Pancakes, Prejudice and Publicity

A picture is worth a thousand words, yet it is not uncommon to find a photograph in our collections for which one thousand words would be sorely lacking. Take this, for example:

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This is Aunt Jemima, portrayed by the actress Edith Wilson, receiving the Key to the City of Rockford, Illinois. The Mayor was scheduled to attend, but on the day of the ceremony it was Chief of Police Tom Beaustead who handed Wilson the key to the city. It might be better to say that this picture raises a thousand questions! What was happening on January 28, 1954 to produce this strange event?

Perhaps it is best to begin by explaining the ritual itself. The gifting of a key to the city is a ritual which stems back to the medieval ages, when walled cities would lock their gates most of the time for security reasons. Only people who were true friends of the city would be honored in this way. In recent years, however, the civic ritual has become more of a publicity stunt and less of a sincere gesture. This only raises more questions: was this a sincere gesture or just a photo opportunity? If it was sincere, what did Edith Wilson do to deserve the honor?

Edith Wilson was flown in by helicopter from Chicago (the helicopter landed on the courthouse lawn, the first time a helicopter had ever landed in downtown Rockford) to help raise support for the first annual Rockford Kiwanis Club Pancake Day on January 30, 1954. Wilson was constantly busy during her four day stay in Rockford. She met with the Kiwanis Club for their final planning meetings and made visits to schools, hospitals and children’s centers. She also provided the evening’s entertainment at the YMCA on Thursday night. For the big day itself, Wilson assisted with preparation and service, but the newspapers focused on her celebrity status and remarked that she was busy most of the day meeting with families and signing autographs. Pancake Day was a huge success right from the start, and Wilson’s efforts guaranteed that the event would be successful. The event raised over $8,000, and the proceeds went towards the renovation of the Lincoln Park Boy’s Club. Nevertheless, Wilson was here as a paid spokesperson of Quaker Oats to promote the Aunt Jemima brand, so it seems that the gifting of the key to the city was part publicity stunt, part sincere honor.

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Lapel pin from the Museum’s collection. It is unknown whether this was something used during Edith Wilson’s visit.

The photograph of Miss Wilson’s visit also sheds light on changes in race relations. The Aunt Jemima character has long been criticized for being an example of the “mammy” stereotype. The “mammy” stereotype depicted cheerful African Americans as servants.

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“Mammy” Syrup Pitcher in the Museum’s collection.

All public appearances over the four days featured “Aunt Jemima”; the newspapers never even mention Wilson by her actual name. While she attended the final planning meeting, there is no evidence to suggest that her appearance was anything more than a photo opportunity. Wilson was an incredibly successful jazz and blues singer who shared the stage with greats such as Louis Armstrong, yet when she served as the night’s entertainment at the YMCA, the newspapers continued to bill her as Aunt Jemima. That said, the Rockford Register-Republic briefly mentioned that “the program includes dancing”, so it may have been that visitors got to hear some world-class music after all.

This photo is a revealing example of shifts taking place in our community in the 1950’s. The key gifting ritual was mostly done for the photo opportunity, yet it still required a measure of community service to deserve the honor. African-American portrayals were still racist, but a portrayal such as Wilson’s served to drum up support for local charities and organizations while also rousing the community towards positive ends. That, at least, is something worth commemorating with a hearty plate of flapjacks accompanied by the jazzy tunes of Edith Wilson herself.

–Post contributed by Ryan Zieglebauer, Midway Village Museum Interpeter and Volunteer

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A 1953 Valentine Party

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, we offer you this glimpse of Valentine’s Day 1953.

The photos, of Betty Peters’ 4th grade class at Henrietta School in Rockford, is part of Midway Village Museum’s photo collection and captures the students ready for their class Valentine’s Day party. Most students have homemade Valentines and boxes on their desks.

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Henrietta School was built in 1952 at 200 N. Johnston Ave. In more recent years the building was used for Head Start programming. Since 2012, the building, which has been owned by the City of Rockford, has been used for community meetings. In 2015 the City was in negotiations to sell the building to Carl E. Ponds Funeral Home.

