Tag Archives: Parks

Camping 100 Years Ago: It Was In Tents

Family Camping 1900s

As summer begins to wind down, there are only a few more weeks left to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.  There are still those who like to ‘rough it,’ but many campgrounds today are overrun with giant RVs and mobile homes with most if not all of the luxuries of home.

Camping Inside Tent

Campers in the early 1900s did not have all of the options that we do today.  The camping movement that occurred around the turn of the century was born from the child labor movement.  It was designed to improve the lives of children who lived in poor, overcrowded cities by developing civic responsibility, intellect, and physical and social skills and to bond with nature.  And as cities became more crowded, people were looking for activities away from the hustle and bustle.  Camping was no longer a necessity for hunters, lumberjacks, and other mountain men.  It became a recreational activity for the whole family in every class.

Rockford Chautauqua, 1902

Rockford Chautauqua, 1902

Rockford’s Chautuaqua was a very popular two-week long event that offered lectures on cultural, political, and social topics as well as Buffalo Bill’s exciting Wild West Show.  Those who attended often camped in tents during those two weeks while they enjoyed the festivities.

Rockford Chautauqua, 1906

Rockford Chautauqua, 1906

Campers did not often have special equipment for camping – they brought what they already had.  Rugs and carpets from home made up the floor, and campers sat in wicker or rocking chairs from their own porches.

Ladies Camping Outfit, 1910s

Ladies Camping Outfit, 1910s

Many ladies, like those in the photographs above, wore their everyday clothing, blouses and skirts, while camping.  This outfit is an example of what ladies began wearing during the 1910s.  It’s militaristic style is similar to men’s uniforms worn during WWI.



Many of our camping traditions have remained the same in the last 100 years, such as canoeing with family and friends.  What are your camping traditions?  How are they similar or different?



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Buffalo Bill’s Wild West!

William F. Cody was born in Iowa in 1846.  When he was just a boy, his father moved the family to Kansas, settling near Fort Leavenworth.  Cody was naturally skilled in shooting and riding, and at the age of 14, became a renowned pony express rider, a dangerous occupation on the plains.  The advertisement called for “skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily.”   Clearly not one to be left out of the excitement, he served as a Union scout during the Civil War as part of the Seventh Kansas Calvary.  Cody continued to serve the Army after the war as a scout and dispatch rider.

In 1867, Cody began hunting buffalo to feed the Kansas Pacific Railroad workers.  In seventeen months, he had killed 4,280 buffalo.  It is believed that he took up a contest with William Comstock to see who could kill more buffalo in eight hours.  With Cody’s 69 to Comstock’s 46, Cody earned the nickname Buffalo Bill.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Program, 1893

His reputation as Buffalo Bill grew into that of a national folk hero.  Ned Buntline’s dime novels featured Buffalo Bill along the ranks of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.  In 1872, Buntline even persuaded Cody to appear in his play The Scouts of the Plains, which was a great success thanks in part to Cody’s natural showmanship.  Riding on this achievement, Cody organized Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1883.  The show dramatized frontier life with buffalo hunts, Indian attacks, the Pony Express, and a presentation of Custer’s Last Stand.  His show featured stars such as Annie Oakley, Buck Taylor, and, for one season, Chief Sitting Bull, the “slayer of Custer.”  He added the Congress of Rough Riders of the World that featured cavalrymen around the world, including Mexico, Russia, and Syria.  The show toured for thirty years, even travelling to Europe.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show pulling into Rockford, July 26, 1901

 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show even made it to Rockford in 1901!  The show then returned for Rockford’s Chautauqua events, the first of which was held in August 1902 at Harlem Park.  The Chautauqua was advertised as a place of learning for adults: “A School for Out-of-School People.”  It was a two-week long event that offered lectures on cultural and political topics, women’s topics, and global topics with speakers from all over the country.  Musical performances could be heard, including music from the Third Regiment Band every evening.  Kindergarten classes were taught for younger children, as well as art, cooking, and elocution classes for adults.  Sundays offered church services and Sunday School.  And of course, Buffalo Bill and his Congress of Rough Riders were there to thrill and impress the crowds.

Upcoming Event!!

See for yourself Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show featuring Annie Oakley at Midway Village’s 1900 American Chautauqua! 

