“You Need Not to Expect to Get Your Book Right the First Time”

Rockford welcomed many great visitors during the nineteenth century, a time when communication and transportation were much slower by today’s standards. Twenty-first century entertainers now make whirlwind tours over the entire world with such speeds as to dazzle their predecessors. Over one hundred years ago, Buffalo Bill Cody often came with his Wild West Show and performed at the Chautauqua in Harlem Park. President Theodore Roosevelt was the speaker at the dedication of Memorial Hall in 1903. As a large bustling and industrious city, Rockford was a hotspot on the lecture circuit as it hosted Susan B. Anthony, Oscar Wilde, Henry Ward Beecher, and the great American novelist Mark Twain.

Mark Twain, 1869

Mark Twain, 1869

On January 6, 1869, Samuel Clemens, known famously as Mark Twain, gave an evening lecture at Brown’s Hall to a crowd of one thousand. The Daily Register reported: “We never saw an audience so determined to laugh ‘out loud’ in all our experience, and we confess to having laughed ourselves until our sides fairly ached…  He conducted his hearers from one laugh into another with such rapidity that scarce a breathing spell was afforded between the outbursts which […] followed each other like the reverberations of thunder.”

Group of female performers, half of them dressed as men. Performances such as these often graced the stages of local halls. Brown’s Hall was the most popular venue for entertainment in Rockford during the 1860s. Built in 1864, it was located in the 100 block of West State street at the northeast corner of State and Wyman Streets where the Luther Center is today.

Group of female performers, half of them dressed as men. Performances such as these often graced the stages of local halls. Brown’s Hall was the most popular venue for entertainment in Rockford during the 1860s. Built in 1864, it was located in the 100 block of West State Street at the northeast corner of State and Wyman Streets.

Mark Twain, c. 1884-1885

Mark Twain, c. 1884-1885

Clemens visited Rockford a second time on January 30, 1885 where he and George W. Cable entertained a full house at the Grand Opera House. The Register and Daily Gazette advertised Clemens as a “Reader of his own Superb Fun.”

Rockford Register, January 29, 1885

Rockford Register, January 29, 1885

Adams Express Wagons in front of the Grand Opera House, c. 1890s. The Grand Opera House, located at 113-117 North Wyman Street, opened as Brown’s Hall closed and replaced it as the most popular entertainment scene.

Adams Express Wagons in front of the Grand Opera House, c. 1890s. The Grand Opera House, located at 113-117 North Wyman Street, could seat 1,500 people. It opened during the same time that Brown’s Hall closed and replaced it as the most popular entertainment scene.

Interior of the Grand Opera House, also known as the Rockford Opera House, c. 1880s-1890s.

Interior of the Grand Opera House, also known as the Rockford Opera House, c. 1880s-1890s.

After 8 wonderful years on staff at Midway Village Museum, and almost 4 years of bringing you this blog, my life is changing in ways that I had always hoped, but was unsure would occur. I have accepted a new position as Chief Curator at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. This outstanding opportunity is such a blessing, and I would be crazy to pass it up. It is altogether exciting and terrifying, but among the frenzy of relocation and saying goodbye, my question-asking, research-obsessive brain could not help but wonder if Mark Twain ever visited Rockford.

Curators of local history museums are constantly on the look-out for connections. We search for the ways that an object or photograph is connected to the area’s history.  At Midway Village, we constantly ask “Does this have a Rockford connection?” By patching these bits together, we join the puzzle pieces that give us a clearer understanding of Rockford through time. And in turn, I consider myself one of those puzzle pieces among countless others. I am connected to this milieu of pieces, whether they be the school I went to, the church I attended, the stores I patroned, or the friends I made. In this exciting yet trepidatious journey, I am ecstatic and even relieved to know that there is a link between Mark Twain and my hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Mr. Twain and I share a common puzzle piece, and I will be able to carry that piece with me into this new chapter of my great American novel.

Mark Twain, 1907

Mark Twain, 1907

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1 Comment

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One response to ““You Need Not to Expect to Get Your Book Right the First Time”

  1. Ric Skinner

    You’ve probably already taken up your new post in Hartford, CT. I’m doing extensive research on Rockford. IL and in particular the Skinner/Skinner-related families. Since I’m in Sturbridge, MA (less than an hour from Hartford) I’d like to stop in to “pick your brain” on who I might contact in Rockford and what other treasures of interest there might be in the MV Museum that I should investigate.

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