Everyone who knew Svea Olson said she had chosen the right career. Svea was in her second year at St. Anthony’s School of Nursing. Her roommate and patients all stated that Svea’s natural cheerfulness brightened up whatever room she entered. Many of the bedridden patients at the hospital claimed that Svea had a special gift of bringing hope to those patients that had none.
Svea was busy with school but she always made time for her friends and family. On Tuesday, September 18, 1923, Svea left St. Anthony for one of her regular visits to the family’s home on 9th Street. Her parents, John and Maria Olson were well known in the Rockford Community. They moved to Rockford in 1896 from Sweden. John first obtained employment in the furniture factories before he and Maria opened the Olson Restaurant on 14th Avenue.
The visits with Svea’s family always passed too quickly and she seemed reluctant to leave that night. Her sister offered to walk with her to the 7th Street car line and the girls chatted on the way. Svea caught the 7th Street car and turned around to smile and wave goodbye to her sister, neither of them knowing it would be the last time they would see each other.
Later that evening at around 10 p.m., the staff at St. Anthony was startled by a man walking into the emergency department carrying a woman in his arms. They questioned him about his name and the identity of the girl but he had no answers for them. They grabbed the girl to transfer her onto a gurney and the man fled.
The girl was beyond all help and she was pronounced dead immediately. The staff recognized her as one of the student nurses and an investigation into her last hours began. Svea roomed at the nurse’s quarters and her fellow students were questioned. They all stated that Svea had no enemies or boyfriends. She was a dedicated daughter and student that spent her time with family or on her studies.
Coroner Fred C. Olson worked hard to determine the cause of Svea’s death. There was no trace of drugs, poison, or liquor in her stomach or blood. Her family reported that she had some issues with heart palpitations but nothing that was of any concern. The 24-year-old girl had no marks or other signs to indicate violence. The doctors and investigators were completely baffled by her death.
Police pleaded with the public for some information into the identity of the man in the car. Several witnesses stepped forward to say they saw a car matching the description the St. Anthony staff had given. They stated they saw the car stop alongside women that were walking in the area of 7th Street. They couldn’t hear the conversation but saw the women shaking their head as if declining an offer for a ride.
Family members and friends all were certain that Svea would never accept a ride from a stranger. The investigation into the death ground to a complete halt very quickly. The police and coroner worked on the theory that Svea had been picked up in the car and some struggle had occurred that resulted in her death. The family was left with only questions and no relief for their loss.
Svea’s funeral was on September 22, 1923 in her family’s home on 9th Street. Over 2,000 people came through the house to pay their respects. Over 1,000 traveled to the Scandinavian Cemetery for the graveside service.
Finally, in late November of 1923 police got a break. Robert Wells came forward to testify that he was walking in the neighborhood on that night in September when he spotted a man in a car matching the description given. The unidentified man pulled his car to the curb on East State Street just past the intersection of 7th Street. He then jumped out and ran to the sidewalk where a figure was on the ground. Wells approached the man to see if he could offer assistance. The man asked Wells to help him get the girl to the car. The rescuer stated that he saw the young lady collapse. He offered to drive the unconscious girl to St. Anthony Hospital where she would receive medical assistance. Wells helped the man place the girl into the car and watched him drive away.
The police and coroner decided that Wells was telling the truth and filed Svea’s death as natural though they never found the exact cause of her death or the man who brought her to the hospital. They stated that she probably suffered issues with her heart even though they found no damage during the autopsy. The family would never know what happened to this beautiful, young girl who gave so much to everyone she knew.
“Please be assured that a continuing search by land, sea, and air is being made to discover the whereabouts of our missing personnel. As our armies advance over enemy occupied territory, special troops are assigned to this task, and all agencies of the government in every country are constantly sending in details which aid us in bringing additional information to you.”
The letter came just a day after the telegram. Both had been signed by Major General J.A. Ulio the Adjutant General and were addressed to Mrs. Ann Ulander. Ann and her husband Carl Sr., had two sons, Carl Junior who was 22 years old and Robert who was just 19.
Both boys had enlisted in the service, Carl, the oldest, worked as a navigator on a B-17 “Flying Fortress” while his brother, Robert was in training to be a Flight Engineer.
