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The Life and Times of Old Tramp, Rockford’s Most Famous Dog

In the early 1900s, the city of Rockford was home to a dog known as Old Tramp. Tramp was a beloved hound and considered an honored citizen. Belonging to no one and everyone, Tramp wandered the streets of downtown Rockford and made friends everywhere he went.  It is clear from his photo that Tramp did not want for food. He was fed often by the friends he made, and he loved when children shared their candy with him. The newspapers Rockford Morning Star, Daily Register-Gazette, and Rockford Republic were especially fond of the roly-poly lab-mix, who was known as a “mountain of meat.” This story comes straight from their sincere, albeit exaggerated, publications. This is Tramp’s tale.

Old Tramp, c. 1907-1908

Old Tramp, c. 1907-1908

The newspapers reported that Tramp’s journey to Rockford had been one of romance and tragedy. Owned by a loving mistress, Tramp lived happily on a farm in Latham Park, located north of what is now Machesney Park. Unfortunately, Tramp’s dear mistress was sick with consumption, and when she succumbed to the illness and passed away in 1901, Old Tramp was so filled with grief that he left the house immediately after the funeral service and never returned. The Rockford Morning Star asserted that his eyes were still filled with sorrow and his heart heavy with grief. It instructed the reader to “watch him the next time a funeral procession passes through the streets and he is near. He will immediately lay down with his head buried in his paws and remain there until the cortege has passed.”

Upon leaving the house, it was said that Tramp found his way to East Rockford and met some nice police officers. They took him to the west side, where he looked around at the buildings, rubbed up against the officers, and decided to stay. Rockford had also accepted him, as the Rockford Republic reported in 1902 that “’Tramp,’ a well known [sic] dog about town which has been making its home here, there and everywhere but was always welcome, was shot by an officer this morning as the animal was under the suspicion of having rabies.” Thankfully, this was a case of mistaken identity, and the Register-Gazette corrected: “After being mourned for several hours, ‘Tramp’ turned up much alive, greatly to the delight of his friends, both old and young.”

Tramp’s daily schedule went something like this:

Every morning at 7 o’clock, Tramp headed off to one of the meat markets to find his breakfast – a big delicious bone.

Carl August Ahlstrand’s meat market, located at 102 7th Street. August came to Rockford from Sweden in 1885 and operated a meat market for over forty years.

Carl August Ahlstrand’s meat market, located at 102 7th Street. August came to Rockford from Sweden in 1885 and operated a meat market for over forty years.

 

Tramp took his breakfast to the court house lawn to enjoy.

Winnebago County Court House, c. 1880s-1890s

Winnebago County Court House, c. 1880s-1890s

 

If the fire alarm sounded, Tramp lumbered his way to meet the engine on the street and heartily barked his encouragement.

Rockford Fire Engine Co. No. 6, early 1900s

Rockford Fire Engine Co. No. 6, early 1900s

 

He frequented the Rockford & Interurban Railway waiting room and often took a ride on the streetcar.

East and West side streetcar waiting rooms, c. 1910

East and West side streetcar waiting rooms, c. 1910

 

From noon to 2 o’clock, Tramp made his rounds of the saloons and cafes and enjoyed their samples, which were freely given. When the steamship Illinois blew its whistle, off he went to meet it.

Steamship Illinois, c.1910s

Steamship Illinois, c.1910s

 

After enjoying an afternoon cruise, he might have followed an officer on his beat and kept him company.

Policemen in front of City Hall, c. 1908

Policemen in front of City Hall, c. 1908

 

At 10 o’clock, Tramp retired to the Morning Star office where he fell asleep on a pile of exchanges.

Early linotype machines used for setting type for newspaper printing, believed to be at Rockford Morning Star, c. 1910s

Early linotype machines used for setting type for newspaper printing, believed to be at Rockford Morning Star, c. 1910s

 

There was one steamboat trip Tramp did not enjoy. One lovely day in June 1902, Tramp boarded the Illinois with the other patrons, who were off to delight in their picnics. A group of men belonging to the Grand Army of the Republic also boarded. One of these old veterans picked him up and threw him overboard as the steamboat left its port. Tramp paddled to the shore unhurt and walked home. The next year, the Republic reported, Tramp boarded the ship as usual and recognized the same man who had tossed him off the deck the year before. Tramp performed an about-face and walked back down the gang-plank to avoid another unpleasant confrontation.