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“We Saved Baseball” — Betty Yahr and the Rockford Peaches

A guest post by Intern Alicia Meyer

With baseball season coming to an end, we are reminded of one of Rockford’s greatest legacies: the Rockford Peaches. The Peaches were one of fifteen teams in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League that existed from 1943-1954. The Peaches won three league championships and were portrayed in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. Though the team was based in Rockford, members of the team were selected by talent scouts throughout the United States who would choose the best women baseball players for the league. One of those chosen women was Betty Yahr.

Betty Yahr playing ball before joining the Rockford Peaches in 1946.

Betty Yahr playing ball before joining the Rockford Peaches in 1946.

Betty Ruth Yahr was born on April 22, 1923 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She began her athletic career in high school where she was a member of the Girls Athletic Club. She was involved in multiple sports such as hockey, baseball, volleyball, and basketball. When she graduated in 1941, Ann Arbor High School recognized her as the “Most Athletic” in the yearbook and they were right to do so. Yahr continued playing sports after graduating, focusing primarily on her favorite one: baseball. She played on the semi-professional Michigan team “Dad’s Root Beer” winning the Michigan state championship. While playing a game in Ft. Wayne, MI, Yahr caught the eye of a talent scout for the newly formed All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She was then invited to play on the Rockford Peaches.

Betty Yahr while with the Rockford Peaches. She used this photo for her official baseball card.

Betty Yahr while with the Rockford Peaches. She used this photo for her official baseball card.

Yahr joined the Rockford Peaches in 1946 as a right fielder. She contributed in 22 games, had 76 at bats, 11 runs, and a batting average of .171. The Peaches achieved third place and were 60-52 for the ‘46 season. The league champions were the Racine Bells that year, though the Peaches had dominated the season in ‘45. Yahr became homesick at the end of the season and decided to head back to Ann Arbor. She later attempted to rejoin the AAGPBL but was denied due to the hundreds of applicants who were ahead of her. She continued playing recreational baseball in Michigan and had a 41 year-long career at Edwards Brothers Inc., a printing company, before retiring in 1988.

The Voss Girls' Baseball Team in Flint, MI.

The Voss Girls’ Baseball Team in Flint, MI. Yahr is in the back row, the last woman on the right.

Sadly, Betty Yahr passed away on December 30, 2010 after battling Alzheimer’s disease.  She left behind quite the legacy. She is featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame located in Cooperstown, New York as a part of their AAGPBL exhibit. Her glove, contract, uniform hat, and other memorabilia were donated to the Hall of Fame by her nephew Ronald Yahr. Ronald kindly donated some of Betty’s possessions to Midway Village Museum in July of 2014. In the collection, we received a replica Rockford Peaches baseball hat, original photos of Betty (including the one used for her AAGPBL baseball card), copies of her contract and correspondence with the league, and an actual baseball used in her time with the Peaches.

On November 8, 2015 learn more about the Rockford Peaches at a Rockford Premiere Showing of the movie A Team of their Own, a documentary produced by Grand Valley State University students. Showings of the film will be at Midway Village Museum, 6799 Guilfird Rd., Rockford at 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 general public, $8 for Museum members. For more information or to purchase tickets online visit www.midwayvillage.com.

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The Guilford Hope Grange

As Rockford’s history museum, it is important to Midway Village Museum that we document the lives and experiences of the many Rockford residents who made their living by farming. Farming was long a critical part of Rockford’s economic health. Consequently, the museum has collected cultivators, corn planters, and scythes. We continue to seek photos and documents related to local farms and in the past several years two barns have been added to the Village.

This barn, built in 1905, was once located on Bell School Road. Now it resides at Midway Village.

This barn, built in 1905, was once located on Bell School Road. Now it resides at Midway Village.

Among the recent exciting additions to the Museum’s archives is a series of minute books from the Guilford Hope Grange. The Grange movement got its start in 1867 in the aftermath of the Civil War. Founded under the name the Patrons of Husbandry, the National Grange sought to unite farmers around the country politically and socially, much like other trade unions.

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Workers on the Orville P. Thomas farm in Owen Township, 1896.

Rockford’s Guilford Hope Grange was founded in July 1871 at Center Schoolhouse (at Mulford and Guilford Rds.) with approximately 10 members in attendance. However, the group did not appeal to the State Grange for a charter until 1873. Regular weekly meetings began in November 1873.

The earliest record book in the collection is from 1873-1874. The first meetings focused largely on building membership and socializing. Both men and women were admitted to the association. Later meetings included the planning of picnics and parties, as well as educational programs and presentations.