Carl Junior had been born in Rockford on July 28, 1922. He graduated from Winnebago Community High School and had been employed at Swan Peterson and Sons Florist. Carl had entered the service on June 1, 1943. His parents were very proud of him when he received his commission and navigators wings on April 22, 1944. He was now addressed as Lieutenant Carl G. Ulander Jr. Robert, the younger son of Carl and Anna was stationed at Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado. He would later serve on Saipan and Guam as a flight engineer on a B-29.
Carl Sr. and Ann heard from Carl Jr. shortly after his arrival overseas with the 8th Air Force. He had only been there for two months and had not yet been sent on any missions.
It was on one of his first missions that Carl was part of a four-pronged Allied attack on Germany. More than 1,100 American bombers were sent on the attack on German war factories in Magdeburg, Kassel, and Mersberg. This attack would prove very costly for the 8th.
The 8th Air Force lost 42 heavy bombers and 16 escorting fighters during the attack. Carl’s parents would not learn the details of his mission for many months. His Flying Fortress participated in the air raid over Magdeburg, Germany on September 28–it was around 11:35 a.m. and the planes were close to reaching their target when they were attacked by enemy aircraft.
Carl’s plane was hit by enemy fire and left the formation. The plane dropped its bombs and then suddenly it went into a dive. No one saw what happened to the plane after it began its descent.
Carl Ulander Jr. was declared missing for a year. His parents received a letter from the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces H.H. Arnold in October 1945 finally declaring Carl as killed in action, expressing his sympathy and also spoke of Carl Junior’s excellent military reputation.
Lt. Carl Ulander was awarded the Purple Heart in November 1945 for his sacrifice. His brother, Robert would leave the service shortly after the notification came. Robert had also been awarded an air medal and the Asiatic Pacific Theater ribbon with two battle stars for participating in “Aerial Missions over Japan.”
The letter announcing Carl Junior’s award of the Purple Heart has the Secretary of War seal and very eloquently states, “Little that we can do or say will console you for the death of your loved one. We profoundly appreciate the greatness of your loss, for in a very real sense the loss suffered by any of us in the battle for our country, is a loss shared by all of us. When the medal, which you will shortly receive, reaches you, I want you to know that with it goes my sincerest sympathy, and the hope that time and the victory of our cause will finally lighten the burden of your grief.”
I received a packet of papers from Robert Ulander’s wife, Ruth. She requested that I tell of Robert’s service and of the sacrifice of his brother, Carl. The letters that were so carefully preserved: first by Carl and Robert’s mother, Ann and then by Robert himself, spoke so clearly of a family’s pride and grief. Their loss, now over 70 years ago, was obviously felt and carried by each member of their family.
The news that awaited Maude M. Stuart when she arrived in Rockford from Chicago was devastating. The doctors that were treating her fiancé Harry Wellman were not optimistic about his survival. Maude and Harry were supposed to be married on Christmas Eve in 1901 but doctors now feared that family members would be attending Harry’s funeral instead of his wedding. Maude was only 19 years old and lived close to Harry in Chicago. The newspapers all described Maude as very pretty and extremely stoic throughout the ordeal.
Harry Wellman was only 24 years old in 1901. He worked for the Illinois Central Railroad as a tank inspector for the water division and lived in Western Springs, Illinois. Harry was in Waterloo, Iowa to repair a water tank when he secured a seat on the Omaha Special passenger train on December 14, 1901 to hurry home to his fiancée and his upcoming wedding. Harry had been away from home for over three weeks, leaving Maude to work with the families to finish the last-minute wedding preparations.
Maude was with Wellman’s family when the news of a horrendous train wreck was delivered in a telegram. They hurried to Rockford to be with Harry still unaware of what had actually happened. Harry’s arm had been horribly mangled in a train wreck that occurred on December 14, 1901.
The newspapers called this accident the worst in Winnebago history during that time and stated that it should have never happened. A freight train that was traveling west had a head on collision with a passenger train that was approaching from the east. The accident happened two miles east of the city and the details of this horrific crash proved that it was astonishing that anyone survived. The trains both caught on fire immediately after the crash and people who survived the initial impact were once again in danger. They fled the train with clothing in tatters and terribly injured. That December night was frigid with temperatures falling well below the zero mark adding another type of threat for the passengers.