June 9 & 10, 2012

  • Meet Theodore Roosevelt as portrayed by nationally known Joe Weigand as he campaigns for the 1900 Republican Party ticket.
  • Chat with Mark Twain and meet famous Americans Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley
  • Thrill to demonstrations of sharp shooting, trick riding and Native American Indian demonstrations at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World on the Midway Village Green with two shows on Saturday (12:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.) and one on Sunday (2:30 p.m.) along with a wide variety of other popular activities, presentations and entertainments of the times.
  • The 1900 America event will include live period music featuring Mark Dvorak on Saturday and Rockford’s own Betsy Kaske both days in the Midway Village church.
  • Experience Dr. Balthasar’s Miracle Medicine Shows
  • Visit and learn from re-enactors depicting Spanish-American/Philippine War soldiers’ encampment
  • Rockford’s Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Veterans
  • View demonstrations of antique high-wheel bicycles by the Illinois Wheelmen and Wisconsin Wheelmen and horse drawn wagon rides.
  • Participate in classes in the art of 19th century military sabre and pugilism taught by Allen Reed, Headmaster of Gallowglass Academy and Professor of Antagonistics, Leaf River, Illinois.

For more details and admission prices, click here: http://www.midwayvillage.com/wordpress/event-registration/?ee=4


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Come One, Come All!

Nothing to do on a Saturday night?  Rockfordians at the turn of the century rarely had this problem.  Not only could they enjoy the steamboat rides that took them up the Rock River, they could get off at Harlem Park and enjoy gardens, carnival rides, food, and games.

Harlem Park opened in June 1891.  Located on the west bank of the Rock River, the main entrance was on Harlem Boulevard between Harper and Brown Avenues.  Admission was free, and the park hummed with rides, games, and eager visitors from morning to night.  Transportation to the park was either by steamboat up the Rock River or by trolley along the Rockford and Interurban Railway.  The forty-acre park opened with thrilling attractions including the Switchback Railway (roller coaster), Auditorium, Dance Pavilion, bathing houses, steamboat wharf, and Zoological Garden.  By 1905, the Three Way Figure 8 Scenic Railway, Miniature Railroad, Laughing Gallery (fun house), Novelty Parlors with photo gallery, Penny Arcade, Knife Boards, and Electric Carrousel were built.  A swimming pool and the Old Mill, a romantic spot for couples, were added later.  The park was lit up with beautiful electric lights at dusk.  Imagine the wonder and awe felt by visitors, many of whom had no electricity in their own home.

Tickets used at Harlem Park

The two most thrilling rides at the Harlem Park were the electronic circle swing and the Switchback Railway roller coaster.  The circle swing had six cars shaped like boats that could seat four passengers.  The Switchback Railway was called the most exhilarating amusement ride at the park, and cost only a nickel to ride.

Cars ran 1100 feet in 26 seconds and the track contained giant drops to thrill the riders.  Roller coasters were thought to improve one’s health and temperament.  The Chicago Daily Tribune featured a classified ad in 1883 for one of its roller coasters: “Health! Wealth! One hundred dollars’ worth of fun for a nickel. A health resort for ladies nervously affected. Come and be happy once more.”

The auditorium was built with a 50 x 100 foot stage and had 5,000 seats.  Originally built for concerts and vaudeville shows, it was also used for Chautauqua lectures and events.  The Chautauqua, which first took place in Rockford at Harlem Park in 1902, ran for fifteen days from the end of August to the beginning of September.  People from all over the area came to hear music, play games, and listen to lectures about health, religion, and politics.  Tents could be rented at the park and families camped out for the two week event.  Midway Village reenacts this event every June with a special event: 1900 America Chautauqua.

In the photo gallery, visitors could have their picture taken with different backdrops, just like we do with today’s tourist photo ops.

From right to left: Joel Eastman, unknown, Janet Sheldon, Harry Lamont, unknown, Allen Brantingham

Harlem Park successfully delighted 15,000 visitors a day, which included soldiers from Camp Grant during WWI.  But when the automobile boomed, the steamboats and trolleys lost popularity.  The Chautauqua was no longer being held.  The park found itself losing visitors and money, and it closed its doors in September 1928.  In later years, the park was remembered as a wonderful place to spend the summer.  The only remaining evidence of the park and its history is a pair of streetcar rails crossing Clinton Street at Harper Avenue.

Upcoming Fundraiser Event!!!