Steamboat Illinois, June 4, 1914

Steamboat Illinois, June 4, 1914

 

In 1905, Tramp had an adventure that caused quite a stir in Rockford. On February 24, the Register-Gazette announced that “Tramp Is Missing” and the Morning Star cried “Tramp Was Taken Away.” Tramp had boarded the streetcar, being a dog who enjoyed a good ride, and stood in the front vestibule with the conductor, Floyd Knodle. At the crossing near Ridott, a lineman got off the car, and Tramp, in all likelihood, hopped off and began walking alongside the track. Floyd was in a hurry, and so the car continued on. However, upon returning without Tramp, many people were outraged and accused Floyd of pushing the lab out of the car and abandoning him in the snow. It was known that the railway officials were annoyed by Tramp’s presence in their waiting room, and this, argued the newspapers, was the reason poor Tramp had been abandoned.

Rockford & Interurban streetcar, c. 1890s

Rockford & Interurban streetcar, c. 1890s

The Morning Star felt very protective of Tramp, who had made their office his bedroom. It defended him, saying that he was not a nuisance and in fact was liked by hundreds of people. If Tramp was not produced, they threatened, the Humane Society would arrest whoever was responsible; in fact, they claimed, all of the officials of the company should be arrested for cruelty to this poor dog. They got their scapegoat the next day when conductor Floyd Knodle was arrested for abuse and brought into the court house for questioning. Even the judge was ready to fine him; however, the case was dismissed two days later. It was ruled that because the incident had occurred in Stephenson County, the judge had no jurisdiction in the case.

Meanwhile, Morning Star employee John Adams found Tramp enjoying himself at a friendly farm in the country. Tying a rope around the dog’s neck, he led Tramp back to Rockford where he was welcomed with joyous fanfare. A broad, red ribbon was tied around his neck. The Register-Gazette printed “Some Verses on Tramp” including:

“Why Tramp Got Lost”

There was an old dog named Tramp,

In some of his manners a ‘scamp,’

He would go out and fill up on fat

And just what he’d do after that

Is hardly fit for publication.

 

Although Tramp was an irritation to the streetcar officials, he was clearly loved by a great many. Shortly after this incident, a Rockford citizen wrote a letter to the editor of the Republic. He proclaimed that he would give $10 to punish any abuser of the dog, and $100 to convict anyone who threatened Tramp’s life with poison.

Tramp became a model in 1906 when the Women’s Christian Temperance Union sold photographs of him as a fundraiser. The Register-Gazette reported that the photos showed him “in various characteristic attitudes, in repose, in action, and on dress parade.” His picture also was the ornament on top of a daily calendar.

Tramp enjoying a good scratch from Captain John T. Buker of the steamboat Illinois, c. 1901-1906

Tramp enjoying a good scratch from Captain John T. Buker of the steamboat Illinois, c. 1901-1906

 

When Tramp passed away in November 1908, he was honored by Rockford’s newspapers with large obituaries that were truly a labor of love. They reported that Tramp had been visiting the Reigert home at 255 North Court Street, one of his regular spots. The fire alarm whistle blew, and he attempted to get up and bark as usual, but his hind legs were paralyzed. A police officer was notified, and when he arrived he offered to shoot Old Tramp to put him out of his misery. Mrs. Reigert intervened, exclaiming “The old dog has been kind to everyone and everyone has been kind to him. I will not see him killed violently if I can help it. I will be glad to pay for the services of a veterinary to chloroform him and make his passing easy.” Dr. W.R. Finely was summoned, and Old Tramp left the world in peace.