In January 1874 these early meetings took on a political bent. In reaction to decisions made at the Illinois Plow Manufacturers convention the previous October the Grange resolved the following:

“Whereas, Certain plow manufacturers did resolve and contract among themselves . . . that they would not sell to the patrons of husbandry [Grange] for any less than their usual retail price; and Whereas, it is evidently as much for their interest to sell to us, at their wholesale price for cash, as to sell to their agent for notes or credit. Therefore: Resolved, That we consider such an act as the declaration of open warfare against our noble order. . .”

The membership vowed to boycott any manufacturers or dealers unwilling to offer the Grange a discounted rate.  They published their resolution in the Rockford Weekly Gazette on February 5, 1874. Unfortunately the minutes as well as the local newspapers fail to mention whether their boycott resulted in any political gains.

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Rockford’s John P. Manny Mower Company.

Over the years the Guilford Hope Grange regularly participated in the county and State Grange and read news from the National Grange with interest. In the 1930s political interests took a more prominent role in meetings than in many of the earlier years. Committees were appointed to address issues of legislation and taxation. Among their chief concerns was adequate rural mail service.

Educational programs were a constant part of the meetings. Topics ranged from those of an agricultural nature, to topics of a more general interest. In the 1870s they discussed the cost of raising a bushel of corn, the effectiveness of different fertilizers, and how to cure cholera in chickens. In the early 20th century topics included the proper cultivation of blueberries and the history of the American Red Cross.

Constant through the years was the social purpose of the group. The Grange held parties, picnics and dances. Meetings included news of members and sing alongs. In the 1930s the Guilford Hope Grange formed a baseball team and played teams from the other area granges.

The collection of Guilford Hope Grange record books tracks the association’s activities over a span of nearly 120 years. Through them we can begin to understand the concerns and interests important to Rockford’s farm community over the years.

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Local farmers make a delivery at a creamery in Argyle, IL. 1890s.

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World War I Trench Warfare

With the World War One centennial now entering into its second year, now seems like a good time to highlight one of Midway Village Museum’s most immersive pieces for engaging the public in the history of the war: the on-site trench.

In 2013, Midway Museum began its spring WWI Days living history event. Early on in the planning for this event, the re-enactors who partner with the Museum asked permission to construct a permanent trench addition on-site to use during the event. After investing over 2,000 hours of labor, the trench now includes over 200 feet of reproduction trench line made up of both a larger front-line trench network as well as a smaller communications trench. It serves double duty for the Museum’s WWI and WWII Days events (the latter held each September) and provides a setting for re-enactors to display objects and conduct field battles. Some re-enactors even go full immersion and live in the trenches during the events!

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The trenches are dug 6 feet deep and then built up with clay, wooden supports and sandbags. Duck boards are utilized to provide a solid footing to walk upon, and these must be repaired or replaced every year due to submersion in water and ice. Three bunkers include amenities such as bunk beds and phone wire installations. There are several volunteer events each year to ensure that the bunkers remain sound and secure against the elements and to maintain the security and integrity of the trench walls.

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By looking at aerial photographs from WWI from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, you can truly appreciate the details which might be overlooked while walking through the reproduction trenches. For example, the trenches are constructed in a zig-zag pattern. This was done to make the trenches more defensible. If artillery fire should score a direct hit on the trench, the blast radius could only extend as far as the nearest zig-zag, thereby mitigating the destruction. As well, if the trench were overrun by the enemy, the curves in the trenches would offer protection for the occupants and make it easier to reclaim the lost ground.

AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1916

AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1916© IWM (HU 91107)

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The landscape, particularly during the April event, serves very well as a visual likeness of the Western Front. Much of the vegetation in the field is stripped away, while spring has not yet brought an abundance of green to the site. The Western Front of WWI came to be described as a lunar landscape, for the impact of warfare could very quickly take a vibrant, living landscape and transform it into a muddy, lifeless, crater-filled terrain. Below are before-and-after photos from the Battle of Passchendaele, fought between 31 July and 6 November 1917 near the Belgian city of Ypres.