Nine men were killed in the initial wreck and more perished from the fire. Though the men that died that night were not from Rockford, the community joined together to care for the living and the dead.
Harry was in such excruciating pain after the accident that he begged his rescuers to throw him into the snow so he could freeze to death. They worked to keep him alive until help arrived. Harry was brought to Rockford with several other train wreck victims and treated in the City Hospital. He was the most severely injured of all the survivors and doctors decided that amputation was the only way to save Harry’s life. They amputated Harry’s arm right below the elbow.
Maude stayed by Harry’s side through his long, painful recovery, never giving up on the dream that one day they would walk down the aisle in the wedding that she had worked so hard to plan.
It took two long years for Harry to regain his health during which he fought the Illinois Central Railroad for a reasonable settlement for the loss of his arm. They finally compromised on $12,000 which at that time was the largest sum ever paid for a claim of any kind.
The couple was finally married in 1903 and though it wasn’t quite the wedding she had originally planned, the day was a dream come true for this young couple.
Fairgrounds Park was formed on land purchased around 1858 and was used for a variety of activities including a place to host the annual fair.
During the summer of 1896, the Fairgrounds Park made the newspapers for something other than agriculture. The newspapers mentioned that the fairgrounds had become known for its ghostly encounters. At first the reports just trickled in, mostly told by the closest neighbors to the park. These included stories of mysterious lights, a high pitched scream that resembled “the screeching of a stabbed pig”, and loud cracks that sounded like revolver shots.
The stories soon expanded to include reports of wispy figures darting in and out of the cattle shed and the halls of the buildings on the grounds. As the stories started to spread through the city, the numbers of the nightly visitors grew. They were all anxious for a glimpse of the apparition.
Eventually a group of young boys banded together to investigate the claims of the supernatural sightings. The first night, just a handful of boys showed but soon the number had swelled to over 50. They were from neighborhoods from all over the city and differed in age, ethnicity and financial backgrounds.
These “ghost hunters” had little equipment except for lanterns. The local papers later stated that the boys did arm themselves with “everything from toothpicks to telegraph poles”. They hoped to use these items to protect themselves from whatever was lurking behind the high fence of the park.
Almost immediately the boys were startled by a sound much like a shot of a revolver and then the screeching that was described as an unearthly, inhuman sound. This excited the group and bolstered their courage enough to enter the shadowy recesses of the park itself.
Their search of the grounds was in vain, however, and the group quickly grew bored with the hunt. It was about this time that a trolley passed by the entrance and attracted the attention of the group.
The band of boys started to hoot and holler, sounding very much like the reported banshee from the park. This startled the trolley “occupants nearly half to death.” The noise from the group also roused the neighbors who then came to see what the hullabaloo was all about. Someone finally alerted the police to all this commotion and they arrived in short order. The police had no real idea what was happening but very quickly got the neighbors and the would be ghost hunters under control. They eventually arrested 28 boys from the group and marched them double file to the police station.
When they told their story to the judge, he and the spectators in the very crowded room weren’t sure what to think. It was the first time Judge Morrison had to make a decision on a case like this. He addressed the crowd of boys that aged from 12 to 30 years old. Judge Morrison decided to fine the older of the boys $5 and gave the younger boys a penance of delivering bouquets to the hospital two times a week.
The police took the ghost claim seriously and spent several nights in the fairgrounds to discover for themselves the cause of the reports. They experienced some of the same things as the claims. They eventually decided that these were the work of a real living being and rousted a semi-professional hobo by the unfortunate name of “Parrot Face” Tompkins. Apparently, the police made sure he would never repeat his performance because “Parrot Face” was heard to say that he had enough of ghosts (and the police) to last the rest of his days.
That wasn’t the end of the claims from the area though. People spoke of strange things happening well into the fall. One man, John Hunt, described as having a “smile like a basket of chips”, was quoted as knowing for a fact that the ghost was real. Hunt saw and smelled the phantom for himself and proclaimed that he wouldn’t go anywhere near the area after the sunset.
