by Tom Lindquist
The Start of Summer celebration is in its 41st year this year and is undeniably one of the most popular downtown annual events. It was not always the power-packed event we will see this weekend. In the 1950s Rockford’s had a row of booths and about four rides on Squire Street and in the parking lot behind what was then the Rockford Hotel, Blakeslee heating and Grover garage. My favorite was the fish stream with the plastic fish with numbers on the bottom. My dad Lester (Jiggs) took me for my first Ferris wheel ride there. We got stuck up on top for a few minutes I always remember how amazing Rockford looked from up there and you could see all of downtown and the top of the Tannery. I remember it was the late 1950s and I was only six or seven years old. It was a small celebration, but a lot of fun.
When I was in High School we heard there was going to be a sesquicentennial celebration (this was late 60s). There was to be a carnival, food and a battle of the bands in the old Fire Station (where the west end of the bowling alley is now). That was the most exciting part to people in my age group. The carnival was up and down Courtland Street and once again behind the hotel in that parking lot.
Homer Burch wrote the book about Rockford called From Sawmill to City and the Rockford Register ran excerpts from it. You could buy a copy at either Langridges or Patricks drugstore (now it is available at the Historical Society museum). This created a lot of interest in the town and its history-it was nice timing for celebrating the town’s birthday.
I give credit to people like then Police Chiefs James West and Bruce Finch, Mayor Clarence Blakeslee, City Manager John Van Prooyan-they all did great in those early days of Start of Summer Celebration. Our almost all-volunteer fire deptment, the Rockford police and Jaycees all worked hard to make it special. It was so successful they had a sesquicentennial plus one the next year. Then they had just a celebration for next few years.
The rides were up and down Courtland and Main streets. Rides were between Main and Monroe on Courtland and Courtland and Bridge on Main. On Courtland between Main and Squires streets there were little kids rides. City worker Joe Miles hired some of us local young guys to sweep the downtown streets all Sunday night to be ready for business Monday morning. In 1973 I moved into my first apartment-on Courtland Street over McBrides Gift Shop at 119 Courtland. I had just moved in from my parents home on the outskirts of Rockford to downtown, and within weeks woke to a carnival ride outside my window. I didn’t get much sleep that week.
About this time Squires Street was getting going in mid-nineteen seventies so the celebration became more of an arts and crafts event without the carnival and all the rest for a couple of years. It was nice but I don’t think it brought people in like the carnival and other activities had.
In the late nineteen seventies John Butler bought the Hotel from Darcy Mahon and became involved in the annual celebration. He really breathed fresh air into it established the Start of Summer name. Newspapers ran special segments for Rockford businesses to advertise their special events to go along with the festival. The carnival was brought back and radio station WJPW did remotes outside the Corner Bar.
I was working at Yukon Jacks where we had a log splitting contest out front of the bar for a couple of years. In the early eighties permission was granted for a beer tent in the parking lot behind the Rockford Hotel (now Sam’s Joint). I moved into Grand Rapids about this time but still I’ve watched the celebration grow since then, with the addition of fireworks, live music at the pavilion and continued great community support. I have come up and called bingo down by the river for the Legion, attended karaoke night any years that I can, and always have a great time at our Rockford summer celebration.
Hopefully my memories will give some of the area’s newer residence some background on Start of Summer Celebration. Get out enjoy it, support the businesses and enjoy your community.
Hopefully from those sputtters and starts in the early days our town celebration will now only grow in the future. Have a great Start of Summer, all. For the event known as Start of summer in my hometown I quote an old Neil Young song title: “Long may you run.”