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http://THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914  1918: TRENCH WARFARE ON THE WESTERN FRONT© IWM (Q 42918A)

Conditions in the reproduction trenches also mimic those from the Western Front. April rains, supplemented by the melting of winter snowfall, frequently causes the trenches at Midway to flood. To counter this and make the trenches safe and accessible to re-enactors and visitors, a drainage sump was installed this year to supplement electric pumps in removing the accumulated water. WWI armies also used drainage ditches, pumps and good old-fashioned buckets to keep water out of their trenches, but there were rare instances where the elements proved too aggressive in the short-term for soldiers to keep their trenches dry and clear.
THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1915

http://THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1915© IWM (Q 51569)

The reproduction trenches at Midway Village continue to be a work-in-progress. A new set of opposing trench works have begun on the east side of the field, and a new Christmas in the Trenches event will be held this December to commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914 and give a portrayal of how soldiers celebrated the holiday while in the trenches, so be sure to keep an eye out for opportunities to take advantage of this expansive and immersive resource!

Upcoming events include:

September 26-27, 2015, World War II Days

December 5, 2015, Christmas in the Trenches: A Re-enactment of the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce.

For more information go to www.midwayvillage.com

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Do You Speak Esperanto?

Included in Midway Village Museum’s collection of postcards is one showing members of Rockford’s “Esperanto Klubo,” or Esperanto Club.  It shows eight young men, sharply dressed, posing proudly for the camera in 1916.  In a community with numerous clubs, this is one of the most obscure ones.

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Esperanto Klubo “Progreso”, Rockford, Illinois, 1916

In 1887 Polish physician Dr. L. L. Zamenhoff devised and introduced Esperanto as a new international language. He created it to serve as a second language that could be used as a linguistic bridge between people speaking different languages.  The idea was not to replace any other language but to provide a common language that is simple to learn and allows people to communicate without having to give up their own native language or adopt someone else’s.  While it is not widely used, there are still lots of people who speak Esperanto and over 100 periodicals published in it.  It is still used as a bridge language by the UN and others to translate documents from say Danish to several other languages.  One person can translate from, let’s say, Danish to Esperanto, then others can translate from Esperanto to any other language.

How did this come to be the focus of a club in Rockford over 100 years ago?  In an era of heavy immigration to the US, it is perhaps understandable that some Americans – including some Rockfordians – felt the need to deal with intense cultural changes by finding a better way for immigrants and long-term residents to communicate.  Esperanto provided an avenue to do that.

In April 1907, Rockford’s Daily Register Gazette reported that several local groups, including the Rockford Temperance guards, the YMCA and a group of south Rockford boys had come together to learn Esperanto.  They announced a “grand rally” to be held at the YMCA building for the purpose of showing off postcards from Esperantoists in over 40 different countries.  Any boys interested in seeing these were invited to come!  The following evening, Floyd B. Hardin, president of the University of Chicago Esperanto Society, lectured on the new language.  The article went on to state that free public courses in Esperanto were soon to be opened in Rockford under the direction of Mr. Hardin with assistance from Mr. E. C. Reed of the Harvard University Esperanto Association.

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The Rockford YMCA at State & Madison Streets.

One of the advantages of Esperanto is that it can be learned very easily.  It has only 16 simple rules to follow (a tad fewer than the English language) and, the local paper reported that the average American student “already knows three-fourths of the words in the vocabulary.”  Therefore, it would only take a couple of months to master the new language.

Subsequent articles in Rockford papers suggest that Hardin’s lecture was a success.  The May 21, 1907 edition of the Rockford Morning Star reported 15 new students for the second class in Esperanto, bringing the total to 100.  Classes were held at the YMCA, then located at State & Madison Streets.

Interest in this new artificial language was high enough in Rockford that the Rockford Republic published three lessons in Esperanto a couple of months later.  Lesson 1 – the Esperanto alphabet and how to pronounce it – appeared on July 18, 1907.  Lesson 2 – article, noun, adjective, present tense – appeared on July 22nd.  Lesson 3 – plural, past tense, future tense, accusative case, and adverbs – was published on July 24th.  Each of these lessons could be printed on a single 8½” x 11” page.  Imagine doing that with an English grammar lesson covering the same topics!

Shortly after these lessons appeared in the paper, Esperantists from all over Illinois met in Rockford to form a statewide Esperanto Association of all the clubs studying the language.  The July 28, 1907 edition of the Rockford Morning Star reported that delegates from 15 societies attended, meeting in the office of E. C. Reed.  Reed was duly elected secretary. The aim of the new group was to “broaden the propaganda and arouse more interest in the study of the language”.