When Sarah Burr and Marie Dobbins couldn’t reach their friend Cordelia Gummersheimer on Sunday afternoon, they weren’t really all that concerned. The three were teachers at Rockford High School and had made plans for dinner on Sunday, December 8, 1929. They knew Cordelia was always busy. Besides her teaching position in the language department of the high school, Cordelia also tutored students and worked as an interpreter for local business men who dealt with foreign countries. She was fluent in several languages.
Cordelia was not originally from Rockford but had been teaching at the high school for eight years by 1929. She had grown up in Belleville, Illinois before attending Knox College in Galesburg. In 1916, Cordelia, who her family described as always ready for adventure, traveled to Puerto Rico to teach languages there. During the summer months, Cordelia attended the University of Wisconsin where she was working on her master’s degree. She took her studies and her teaching position very seriously and was well liked by her students and co-workers. Cordelia was also known to be a free spirit. She had put her studies on hold during the summer of 1928 when she traveled with a tour group to Cuba to act as an interpreter.
Cordelia had a very optimistic outlook and seemed fearless to the other single female teachers at Rockford High School. She shrugged off their concerns about living alone in the Grantway Apartments at 516 West State Street. She liked her little home with the bed that folded down in the combination living room and bedroom. Cordelia slept with the window open even after her friends stressed for her to use more caution. The window was easily accessed from the back porch with stairs that led to the street.
So it was not until the late afternoon on that Sunday, December 8, that her two friends really began to worry. They finally grew concerned enough when they couldn’t reach her by 7:30 p.m. They decided to contact another co-worker in the building, Miss Alice Walker. Walker let them in the building and all three women knocked on Cordelia’s door. When they got no answer, they went out the back door that led to the back porch where they noticed that the window to Cordelia’s apartment was wide open. As they peered into the dim lit room, they were horrified to see that their worst fears had been realized. Cordelia was stretched across the bed, dressed in a pink silk nightgown, with her head in a pool of blood.
Police officers, members of the Sheriff’s Department, the coroner Walter Julian and even the State’s Attorney William D. Knight all arrived at the scene. It was the beginning of what would become one of the most intense and baffling investigations ever conducted in Winnebago County.
There was no easy motive determined at the scene. Cordelia was not sexually attacked and she still wore her engagement ring and had other valuables in the apartment that were not taken thus eliminating robbery as a motive.
The murder weapon was a three-foot piece of pipe that was found on the foot of Cordelia’s bed. The pipe that was used in the attack was determined to have come from a box of pipes kept outside a plumbing shop located at the rear of the apartment building. The killer grabbed the pipe, climbed two flights of stairs, raised the window that was left slightly open, and slipped in the apartment where Cordelia was sleeping on her left side. Cordelia had apparently fallen asleep reading a book by the light of the bedside lamp that was still on.
The coroner’s autopsy would show Cordelia had been struck three times with the pipe. One blow above her right eye, the other two blows fell back further by her ear. The autopsy also showed that Cordelia had been killed at least 12 to 13 hours before her body was found. There was no sign that anything else in the apartment had been disturbed. The neighbors were interviewed but stated they heard no noises or saw anything suspicious.
The police worked this case tirelessly. Undaunted by the list of Cordelia’s many friends and associates which led them to not only other states but other countries, they pushed for answers for Cordelia’s family. Her brother came from Belleville to take Cordelia home where she was laid to rest in the Walnut Hill Cemetery.
Police followed many scenarios, including relationships both current and past, and possible stalkers. They even thought for a time that the killer could have been a woman who lost a man to Cordelia. Unfortunately, though they worked several angles and looked into many suspects, Cordelia’s murder was never solved. This murder was revisited by the press and police for decades always with regret that no justice could be found for this young woman who had given so much to her students and her community.
Traveling the backroads in any state is one of my favorite past times and the last trip was no different. I had a long weekend so my partner and I threw a couple of things in a bag and ran out the door. It has long been a dream of mine to travel the entire Mississippi River. Last fall we ventured north through Wisconsin, so last month, we decided to head south on the Iowa side of the river.
