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Winnebago County History

living room

In 1800, the Northern Territory was divided into the Ohio and Indiana Territories by an act of Congress. The Indiana Territory comprised the present states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. In 1809, the territory of Illinois, which included Wisconsin and peninsular Michigan, was organized, and in December, 1818, it was admitted with its present boundaries into the union as a state.

By an act of the State legislature on January 16, 1836, Winnebago County was formed out of Jo Daviess and LaSalle Counties and at that time included all of what is now Boone County and the two eastern township ranges of what is now Stephenson County.

woman

It was named for the Winnebago tribe of Native Americans that once occupied this part of northern Illinois. They spoke a Siouan language and shared traditions of both the Eastern Woodlands and Plains cultures. In 1832, they formed an alliance with the Sac and Fox, under the leadership of Black Hawk.

The first settler in the county was Stephen Mack around 1829. Born in Poulton, Vermont, Mack planned a town at the mouth of the Pecatonica River, which he called Macktown. Before settling in the county he took the daughter of a Pottawatomie Chief by the name of Hononegah as his wife. They bore 11 children.

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Germanicus Kent, Lewis Lemon and Thatcher Blake arrived from Galena and made the first settlement in the County of Winnebago on the west side of the Rock River in August of 1834. Kent built a sawmill, an enterprise that met with many setbacks and Blake selected a site to begin farming.

Daniel Shaw Haight founded a settlement on the east bank. Lemon, a slave, later bought his freedom, but stayed in the area as a truck farmer. Halfway between Chicago and Galena, the community was briefly known as “Midway,” but quickly became known as “Rockford” because of the excellent ford across the Rock River.

downtown

The earliest settlers were primarily from New York state and New England, and the area acquired a modest cosmopolitan character early in its existence. Large numbers of Irish-born immigrants arrived in the 1850’s, and thousands of Swedish immigrants settled in Rockford between 1835 and the early 1900’s. Italians came to Rockford by the thousands between 1878 and 1912, establishing businesses that still bear their names and social clubs that reflect Italy’s various regions.

Other significant ethnic groups, which had a presence in Winnebago County were the Germans, Poles and Lithuanians. The black population of the city began to grow after the First World War, and large numbers of Laotians, Vietnamese and Hispanics arrived after 1970.

farmer

In 1852, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad reached the city of Rockford, and by 1860, the region had become a significant industrial center, noted for the production of the John H. Manny reaper and other agricultural machinery. The Swedes’ metal and woodworking craftsmanship made Rockford a leading furniture center, with more than 90 companies in existence between 1835 and 1960. By the first half of the 20th century, Rockford was the second largest furniture manufacturing center in the U.S.

Twentieth century industry revolved around machine tools, heavy machinery, automotive, aerospace, fastener and cabinet hardware products and packing devices and concepts. The county’s industrial background has produced many important and interesting inventions over the years as demonstrated in local historian Jon Lundin’s book, Master Inventor: How Howard Colman Created a Multi-National Corporation.

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The many cultures that have melded to create Winnebago County is what makes it a great region. A rich cultural history that has evolved from the days of Vaudeville and silent movies has resulted in a cultural renaissance of the arts, including the restoration of the Coronado “atmospheric” theater with its grand Barton organ. Early industrialists had the foresight to set aside large tracts of land for public use, which has given the community such gems as the Sinnissippi “sunken” gardens along the riverfront and Atwood Forest Preserve and Outdoor Environmental Education Center. But, most of all, Winnebago County is its citizens – people who care deeply about the community and provide hundreds of volunteer hours and significant leadership to the organizations that make up the fabric of community life. Without question, life is good here. Just ask almost any one of the county’s residents and they’ll agree – this is a wonderful place to live, work and play.

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