on Facebook and through the Crimestoppers website at

Anyone with information of Rosemary’s murder is urged to call the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Police Detective Bureau at (815) 319-6400 or Crime Stoppers (815) 963-7867. 


Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events


Simon T. Murphy & The Sinking Of The U.S.S. Jacob Jones

Originally published on Rockford Buzz.

Simon T. Murphy was just an average guy living in Rockford. He had a good childhood living on the family farm with his four brother and two sisters. His mother, Mary died young and his father, Thomas moved the family to Rockford so they could attend school.

In 1917, Simon was twenty-six years old and working at the Standard Oil Company on Kilburn Avenue. He was popular with his co-workers. They had heated discussions about whether the United States should get involved in the “Great War” as they called it. They all knew what Simon thought about the whole thing, of course. He was very outspoken about joining the battle. No one was surprised when Simon was one of the first men to enlist after war was declared in April 1917.

They weren’t surprised when Simon was assigned to one of the large destroyers, either. Simon, like a lot of people in Rockford had heard about the danger from the German U boats. The stories of the civilians killed on the Lusitania had been told and retold many times since the sinking of the great ship.


Simon was thrilled to be assigned to the U.S.S. Jacob Jones (Destroyer No. 61) as a Fireman Third Class. It was a “submarine hunter”, built especially to chase them down and shoot them out of the water. It must have felt strange to Simon when the Jacob Jones was attached to the port of Queensland, Ireland. Though Simon’s father was born in Wisconsin, his grandfather and grandmother were both from Ireland.

The U.S.S. Jacob Jones was one of America’s newest and largest of the Destroyers. She was placed in the care of Commander David Bagley. He spent months patrolling the water, looking for the German submarines and training his men. They would soon earn a reputation as relentless submarine chasers. They also were able to save many lives of sailors whose boats were sunk by the deadly German torpedoes. On July 8, they rescued 44 men from the Valetta, a British steamship; 25 men were saved from the steamship Dafila around July 25 and on October 19, they pulled 305 men from water after the sinking of the auxiliary cruiser Orama.

In early December, the Jacob Jones was on its return trip after escorting a troop convoy to France. The weather was awful with stormy skies that caused choppy seas. It was approaching midnight when a watchman spotted a torpedo heading straight for the Jones. Lt. Stanton Kalk was the officer of the deck at the time and though he tried to alter the ship’s course, it was no use. The torpedo hit the starboard side aft and penetrated a fuel oil tank, causing a devastating explosion. Many of the men below deck were killed immediately by the explosion or drowned as the water rushed into the ship. The ship sank in just eight minutes.

Even more died when the ship’s depth charges spilled from below decks and fell toward the bottom. They had been triggered to go off at certain measurements and new explosions took even more lives as each charge reached their assigned depth.


The sinking happened so fast that no distress calls were sent out and there was no time to release the rescue boats. Several men were able to grab the rafts that set around the deck. Lt. Kalk was able to pull several men onto the rafts and stabilize them as other men grabbed hold. Kalk swam from raft to raft and pulled men aboard and kept the weight even to keep them from capsizing. He would do this until he was too exhausted to cling to a raft himself and his body slipped under the waves.

The German submarine that shot the deadly torpedo was the U-53. In what could only be described as a strange twist of fate, the Commander of the submarine was Kapitan Hans Rose. He had actually visited the United States in 1917 on his submarine and had met Commander Bagley. Kapitan Rose recognized Bagley in his binoculars right before the torpedo hit the ship. Though no one would know until months later, Kapitan Rose radioed Queensland to report the Jacob Jones sunk and give her last location to quicken the rescue ships arrival. He also picked up two men who had been severely wounded. These men heard the radio call and told of it later when they were released after the armistice in November 1918.


Over 110 men served on the U.S.S. Jacob Jones before December 6, 1917. Rescue ships were able to save forty six men the next morning when they finally arrived. One does not want to even imagine what those men went through on that horribly cold, dark night. Those that survived were reluctant to talk about it. And those that interviewed them for information were horrified to have to make them relive it.

But as horrific as the stories were, they were also filled with pride. Many of the stories were filled with courageous, selfless acts. One such story told of the men who shared what little dry clothing they had with those who were washed over-board with little clothing to protect them. Others worked to lift the men’s spirit by telling jokes or singing songs. In truth, it was a miracle that any of them were alive when the British ships arrived the next morning.