We started the journey in Dubuque. We have been to Dubuque several times and visited many of the historic sites. It is a pretty city with a lot of interesting (and haunted!) history. It is a very old town with its origins set in the 1690’s when the French Trader, Nicholas Perrot started to trade with the Native Americans. Dubuque is named for Julian Dubuque, another French Trader, who was granted access to the lead mines by the Mesquakie Indians in the 1780’s. Julian got along well with the Indians and eventually became a great friend of the chief for the Mesquakies tribe, Peosta. A monument to both of these men sits on a cliff above the city. There are tales that Julian eventually married Peosta’s daughter, Potosa. Unfortunately, because of the time period, there is no real way to prove or disprove this claim. Many French traders took Native American women as wives but they usually did not record their union in any way.
I have visited many Native American sites all over the United States and I am always struck by the strong feelings I get while there. In the places where they performed their ceremonies and any they use for burials the land carries a certain presence. It is one of those things that I find hard to describe but instantly know when I feel it.
In the city of Dubuque itself, we visited a couple of historic (and yes, supposedly haunted) places. The first was the Hotel Julian. This very recognizable building was built in 1843 by a wealthy business man, Peter Waples, though the hotel website claims there has been some form of hotel on this same corner since 1839. Because of its height back in the day, this hotel was one of the first business people saw as they entered the city. It still is very easy to spot because of its red Hotel Julian sign.
The hotel was , and still is, known for its great food and luxurious atmosphere right from the start. It housed many famous travelers in its long rich history. Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Buffalo Bill Cody all are reported to have slept here. But there are just as many unsavory characters that have walked through the old doors of the hotel. Al Capone is rumored to have stayed here quite frequently during times when Chicago got a little too hot for his comfort. There were underground garages that made it easier to conceal his arrival and departures.
Capone also liked the fact that he could see people coming over the bridge into the city from Illinois. He would eventually take over the entire eighth floor. Eventually, Capone moved his headquarters into the Lexington Hotel down the street. The Lexington was rumored to have many more secret passageways and a vault that Capone used. The Lexington Hotel has now been demolished.
Supposedly, Capone liked his visits here so much that he still makes his presence known from time to time. Staff and guests have reported seeing a man dressed in clothes from the 1920’s and 30’s walking through the halls on the upper floors. Their descriptions are very similar. They all saw a man dressed in a very nice suit and hat. When they pass him they notice he has a prominent scar running down the side of his face. One man commented to his wife as they passed him that the man was really dedicated to looking like AL Capone. When she turned to catch a glimpse of the man, there was no one there.
Other brushes with Al are a little creepier. One young lady that was staying in the hotel had just stepped from the shower. The bathroom was filled with steam so she opened the door to let a little out; as she looked into the bedroom she was frightened by the sight of a man in her room. Her scream must have frightened the spirit because he disappeared right in front of her.
Whether Al Capone still walks the halls of the very luxurious Hotel Julian, it is definitely worth a visit if you ever get the chance.
The Mathias Ham Historical Site is another place to visit whether you are interested in history OR hauntings. The property is amazing. There are other buildings on the property that have been brought to this location. One of them is the oldest building in Iowa, a little log cabin.
Mathias Ham earned his money through the lead mines during the early days of Dubuque’s settling.
Eventually, he would expand into lumber, and shipping. He built what would become his home on a hilltop in 1856 and filled it with luxurious items from that time period. The first part he built was a smaller two story house that barely fit his wife, Zerelda and their five children. In 1856, Mathias’ wife died and he enlarged their home into the beautiful building that is left today.
Mathias built a cupola on top to highlight the breathtaking view of the Mississippi River. That view allowed Mathias to keep an eye on his shipping business. Mathias married again and had two more children with his second wife.
It was during the late 1880’s and the Mississippi River was a busy place. The Port in Dubuque had a huge shipping business. Unfortunately, the city also had some problems with river pirates that would commandeer the ships and steal the cargo. One day Mathias spotted something suspicious taking place on the river and was able to warn the authorities. The pirates were captured in a very public way with the authorities making it known that Mathias was the hero of the hour. The pirates knew exactly who had turned them in and they swore they would take their revenge.