A Night In the Museum: Saturday, August 13 @ 7 pm

Enjoy the glory days of Harlem Amusement Park with games, food, and performances of the 1920s carnival.

$45 admission at the door

For more information about this fundraiser, click here: http://www.midwayvillage.com/event_calendar.cfm?id=1067

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Bells and Whistles of the Steamboats on the Rock River

In 1900, the Rock River was alive with parties from Friday to Sunday evening.  From the riverbank, you would be able to hear music playing and see the silhouettes of dance partners wearing out the top decks of the steamboats.  These riverboats were used all summer long for fun leisure activities, like traveling to parks for a picnic, including Harlem Amusement Park.  The day-long excursions were grand events that were discussed for weeks.

The steamboat made a huge impact on the growth of the Midwest in early 1800.  It could cut travel time by half through the use of steam-power, rather than man-power and the natural flow of the river.  To travel by wagon from New York City to Rockford took six weeks.  In 1830, it only took three weeks by steamboat.  In 1810, flatboats travelled for three to four months on the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.  In 1834, steamboats made the trip in only two weeks.  The shorter travel time and lower cost fueled economic growth and opportunity.

Handwritten Engine Room Signals from the Steamer Transit

In May 1838, the Gipsy became the first steamboat to enter Rockford on the Rock River.  It carried many early settlers, including Dr. George Haskell.  That June, Rockford had a visit from another steamboat: St. Louis’ Lighter.  To make way for other steamboats, a channel was excavated in the river during the fall and winter of 1845, which ultimately ruined the ford for which Rockford is named.  In this way, goods were shipped quickly to cities like St. Louis, New Orleans, and New York City by connecting the Rock River to the Mississippi River.  But when the railroad came to Rockford, these goods were more easily sent to Chicago and other cities, and the steamboats were used for pleasure.

Rockford launched its first steamboat, the Arrow, in 1885.  Unfortunately, it sank in 1900.

The Queen was built in 1891 and owned by Theodore O. Largent.  Its landing was one block north of the State Street Bridge on the east side of the Rock River.  For a quarter you could enjoy a 32 mile ride on the Rock River, which included stops at Harlem and Illinois Parks.  Largent owned a second steamboat in 1896, the May Lee, which he named after his daughter, May, and his son, Lee.  It was cut in two when the steamboat proved too small to keep up with the large demand, and a middle section was added, allowing it to carry up to 400 passengers.

After the Arrow sank, its owners John T. Buker and former mayor Amasa Hutchins had a new steamboat built.  The steamer Illinois quickly became the most locally known and popular steamboat on the Rock River.  Modeled after a Mississippi steamer, it was 125 feet long and 26 feet wide with a maximum speed was 10 mph.  Its baritone whistle was a familiar sound on the river as it travelled from Mulberry Street seven miles up the river.  Able to carry 1,000 passengers at once, it carried a record number of 50,000 passengers per year.  Its top deck could hold an orchestra and was used for dancing.

Concession sales on the steamboats included drinks and snacks.

Lantern from Steamboat Illinois

An accident on July 19, 1908 caused the Illinois to partially sink into the river.  The accident may have been caused by an excess of passengers.  In 1917, it was purchased by the Excursion Amusement Co., given a make-over, and renamed the City of Rockford.  It continued to make two trips a day with music, dancing, and “high-class amusements.”  Sadly, as automobiles grew in popularity, the steamboat was forgotten.  For years, it was tied up south of the Whitman Street Bridge, only to be visited by ruffian kids and drunkards.  The steamboat caught fire in March 1924.  There was no want or need to salvage it, so it was dragged up the river to the site of the current YMCA and sunk.  There it remained, forgotten.  In 1976, work on the Fordam Dam lowered the river to record shallowness and the rotted planks and cast iron pipes of the steamboat’s hull resurfaced.  Some parts of the boat were removed, but most of the hull still rests in the Rock River.

Steamboat City of Rockford

Just like the people of Rockford took trips to Harlem Park on a warm summer’s evening, you too can enjoy the park’s festivities here at Midway Village Museum at our annual fundraiser A Night in the Museum. 

Saturday, August 13 @ 7 pm  $40 advance tickets, $45 at the door

Click here for more information: http://www.midwayvillage.com/event_calendar.cfm?id=1067

To learn more about early Rockford, visit our Queen City of the Prairies exhibit!

Click here for hours and admission: http://www.midwayvillage.com/visit_hours.cfm

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