Baskets in the Belfry to close after 33 years

Owner will stay surprisingly near as Polly’s Passions

by BETH ALTENA

Polly VonEschen is pictured here with long-time coworker and friend Pat Kinney. VonEschen is closing her business, Baskets in the Belfry, but plans to stay near—actually, in exactly the same spot—with her candy company Polly’s Passions.

The Baskets in the Belfry famous chocolate fountain may be gone forever with the closing of Baskets, a Rockford icon of business, but owner Polly VonEschen and her candy business Polly’s Passions, will remain remarkably near.

When Baskets’ doors close forever by the end of this month, Traci Webber of Grand Cakes will transition from her current Courtland Street location to 18 Bridge Street. There VonEschen will use the kitchen to create her amazing sea foam, toffee, peanut brittle, turtles and a wide variety of truffles.

“Once I made the decision, it was a relief,” said VonEschen, taking care to point out that she is all right with the decision to close, although it is bitter sweet.

VonEschen came to Rockford because of job transfer for her husband’s work. New in town, she first met Chi Chi Rogers, former mayor and city council member. Rogers begged VonEschen to put her name down as entertainment chair for the Start of Summer Celebration, claiming the work was all done and they simply needed a name on the form. VonEschen has been an organizer for Start of Summer ever since, and this is her 24th year.

“They had me in charge of the entertainment, and the band for the dance tent was the German Oompahs,” VonEschen said. “I couldn’t leave and let them think I’d done that.”

Turns out the German Oompahs, while amazing, aren’t the best choice for a dance tent band.

VonEschen, like Baskets, is a fixture in Rockford, and extremely involved in the town, the business community and service groups. She is a Lion, is active in the Heart of Rockford merchants association, an organizer for the Girlfriends Staycation, has organized Think Pink, and been an organizer for Rockford’s Harvest Fest. She is a board member of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, the Rockford Area Community Endowment (which brings the West Michigan Healing Fields to the area this year for an amazing 9/11 memorial), is on the Downtown Development board, and the Healing Fields board.

Baskets was purchased from the store’s original owner, Paula Sedrowski, in 2005. “Paula was ready to retire and I wasn’t,” VonEschen said. She had worked in the business for many years after encountering Sedrowski at a Start of Summer meeting. When Sedrowski was ready to move on, VonEschen was ready to step up as owner.

In her years in Rockford, VonEschen has seen many changes in the town. In addition to many new restaurants that are a draw to the town, VonEschen has seen many businesses come and go. Rockford has many boutiques and salons now, and VonEschen said she remembers that when Kimberly of Kimberly’s Boutique was new, she owned a balloon and gift-wrapping shop. The growth of Aunt Candy’s Toy Company has been amazing to watch as well, VonEschen noted.

Sedrowski has been helping at the store, which has been very busy since news of its closing. She said she had moved the business twice before it ended up in its present location. Sedrowski opened her doors in the now gone antique barn in 1977 when her rent there was $165 a month. The barn was located where the welcome center now sits in front of Great Northern Trading Company’s front door. The former farmhouse, which for years has been Pegasus Sports, was the original homestead for which the barn and stables (now Great Northern) were built.

Sedrowski had been visiting Rockford and stuck her head in the door at the Candle Shop and asked then-owner Sally Charnely if the town had a basket store. When she found out it didn’t, she opened one in the very top of the old barn. The shop only carried baskets, thus the name Baskets in the Belfry. Sedrowski said the old barn wasn’t in great shape and at one point was struck by lightening, which put a big crack in the building. (Later, before the building was torn down in 1988 or ‘89, it had cables inside from wall to wall to keep the barn from falling down.)

Sedrowski said she was pregnant in January 1978 with the new business. Later she brought her son in to work with her. “I had to have customers hold my son while I wrote up their orders,” she recalled.

She said that there were blizzards every weekend in January and she had zero income every Monday. “I didn’t know how to quit,” she admitted.

After that, business began to be good and in October 1987, Baskets moved without closing to a mall, which has also since been torn down and was located where Arnie’s dining area is today.

Sedrowski said she too has long memories of Rockford in earlier years. She recalls Mugs Meals up on Ten Mile (across from North Rockford Middle School, now dental office of Dr. Scott Strickland). She remembers Let’s Play It Again kids toys, a consignment shop before such businesses typically existed. Pegasus housed an amazing gourmet restaurant, Les Idees and then another.

At one time the town boasted three ice cream shops and where Double Take is located was once the Depotique, which had a knitting machine and made hats. The Weaver’s Shop was in Open Mind and in the late ‘70s a local business The Browser Box sold used records. The proprietor could track down any piece of music you could hope for and did.

“The Internet really changed a lot of how people shop,” Sedrowski noted.

She said since her time running Baskets, a lot of big box competitors on Alpine Avenue affected stores like hers. She decided to sell when she lost her passion for the business. She was a newlywed, was fighting cancer and had stopped looking forward to going in to work.

The building where Baskets is located started out life as a car wash, which was a second business for the then owner of the gas station on the corner. Visitors who park in the Baskets lot can see two pairs of double doors where cars would enter and exit. It was built in the 1960s and later housed many different businesses, including the Wild Boar Outlet, a Wolverine World Wide retail shop featuring furniture made from pigskin. It has been Powell’s Flower Shop, complete with walk-in refrigerator, and the Copper Pig. Sedrowski moved Baskets there in 1984, its third and sadly final location.

Sedrowski said she is also bittersweet about the closing and said the important thing is that VonEschen is okay with it and looking forward to continuing her candy business. “Nothing lasts forever,” Sedrowski said. “Nothing good lasts forever and nothing bad lasts forever.”

VonEschen is glad the decision to close is over, although she will miss the loyal customers, many of whom are now her close friends. “That’s what I am going to miss most,” she said. “The customers and the friends, many are one and the same. I’ll miss the conversations.”

Luckily, by sharing the space with Grand Cakes and continuing to offer Polly’s Passions, she won’t be far to find.

About Squire News

The Squire has been Rockford’s free weekly newspaper since 1871. Our loyal readership includes over fifteen thousand homes in the Rockford area, including the affluent Lakes area of Lake Bella Vista, Bostwick Lake and Silver Lake; Belmont, Blythefield, as well as Algoma, Courtland, Cannon and Plainfield Townships. The Squire is distributed through the U.S. Post Office every Thursday. We also deliver to in-town businesses and homes with paper carriers and news stands in our grocery stores and over thirty local shops.
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