One of Mathias’ daughters, Sarah inherited the home after Mathias and his wife passed away. She had never married and lived in the huge house all alone. Sarah started to hear someone trying to get into her house late and night. This obviously frightened her and she set up a signal with her neighbors. Sarah told them she would as a signal if she needed help.
That was not the only precaution Sarah made. She armed herself as well. One night, she heard someone moving around on the first floor of the home. Sarah placed her lamp in the window and held her weapon in her hands as she waited for help. She grew terrified when she heard heavy footsteps cross the hallway and begin to climb the stairs. The footsteps then came toward her bedroom where Sarah waited, trembling behind the door. She fired twice through the heavy door and the footsteps retreated. Sarah’s neighbors came quickly to her aid. They were horrified to see a blood trail leading up the stairs. Frightened, they called Sarah’s name and rushed up the stairs. After checking to see that she was alright, they followed the blood trail to the river where they found the body of a man. This man was later identified as the same pirate captain that her father had locked up years ago. The captain had just been released from prison and had returned to the Ham house to follow through with his promise to get revenge. The house was turned into museum in 1964.
Though I have researched this story, I have not found any articles about the pirate or a shooting. But the claims of the ghosts continue. There have been balls of light seen going up and down the staircase. Once, the police were called because someone saw a light going up and down the staircase. They thought someone had broken into the museum. The police phoned the head curator who rushed over to the house. When the police entered, they found no one in the home.
This has happened numerous times. Some people claim that it is the old pirate still clinging to his hatred of Mathias Ham and still bent on exacting his revenge.
The third floor is especially uncomfortable. People have said that they feel as though someone is watching them while they are on that floor. As soon as they descend the stairs, the feeling fades.
Electrical issues were a constant problem and there were many nights when the staff would turn out the lights and leave the house. When they would glance back, all of the lights would be on. The staff grew so weary of the lights going back on, they began to unscrew some of the lights. One night an assistant curator was doing that job and suddenly, the pump organ in the parlor began to play. When she screwed the bulb back in, the organ stopped. The amazing thing about this claim is that the pump organ had been broken for years.
People have also heard odd sounds especially close to the staircase to the cupola. Many attribute these sounds to the story that a young man hung himself from those very stairs. Other claims include footsteps, shuffling noises, and a dragging sound in the hallway. The people who believe the shooting story state that it is the sounds of the mortally wounded pirate dragging himself through the house in his attempt to reach safety.
Others claim that old Mathias himself is still there watching over the house and the river that he loved.
There is a unique house located at 1401 Clifton Avenue in Rockford. Built in 1866, it was the home of one of Rockford’s industrial pioneers, William Worth Burson. It is said that he designed several of his inventions in this house, automated knitting machine that he and John Nelson partnered to create.
William Worth Burson’s personal motto was: Integirty, Industry, and Perseverance. These words meant so much to him that they are part of his burial marker at Greenwood Cemetery. William was born in Venago County, Pennsylvania to parents Samuel and Mary Burson. The family moved to Illinois in 1839 settling eventually in Fulton, where Samuel bought some land and became a farmer.
William attended college at Lombard College located in Galesburg, Illinois. William would later boast that not only was he a member of the first class to graduate from the college, he (because his name came towards the beginning of the alphabet), was the first person ever to graduate from Lombard. William also met his future wife there.
William’s background in farming would later be the springboard for his inventing machinery. In the 1850s William worked on improving the designs for rakes and reaping machines securing patents for his ideas in 1856. It was his designs for a binder that would eventually bring William to Rockford. He obtained a patent for a twine binder in 1861 and improved on the design changing it to a wire binder in 1862. William attended reapers trials with this invention in 1862 and received quite a bit of attention. The Chicago Tribune mentioned William saying, “The great feature of the day which never failed to draw a crowd was the grain-binder of W. W. Burson. He had an ovation that must have been gratifying to him.” Ralph Emerson from Rockford met William at these trials and signed a contract with him. William moved to Rockford fulfill the contract.
Emerson supposedly introduced William to John Nelson and they became involved in a partnership to develop an automatic knitting machine. According to Charles A. Church in his Past and Present of Rockford and Winnebago County, Illinois, “and after much tedious labor on the part of both gentlemen a power machine was perfected.”