Evidently, Mr. Reed made an impression on his fellow Esperantists as he was selected to be secretary for the Esperanto Association of North America in 1911.  The August 28th edition of the Rockford Daily Register Gazette reported that he was being sent abroad annually by the Association, and that he was the sole American elected a member of the International Esperanto Commission.

Just as evidently, interest in Esperanto flagged in Rockford after its big splash in 1907.  An article in the October 23, 1911 edition of the Rockford Republic included an article that began with the statement that “Esperanto, the international language which was so much talked about a few years ago is not dead in Rockford.”  A new local organization was being formed to study the language.  The new club was to be known as “Progreso,” which gets us back to the postcard that started this discussion.  That name clearly appears at the bottom of the postcard.  Local officers were Herman Hallstrom as president, and Karl Froding, secretary and treasurer.

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Men’s Socialist Party of Rockford, 1910. Future Rockford Mayor Herman Hallstrom is in the middle row at far left.

Hallstrom’s interest in Esperanto may have come from the fact that he was born in Sweden in 1888 and came to America (and Rockford) 20 years later.  By 1910, he was active in the Socialist Party in Rockford.  He served overseas during World War I but returned to his interest in politics after returning home.  He served five two-year terms as Rockford’s mayor, his first three terms (starting with the 1921 election) as a member of the Rockford Labor League and his final two terms (following the 1929 election) as an independent.  Outside of politics, his primary interest was with Swedish American Hospital, serving as a board member and as president of the hospital.  He died in 1961 at the age of 72.

Not as much is known of Mr. Froding.  However, according to a brief obituary printed in the Rockford Register-Republic in May 1949, he came to Rockford in 1903 and worked at the Colonial Desk Company.  He moved to Auburn, Wisconsin in 1948 where he died a year later.  We do know, from the September 23, 1913 edition of the Rockford Republic that the Esperanto Club had resumed its activities at that point, meeting weekly in Froding’s offices in the Columbia Building on 7th Street.  There were also classes for beginners once a week.

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Froding, so central to the local Esperanto movement, worked at Colonial Desk Company upon his arrival in Rockford.

Interest in Esperanto continued locally, or at least at the Rockford Republic, which included an article in their March 30, 1912 edition stating that the Esperanto Association of North America would send pamphlets to any of the paper’s readers who sent their name and address to the Association’s office in Washington.  A 1924 article announced plans to form a club among east side workers for the purpose of studying Esperanto.  The paper quotes Mr. Froding as saying that Esperanto was “believed by many to be the most logical international language….”  He was cited as being an official of the Swedish Socialist Club, headquartered on Seventh Street.

Where does Esperanto stand now?  According to the Journal of the American Medical Information Association, interest in the language increased after World War II, especially as Eastern Europe and China saw the need for a common language but were reluctant to embrace English.  Interest in Esperanto peaked in the 1970s, “receiving serious attention from linguistic scholars, with numerous publications appearing in academic journals.  Perhaps two to five million people studied or spoke Esperanto.  Conventions were held; periodicals and more books appeared.”  However, after the ‘70s, interest in it dropped off as English became the closest thing to an international language. Esperanto was simply not practical.  It wasn’t anyone’s native language, finding people who could speak it (outside of Esperanto conventions) was nearly impossible, and it did not have a means of adapting to contemporary terminology.

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Three gold frames

What some may not realize about the job of a curator is that a lot of their time is spent problem solving. The work that goes into caring for museum collections can sometimes involve trouble shooting issues or finding the best support for a fragile item. It can also involve good old fashioned detective work. Digging into the story of an object is just as exciting as the object itself, and lends depth and context to the artifact.

These sorts of projects can also take quite a bit of time. If you have ever done genealogical research, you know what I mean! Needing to dig into the story was recently the case with some items I was working with in the collection here at Midway Village Museum, and I will share with you the exciting stories I uncovered.

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The Items in Question:

The items themselves are small, the largest measuring 2 ¾” wide by 3 ¼” high. Two are tintypes and one is a daguerreotype. All three have gold colored metal frames. There are small paper notes pasted to them, reading as follows: ‘Clarence Huke. Died 1860.’ ‘Emma Huke.’ ‘Fanny Huke.’ This was all the information there was to work with. The items came in as a part of a large bequest from the estate of Edna May Taylor in 2012, and, not being able to find an initial connection to the family or to Rockford, I kept the small images with some other items from the estate that we were working through identifying.

