Tag Archives: Rock River

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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Teasing Out Family History, or, Sheets to the Wind (Nautically Speaking)

As caretakers of history, it is understandable that curators, collections staff, and other museum professionals come to regard their collections personally. Through spending time with artifacts and photographs and learning about the stories of a community, a family, or an individual, we feel a connection to these objects. We are tasked with their interpretation through exhibition and even here on this blog. When we make meaning for the public, we must keep our personal feelings out of it.  Is this always easy? Unfortunately, it’s not.

I began my training here by cataloging new donations. This means giving each new item, whether it is a photograph, jacket, book, or chair, a tracking number.  Then details about each item are recorded by hand.  In addition to the description of each individual item, we record its history. Did it come from Rockford? How old is it? What is its story?

Think about it this way: on display in our gallery is a black top hat. It seems like nothing too special, besides looking very old, until you learn that it was worn by Germanicus Kent, an early Rockford settler. This kind of provenance – its history, its background – is what makes these objects distinctive to Rockford.

The first large collection that I cataloged unfortunately came in with little information attached to it. In the box of photographs and newspaper clippings were some pictures of a young boy named Raymond Sheets. One of the photos was on thick matboard cut into an oval shape.

Raymond Warde Sheets was born in Kansas to Frank D. and Mary Sheets on June 28, 1889. Rev. Frank Sheets was pastor of Court Street Methodist Church from 1902-1910. In this 1902 photo, Raymond is thirteen years old.

Raymond Warde Sheets was born in Kansas to Frank D. and Mary Sheets on June 28, 1889. Rev. Frank Sheets was a pastor at Court Street Methodist Church from 1902-1910. In this 1902 photo, Raymond is thirteen years old.

The next photographs were of Raymond as a husband and father, Raymond in his WWI uniform, and suddenly he is a gray-haired senior, standing with his three sons. I looked through the photos for the missing years and finally found the young family. There were several images of their home at 113 Lawn Place, which is located on the Rock River off of Harlem Boulevard.

Sheets Family

Raymond Sheets, his wife Charlotte, and their two youngest sons, Brice and Jerry (seated).

From these, I gleaned that Raymond and his wife had three sons: Roger, Brice, and Jerome (Jerry). Jerry appears in many of the photos, like this one where he is dawdling on the lawn with the family puppy.

Jerry Sheets

Then I hit a chunk of photographs that were much older. Many were of a young girl, and the pencil on the back identified her simply as “Aileen.” Who is she? It became clear that I was entering a new story, as the photos included images of her father, C.F. Henry, a wealthy clothier. He owned the Henry block at Mulberry and North Main Streets. In the photo below, Aileen is holding a lit candle and standing on a table.

Aileen Sheets

Aileen was born to Christian F. and Fannie Skinner Henry in Rockford around 1888. The Skinners were early Rockford pioneers.

The family lived in a grand home at 112 Glenn Road on the Rock River. The house was designed by architect Lawrence Buck, a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright. There were several photos of the home, and I recorded the details for each – the living room, the dining room – until I came to a photo of a bedroom. I recognized a tiny, oval picture that was framed and sitting on top of the desk.

112 Glenn Rd bedroom

Grasping a magnifying glass in my hand, I hovered over the picture and recognized the young man. I pulled out the oval photo of Raymond. They were one and the same! Flipping over the bedroom photo, the words “N.E. bedroom (Mine)” confirmed that this bedroom was indeed Aileen’s. Were the two married? Was the little girl in these other photographs the same wife of Raymond Sheets and the mother of his three sons?

Using Ancestry, I was able to find out so much more about these two families who became one when Raymond Sheets married Charlotte Aileen Henry in 1912. Finally, these two big puzzle pieces came together.  I then ruthlessly searched Ancestry for everything I could find about the family. The two oldest Sheets boys married and had children. Raymond purchased Rockford Silver Plate Co. in 1925 and was also president of the Rockford Paper Box Co. Both Raymond and Aileen attended Rockford High School.  In the 1905 yearbook, Raymond’s senior year, I found this gem:

1905 RHS yearbook Sheets

I felt swept away with romantic notions of these apparent high school sweethearts – the girl who cherishes the picture of her young beau on her desk, and the boy whose past, present, and future is filled with her.

Pressing onward through the box of photographs, I noticed that there were scarcely any from the 1930s because little Jerry suddenly appeared as a man in uniform. Seen above with his puppy, Jerry was 22 years old in this photo with his parents, taken November  1, 1943. Jerry had enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and served as a Second Lieutenant.

Sheets Family

Jerry Sheets with his parents Raymond and Charlotte Aileen Sheets, Nov. 1, 1943.

One Rockford newspaper article gushed about Jerry, who attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, majored in economics, and was a member of the senior honorary society as well as senior track manager of the track team, not to mention the treasurer and house manager of Theta Delta Chi. His photo smiled serenely at me, this young soldier in uniform, hair pristinely parted and slicked back, and I thought of the toddler in the sailor suit in the yard at 113 Lawn Place. I felt a strange connection to this family, one that began with just of box of unsorted pictures. Another article boasts that Jerry was the youngest officer on an American destroyer during the invasion of Normandy. With this clipping is a note from Raymond to his brother Harold, saying “thought you would like to see clipping on Jerry. The kid sure did a swell job.”

I picked up the next article and felt my stomach drop as I read the title: “Presidential Citation Discloses How Lt. Sheets Died on Destroyer.”

Jerry was serving as assistant damage control officer on the U.S.S. Laffey off the coast of Okinawa. On April 16, 1945, the ship was hit by a kamikaze attack that started raging fires and trigged the explosion of ammunition onboard the ship. Jerry organized volunteer parties of firefighters to bring the blaze under control. When the ship was hit again by suicide bombers, Jerry was killed. He was one of 31 crewmembers killed or missing in action. Because of his efforts to control the fires, he helped to save the Laffey, which limped back to Seattle, Washington “a tangled mass of steel” that was “unbelievably afloat.” He was awarded the bronze star for his heroic efforts posthumous.  He was only 24 years old.

Unfortunately, this is where most of the story ends.  Records tell us that Fannie Henry, Aileen’s mother, died in 1925 of a stroke. C.F. Henry, Aileen’s father, died in 1942, and Aileen died in 1957. Raymond Sheets died in 1986 as did his second youngest son, Brice.  Roger died four years later.

I admittedly know very little about this family, about what the people were really like.  Their personal lives are hidden, and photographs tell us little.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it would take many more to describe each of us.  It is easy to fall in love with adorable or striking or thought-provoking photographs and their subjects; however, as historians, we need to be somewhat skeptical with our admiration. It is easy to let our bias guide our interpretation of facts and events because we want to focus on virtue rather than vice. I can only speculate that Raymond’s yearbook suggested his whole world revolved around Aileen because they were madly in love. But it is only one theory and we cannot take this for fact. In any case, it is usually more fun to present what we know and then let others speculate themselves on the hows and whys. It adds to the conversation and debate, and opens up new worlds of possibilities.



Upcoming Event: WWII Days 2014

Sat September 20: 11am-5pm

Sun September 21: 11am-4pm

$14 Adult, $7 Child (3-17)

Members are always free!

World War II Days includes elaborate and realistic battles complete with tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and exciting pyrotechnic displays. Saturday the battle shows are featured at 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm. Sunday the battle time is 2:30 pm.

The largest World War II Days in the Midwest boasts more than 1,000 re-enactors representing the soldiers of the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Italy and Japan.  Authentic military vehicles, wood encampments, and the ambiance of the beautiful venue add to the quality experience for the visitors.

For more information, click here: WWII Days Event


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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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