The men received patents for their designs in the next several years eventually turning their sights toward the issue of creating a machine would knit the socks automatically. They hoped to improve on this design to make it available for the home. In 1871, their machine they designed could knit 80 pairs of socks in one day. Their greatest breakthrough came in 1873 when the parallel row machine was developed. This machine was the real start to Rockford’s knitting industry.
Burson left the partnership in 1878 and once again turned his attention toward harvesting inventions for a while before returning to the knitting industry. William opened his own knitting company, the Burson Knitting Company in 1892 on Cedar Street. William continued to invent machines and was granted an impressive 50 patents by the time of his death in 1913.
Though William Burson and John Nelson were in partnership for the major inventions that helped Rockford’s knitting industry begin, Nelson’s name is more readily remembered. Perhaps it was because the Nelson Knitting Company pursued the famed “Sock Monkey” after creating the Red Heel Sock in 1932 to “help their socks stand out.” According to Laura Furman at the Midway Village and Museum Center, the Nelson Knitting Company learned of the monkey dolls that were being made from the socks in the 1950s and after a long process secured the patent in 1955.
Haskell Park has been a part of Rockford almost from the beginning. It was originally platted as the West Side Public Square in the 1830s. The land was given to the city by Dr. George Haskell and his brother-in-law, John Edwards. George Haskell and his family settled in Rockford in 1838. He remained here for 28 years, helping the new city grow. He found a passion in growing fruit trees and was successful for many years.
Haskell Park still remains though it has seen many changes over the years. Postcards from the late 1800s and early 1900s show a beautiful place with an elaborate fountain located toward the center. Children used the park as a playground and couples would use the benches as a courting place.
The fountain itself became quite newsworthy in June of 1902. The newspapers from June 13 tell the story of a man who was passing through the park late one evening. Just as he was passing the fountain a strange noise caused him to look at the water. There in the moonlight he saw a sight that nearly paralyzed him with fright. A shadowy, shimmering form seemed to rise from the water. At first it was a dark mist but then the man was horrified to see it take on a human shape. Though it had no distinguishing features, he saw what he imagined to be a skeletal hand as the specter reached its arms toward him.
This broke the man’s paralysis and he bellowed in fear while he began to run through the park as if the very devil himself was chasing him. He stated in the interview that he didn’t slow down until he reached his house.
The man’s friends all teased him viciously about the story until others started to experience the same ghostly shape that emerged from the fountain always reaching out for whoever braved the park late in the evening. Later stories claimed that the spirit eventually freed itself from the fountain and would follow them to the boundaries of the park.
Though no one could identify the spirit there are several possibilities for the haunting. One is the tragic tale of James and Kate French. They were a couple who lived in Rockford in 1896. It was in this park that James waited for his estranged wife to return from assisting a family friend who was ill. Witnesses later testified that he waited there for hours, pacing and watching. Though at first no one knew the reason why he appeared so agitated, his motive soon became all too clear. James chased his wife down and shot her inside a house that she ran into for safety. James was later hung for his crime. Maybe it was his spirit that wandered the place where he waited for wife to appear.
Another possibility comes from the suggestion that Haskell Park lies over a Native American burial ground and the spirits of those buried there can find no rest. Sara Bowker and Paul Smith, psychics who are a part of the Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events first came in contact with these lost souls on a recent bus tour. They both sensed the spirits who wander the area looking desperately for the place where their bodies once rested.
Sometimes history appears in the strangest places. Most people know that Sinnissippi Golf Course is a historic place. It is the Rockford Park District’s oldest golf course. The nine hole course was designed after the Scottish courses with small hills and opened on September 22, 1912. In October, members from the Country Club graciously gave complete golf club sets to Sinnissippi for the players to use since many of the players could not afford clubs. This helped changed the sport in Rockford from a “rich man’s game” by making it available for everyone.
Many of the current day users of the course may not realize the history that is literally beneath their feet. Besides being the oldest public course in Rockford, the Sinnissippi Golf Course also contains a little hidden part of Rockford’s history.
In December of 1934 an article appeared in the Morning Star explaining the decision between the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission and Earl F. Eliot who was the Rockford Park Board Superintendent at the time. The IERC was supplying the funds for a special project and the Park District was donating a portion of the Sinnissippi Golf Course for the location.