With the vigorous pace of museum work, tackling exhibit projects along with collections care and cataloguing, some projects are saved for later. The bequest collection included nearly 1,000 items accepted for the permanent collection, which took over 2 years to fully catalogue, a process that involves giving each item a number, and then entering the record of that item, with information on its history, dimensions, and condition, into our collections database. While doing some reorganizing last month, I ran across these mystery objects once again. These 3 little gold frames now had names on the back that seemed more familiar. For whatever reason now, the last name ‘Huke’ struck a chord with me.

I slowly worked out why ‘Huke’ rang a bell now and had not before. In 2013 the museum received a large collection of Civil War letters from the Bittle family. They currently are part of a transcription project that I have been working on with the help of some local Civil War enthusiasts (to see the letters, go here: http://mvm-collections.com/projects/items/browse ). Once in a great while I have time to work on transcribing one of the letters myself, which was the case recently. One of the letters, written from Charles Sealy to his sister Mary, mentions a ‘Mate Huke.’ With the match of the last name to those small images, and knowing that the Sealy brothers often called their sister Mary ‘Mate’, I started looking for a Mary Huke. Using online databases, city directories, and other collections resources here at the museum, I followed the trail. Not only did I figure out why the images were in the contents of the Taylor estate, but I found their connection to Rockford, and built a sketch of their life stories, basically hitting the historical jackpot!

 

The Hunt:

I found the Huke family living in Rockford in the 1870 Federal Census. Digging further, I found that the family originally lived in Geneva, New York. George W. Huke (b. October, c. 1830, d. 4/3/1903) was born near Barnaby in England. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1850 and worked early on as a carpenter and a builder, according to Federal Census records. His occupation was noted in those records as a ‘commercial traveler,’ and his obituary states that he was superintendent of the American Heating and Ventilating Company, and traveled around the country supervising installation of the company’s products. He was a charter member of the Christian Union Church and was active in the church’s different groups (Rockford Morning Star, 4/4/1903). His wife, Mary H. Jones Huke (b. c. 1830, d. 4/17/1897) was also born in England, and she and George married in Geneva, N.Y. The family moved to Rockford between 1866 and 1867. In the 1870 Census the family was living in the 4th Ward in Rockford. Mary worked keeping house, and also was a charter member of the Christian Union Church. She died in Winnebago County in 1897.

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Their son Clarence Huke (b. 1855, d. 1860) (also spelled Clarance) was born in 1855 in Geneva, NY, and it is confirmed by the 1860 New York Census, where his name does not appear, that he died around the age of 5. While his daguerreotype is beginning to degrade, you can still see that he was very young at the time, still in a plaid patterned dress, as was the fashion for both young girls and boys during that time.

 

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Daughter Fanny W. Huke (b. 3/28/1858, d. 2/12/1923) (also spelled Fannie) was born in 1858 in Geneva, NY. Her tintype shows her very young, hair parted down the middle, with colorized rosy cheeks, sitting on a sofa. She’s wearing a light colored dress with dots on it and a small necklace with a pendant colored in with gold. She arrived in Rockford along with her parents when she was about 8 or 9 years old.

At age 25, Fanny married Bryant Kerr (b. 3/29/1848, d. 2/17/1916) on 9/26/1883 in Winnebago County, IL. Bryant was the son of a Scottish born minister Thomas Kerr (b. 5/24/1824, d. 1/4/1904) and New York native Sarah J. Kerr (b. c. 1830, d. 1/18/1908).

Locally, the Kerr family had a large role in religious developments. Dr. Thomas Kerr immigrated to the U.S. in 1844, and studied medicine at Columbia College and Iowa State University. After practicing medicine in Elgin, IL, he entered religious studies and was ordained as a Baptist clergyman in Elgin in 1857. He moved around to different churches, and first came to Rockford June 1, 1860 and led the congregation of the First Baptist Church. He later left the area to work in Hannibal, MO, returning to First Baptist Church in Rockford in 1869. He broke with that church after, as his obituary puts it, “…Dr. Kerr outgrew his environments and began to preach a broader, richer and sweeter gospel to which some of his parishoners took exception and brought charges against him, whereupon he tendered his resignation Aug. 28, 1870” (Rockford Morning Star, 1/5/1904). He was later deposed from the ministry in October and Dr. Kerr, along with 48 other church members, were excluded from the church. Kerr was determined to leave Rockford, but was convinced to stay by some of his fellow excluded persons, and after raising monies and gaining support, the Church of the Christian Union (later, Christian Union Church), was formed, opening in October of 1870. Kerr remained the only active pastor in the church until 1901.