The Republic published tributes from Tramp’s many canine friends who praised him for his respectability and gentlemanly ways.  Sheriff Collier’s dog Dooley, who was reportedly reached by telephone, was Tramp’s bosom friend, and told of how Tramp had taught him not to snap at people’s heels or swallow rubber bands when he was a pup. Sport, the “dean of the Fox terrier class,” admired Tramp for his soul of honor. Zip on Seventh Street spoke of Tramp’s great mind. Mack, a red Irish settler, shed a tear. And even Jerry the cat of West State Street praised Tramp for his respectful attitude towards felines and honored Tramp with a quote from Omar: “Tomorrow I shall be myself with yesterday’s seven thousand years.”

These grand speeches, however fictional, give evidence to the adoration and admiration the people of Rockford had for this lovable Labrador. His epitaphs took up more space and were generally more praiseworthy than most humans’ obituaries. He was called the “best known canine in the United States, an honored resident… beloved by practically every man, woman and child in this city.” One month after Tramp’s death, a letter to the editor appeared in the Republic that included a poem written in his honor.

“Only a Tramp”

He was only a tramp, yet loved by all.

The rich, the lowly, the great, the small.

But death came stalking by one day,

And took our mutual friend away.

 

There’s mourning today in Rockford town,

For the wonderful Tramp of great renown,

But if tramps have souls we know that he

Is clothed with immortality.

 

He was the simple life indeed –

He worshipped not God, he knew no creed,

Though he heard not a sermon in all his life,

He never got drunk, nor scolded his wife.

 

He never forgot a worthy friend

From the days of his youth to his fatal end.

But some there were who treated him mean,

And where Tramp has gone they’ll ne’er be seen.

 

He came and went, hither and yon,

Today he is here, tomorrow gone –

A peripatetic dog was he –

Peace be to his ashes eternally.

 

Tramp’s part in Rockford’s history provides insight into the evolution of animal welfare and reminds current dog owners of the importance of proper care and healthy feeding of their pets. Today’s veterinarians and animal-enthusiasts know the medical dangers to over-weight pets and can offer treatments. Animal shelters and humane societies across the country work tirelessly to take in homeless pets that are exposed to dangerous elements when left on the streets and find them new, loving homes.

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Bonus Blog!

The Collections Blog has reached 5000 views!  In celebration, we bring you a fun ‘grab bag’ of Rockford memories from our collection.

The Kold Krunch Ice Cream Bar was invented by Bert “Fish” Hassell, pilot of the Greater Rockford airplane seen on display in the Museum Center (photo at the right).  Bert wanted to create a product that would ensure his family’s financial stability during the Depression.  His daughter recalled how her mother woke one night to hear Bert in the kitchen, making chocolate sauce and caramel corn.  And after consulting several ice cream companies about how to keep the ice cream from gelling, he came up with the first ice cream bar with a cracker jack-like confection.  It sold for a nickel, and kept his family from the bread lines.

The destruction of the tornado that struck Rockford on September 14, 1928 can be seen in this photograph.  The house has slid off of it’s foundation and rests in the middle of the street.  The worst of its kind to hit Rockford, the tornado resulted in the death of 14 people with over 100 injured and 200 buildings damaged or destroyed.

All new parents are eager to capture their little one on film.  But if babies were too squirmy, their picture would end up blurry.  To keep infants still, many parents would hold their child and the photographer would hide them with a blanket or curtain.  In this example, the parent is seated with blanket covering him or her.  While it may appear to be the back of the chair, the parent’s arms are clearly seen on either side of “Irving.”

Meet Waring, Fire Dog of the Rockford Fire Department.  Waring was a member of Engine Two.  He responded to fires, delighted children in outreach programs, and, according to the plaque on his photo’s frame, “performed station duties as required.”  This photograph was taken in 1950.

Want to learn more about Rockford history?  Come visit us at Midway Village Museum!  Explore our exhibitions, including 100 Years of Girl Scouting and our newest addition Many Faces, One Community.  Take a tour of the Victorian Village, which includes 26 buildings and gardens.

Open Tuesday – Sunday, 10am – 4pm

Admission: $7 Adults, $4 Children (3 and under are free!)  Members are free!

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