The project, the article states, was to create an “airway marker” that would be seen from overhead by the airplanes passing over Rockford. This marker would spell out Rockford and would be visible from “thousands of feet in the air.” There was also a letter N and an arrow to point toward north.
The marker was located on a fairway of the golf course by Parkview Avenue between the 8th and 9th holes. Each letter was 26 feet high and the whole marker measured over 160 feet long. The letters were created by digging holes four inches deep and filling them about halfway with cinders. The next layer was made from crushed limestone until the letters were flush to prevent any obstacles for the golfers. Plans were made to cover the letters with white cement in the spring of 1935.
The purpose for these letters was directional though it is no longer clear on what the letters once were directing the pilots to. In another article dated July of 1995, several ideas were presented. One idea suggested that the destination might be the “Rockford Airport” located at the intersection of North Second Street and Harlem Road. Another possibility would be the first commercial airport in the city established by Fred Machesney and located at the present day Machesney Park Mall.
The article continued with one more suggestion for the purpose of these letters. It states that Sinnissippi once had a landing strip located along the flatter area along Parkview. In the early days of aviation the planes only needed about 150 feet to take off and would have ample space there.
The purpose of the letters may be lost but that is what keeps Rockford’s history so intriguing. The letters are more noticeable in dry years and it can be quite an adventure to see them during open play hours at the course.
Rockford has reported ghost stories for many years now including a news article that was featured in the Rockford Morning Star June 30, 1935 edition. This particular report originated from rumors of a “ghost” on the courthouse lawn.
A little background must be given to understand these rumors fully. It seems that in February 1935 the Rockford Better Housing Program came up with a wonderful idea to motivate Rockford homeowners to remodel and “modernize” their homes, no matter the condition or age of the dwelling. The idea called for the house to be displayed where all could see the progress of the work. It was decided to move a 64 year old house that was in very sad condition to the courthouse lawn. All of the materials needed would be donated by local supply dealers and the work would be completed by Rockford workers.
The house was moved, scaffolding was created and the work began. The roof was the first part of the project and everyone was impressed when the roof was partially completed within a short time. Then, as sometimes happens with remodeling projects, the work hit a snag. The work dwindled and then completely stopped.
Finally, in June, the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors deemed the house an “eyesore” and ordered the project removed from the courthouse lawn. This motivated the project team again and for a week work continued at a steady pace. Then everything halted yet again.
It was then the rumors began. An enterprising reporter from the Morning Star was on the trail of the story and attempted to find someone working on the house to interview. This is when he heard of the midnight visitor to the construction site. The reporter heard tales of a misty white figure carrying a saw in one hand and a hammer in another. Sounds of work drifted across the courthouse lawn until the early morning hours.
The fearless news reporter decided to see this spirit for himself. He invited a photographer on the rare chance that something might appear during their stakeout. Now, remember this was long before the television shows of today where we have grown accustomed to the thought of “ghost hunting”.
The young reporter found a saw horse as a seat and positioned himself on the inside of the window leading to the porch of the home. The photographer hid behind a tree that allowed him a clear line of sight. They waited. And they waited. And they waited some more until the reporter was sure that he had been the object of someone’s idea of a joke. He was just about ready to head back to the office when suddenly he saw something moving beside the house. He caught his breath and leaned forward toward the window to get a better view. He was startled to see a white figure floating through the air and heading directly toward the window where he sat. The figure continued to head toward the reporter’s location until the photographer stepped out from his hiding place and snapped a picture. This blinded the reporter for a minute and by the time he could see again, the ghost had disappeared.
The reporter and the photographer were very excited about the possibility that they had actually verified the story and captured a spirit on film. They raced back to the newspaper’s offices to develop the film. When they finally held the print in their hands they realized they had evidence to support their claim of a ghostly worker.
The reporter returned several more times during the hours when ghosts are said to walk but every trip was in vain. The ghost must have known of the reporter’s stakeout for it is said that nightly construction ceased and no further work was completed on the house.
The house was eventually ordered moved to Calvin Park Boulevard where the reports on the progress of repairs along with the sightings of the ghostly construction worker faded into obscurity.