Sarah and Thomas Kerr were married on 10/1/1845. Sarah kept house, and was noted in her obituary as being “unassuming,” and well-liked. She was also respected in the community for her dedication to her husband and home. “She was possessed of a quiet and sweet disposition that endeared her to all…” (Morning Star, 1/19/1908) She fell ill in the year before her death, prompting her daughter Alice J. Kerr Dick to come home from Kentucky in the fall of 1907 to assist her mother.

Their son Bryant was born in 1848 in Big Foot Prairie, IL, and worked as a dentist. He and Fanny do not, according to the Federal Census records, appear to have had children, and the 1914 Rockford City Directory lists his dental offices at 403-404 Masonic Temple, with he and wife Fanny living at 209 N. Church Street.

Tragically, Bryant committed suicide in 1916 after a burst blood vessel in his eye was affecting his vision. Though he kept it quiet from his family, Bryant had suffered the burst blood vessel in December of the previous year and progressively noticed that it was a detriment to his dental practice. He shot himself in his dental office after writing notes to his wife, his fellow dentist Dr. J. E. Allaben, directing him to all keys and combinations in the dental office, and a third message left on the mirror that read ‘Don’t take me home, Call for Burpee’, referring to Harry B. Burpee, who ran Burpee undertaking parlors at 108-110 West State Street (Daily Register Gazette, 2/18/1916 & Rockford Republic, 12/11/1916).

Fanny was a member of Mendelssohn Club, the Woman’s Club, and the Church of the Christian Union. Fanny died 2/12/1923 in Rockford at the age of 64 after suffering from, what her obituary notes as ‘anemia’ for many years and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.2012.25.723 - pic 2 watermarked

 

The tintype of Emma Huke (b. 3/9/1860, d. 12/8/1925) shows her sitting on a sofa, wearing a polka-dotted dress, darker in color, with boots. The small necklace has a portion of it colorized with gold, like the tintype of her sister Fanny, and she has similarly colored in rosy cheeks. Emma was the youngest Huke child and would have traveled to Rockford with her family at age 6 or 7.

Emma was a part of the Christian Union Society, and is mentioned in the paper often for her trips to visit friends in New York (Rockford Weekly Gazette, 6/27/1883), and also in a notice that she left an expensive shawl at the opera in 1884 (Daily Gazette, 10/1/1884). It appears that Emma never married, but is involved in many of the popular events in town. In 1885 she attended the Annual Reception of the Knights Templar, and is noted as wearing “…pink satin, pink nuns’ veiling, trimmed profusely with lace, ostrich tips…” (Daily Gazette, 1/30/1885). When the 1900 Federal Census was taken, she was living with her sister Fanny, brother-in-law Bryant, and father George. By 1920, she was living as a boarder on Rockton Avenue along with a widow and the widow’s daughter. She died 12/8/1925 at age 65 in Rockford, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

 

So what does all this mean?

So, what do these people’s stories have to do with the Taylor Estate?

The Huke family and the Sealy families are cousins!

Mary Sealy Woodward (wife of Woodward Governor founder Amos W. Woodward) is cousin to the Huke girls, as was Mary’s daughter Minnie Woodward Taylor. George W. Taylor, who was Edna May Taylor’s husband, was the son of Minnie Woodward Taylor and thus grandson of Mary and Amos. Additionally, Minnie Woodward Taylor was the unfortunate finder of Bryant Kerr’s body, which was reported in hi obituary. Minnie went to his dental offices after Fanny expressed concern to her cousin that Bryant was not answering her phone calls. The small images are a connector between 3 prominent local families and their stories of success, tragedy, and life in Rockford.

With great resources, and a bit of time and determination much can come to light! Having gone from nothing to having a sketch of the lives of these three individuals and their parents is part of the work that curators like myself love to do, and do not always have the time to do. Researching the Huke family was a rare treat, and can be counted as another mystery solved.

 

 

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