The forty six men were hauled on board the British ships fed and given medical attention. Some had terrible burns and all of them suffered from hypothermia. The survivors were sent home for a time to heal. The majority of them returned to the sea and continued the fight when the war intensified in the spring of 1918.

Simon was killed over a hundred years ago and he was only one of dozens of men and women from Rockford who have served our country. Memorial Day was set aside as a day of remembrance to those who paid the ultimate sacrifices and their families who lost so much. My hope is that by sharing Simon’s story that you will take a moment to remember him and the others as you gather with your friends and families on Monday, May 27.

For information on Memorial Day Services, please visit Veterans Memorial Hall’s website:


Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Preserving Winnebago County’s Early History

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


There has been a definite revival in the interest in this region’s history. There is a renewal of pride in our area, including clean ups of neighborhoods and abandoned places.

One of the abandoned places that received some much needed care is the Long Cemetery on Route 2. It is located not far from the intersection of South Main Street and Illinois Highway 2. It sits back behind houses now and access is limited.

A few years ago, there was not much left to see in the fenced off area. Grass and weeds had overtaken the entire place. Vandals had damaged most of the stones and there were only a couple of broken pieces of markers scattered around. In 1986, the fear of vandals damaging the remaining stones caused the township officials agree to remove them. The markers eventually found a new home at the church yard in Midway Village. It seemed that the little family plot had been forgotten along with any history of the people buried there.

But a recent visit to the little burial place showed that the entire plot has received improvements. A fenced-in area has been added and now contains the remaining grave markers of those who were buried there. The Township officials agreed to bring these back to the area. Research done by Find A Grave members Alva Van Houten and family member John J. Long helped reveal the stories of these long forgotten pioneers.


The cemetery received its name from Richard and Margaret Long who came to this area just a few months after Winnebago County was formed in 1836. Richard purchased 300 acres of federal land to build his farm near the Rock River. He would eventually donate 2 acres for the Long Cemetery.

Though records are scarce the first recorded burial was that of one year old Julia Ann Brentner who died on July 22, 1842. Julia Ann was the daughter of George and Julia Ann Brentner.

According to the book, ”The Pioneers of Winnebago and Boone Counties” George was born in Germany in 1802. At the young age of 13 years-old, George and his brother, John decided to stowaway on a boat headed for America. They landed in Baltimore in 1815. George would later end up in Virginia where he learned the skill of carpentry. While he was in Virginia, he met and married Julia Ann. The couple later moved to Rockford. George and Julia Ann built a house for the family on South Main Street.

Julia Ann was the only Brentner buried in Long Cemetery. According to one source, she had not even been listed with the rest of her family prior to the discovery of her broken tombstone in 2011. Her oldest brother, George, married one of Richard and Mary’s daughters, Phoebe. George and Phoebe left Rockford for Iowa.

George Brentner and one of Richard and Mary’s sons, John Barret Long, would settle in Iowa. They would be called the founders of Mason City, Iowa. The name was probably chosen because John Long was a Master Mason during this time. George’s father and mother would eventually join the families in Mason City.

Another person buried in Long Cemetery was the grand-daughter of Richard and Mary. She was born to their daughter, Margaret, who married Lonson Corey in December 1838. Lonson would also buy land along South Main Street and the area now known as “Corey’s Bluff” was named for him. Margaret’s obituary claimed she was the third white child born in Winnebago County in 1839. She married George Crawford who is also reported to be buried somewhere in Long. Margaret would be the last person buried in Long Cemetery when she passed away in 1907.

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Two more of Richard’s daughters were also buried there with their parents. Mary, whose small tombstone remains at Long, married Joseph Jewell. The couple had two children before Mary died at just 27 years of age in 1849. Joseph then married Mary’s sister, Sarah Barbary Long. Sarah and Joseph would have 4 children of their own before she passed away in 1862 at the age of 36.

As one can imagine, researching the resting place of people who died so long ago can lead to more questions than answers. The next record is a very good example of that. One set of records states that Conrad LaGrange lived in the Rockford area around 1860. In fact, according to the Census records of 1860, Conrad was Joseph and Sarah Jewell’s neighbor. Conrad enlisted in the army in the fall of 186. He was a private in Company G of the 45th Illinois Infantry Unit. He was killed during the battle at Shiloh in Tennessee on April 7, 1862. Some of the records list Conrad’s burial place as Long Cemetery but others state he was buried at the National Cemetery at Shiloh. His wife Ann is buried in Byron, Illinois where she moved after the war to be with her sons. The website Genealogy Trails lists Long Cemetery as also being called Bitner’s Wood Cemetery. It is this site that lists Conrad LaGrange as buried in Long. Genealogy Trails usually lists cemetery information gathered from the stones in the cemetery. Conrad’s actual burial place remains a mystery.

Some people might not be interested in stories such as these. They might not be saddened by the thought of this little abandoned cemetery slipping away and the history lost to time. But there are some of us who do understand the importance of saving and preserving these little pieces of our county’s history.


Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

3 Unsolved Murders

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


The three women in the following story had several similarities.  They were all young, they were all white, and they were all murdered.  All three are part of a large club in Rockford that no one ever wants to join.  The unsolved murder club.    

The first of the three murders was discovered at 8:30a.m. on October 25, 1986, at the Kishwaukee Gorge Forest Preserve on Black Hawk Road.  The young woman was found lying in the grass about 40 feet from the gate. A forest preserve employee spotted the woman.   She was completely clothed except she was missing one of her red high heeled shoes.  The body had a single stab wound to her chest.  Authorities thought the woman had been dead about 12 hours and that she had been killed somewhere else.  

The dead girl was later identified as 22-year old Cheryl Griffin. Cheryl had lived her whole life in Rockford.  She had three children and a family who loved her.  But Cheryl had made some bad choices and ran with a rough crowd. She frequented drug houses and was reported to be a prostitute.  

The newspapers ran the story for months, especially when authorities found out that Cheryl was supposed to testify in the attempted murder trial of Michael Hall. Cheryl had witnessed a dispute between Hall and Terry Taylor.  The two men were fighting on the 600 block of Mulberry Street when Hall shot Taylor in the lower abdomen.  According to what Cheryl had shared with investigators, both men were known as pimps and they were fighting over the “proceeds” from the girls that worked the area. The police did not believe the cases were related. Hall was found guilty of the attempted murder and sentenced to 30 years.   

Unfortunately, because of Cheryl’s high risk lifestyle and the fear of what would happen to anyone who helped police, the case went cold fast.  Cheryl was last seen in the 7th Street and 4th Avenue area by two cab drivers who knew her.  No one saw who picked her up.  

While investigating Cheryl’s case, the police had plenty of people to question: associates, friends, and family members.  The people might not have any information that they wanted to share, but at least the police had somewhere to start.  The next case would be very different.  

On October 28, 1990, three men were walking on the west side of Rockford.  They were carrying loaded B B guns and were shooting at different targets in the woods.  They were around the intersection of Cunningham Road and Horace Avenue. The men stumbled on the nude, partially decomposed body of a young woman.  The area was known as a dumping ground for garbage.  There was a lot of debris around but the authorities didn’t know if any of it belonged to the victim.  The medical examiner thought she had been outside for ten days prior to the discovery.  The authorities were able to identify her through her fingerprints.  

Elizabeth was not from Rockford.  She grew up in Dixon, Illinois and left her family to move to Rockford.  The family had no idea where Elizabeth lived, worked or who any of her friends were.  They had not heard from Elizabeth for a while.  Elizabeth died from blunt force trauma to her head and body. The authorities admitted that they needed someone who knew Elizabeth to come forward and give them information.    


The next girl was found a couple of months after Elizabeth.  On January 15, 1991 at 10:00 a.m. a man working for the Rockford Park Cable Company was checking wires behind the Doyle’s Circle K Lounge at the intersection of Sandy Hollow and Alpine Roads.  He found the partially clothed body of Connie Heerdt.  The 30 year old woman had been beaten and strangled to death.    

Connie, like the other two girls in this story had made some bad choices in her life.  She had gotten involved with cocaine and ran with a rough crowd.  But she remained close with her family and was trying to get her life back on track when she was killed.  The last sighting of Connie was at 2:30 in the morning on January 15.  A police officer spotted her walking on 7th Street and 12th Avenue.    

In each of these three cases, the girls lived on the fringe of society.  They had high risk lifestyles that put them in harm’s way.  But they were also someone’s daughter, someone’s sister and in one case, someone’s mother. One of the girl’s family members stated, “No matter how bad her life was, she didn’t deserve to be beat to death and strangled.”   

The authorities want to solve these cases but they need someone to come forward with information.  If you have any information regarding these or any of the cold cases please call.  Winnebago County Sheriff’s Police Detective Bureau 815 319-6400 or email  

You can also call Crimestoppers 815-963-7867.  Crimestoppers will never ask your name and does not have caller ID.   


Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events