We are all part of the history of Rockford

by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL

With your help, coming soon to a courthouse near you – the new home of the Rockford Area Museum. Photo by CLIFF HILL

History is a living thing. It’s not only about the past, history is being made today and it will continue being made tomorrow and into the future. You may think history is boring and you may well have hated it in school but nevertheless, everyone plays a role in the making of history.

This article may be rather long and redundant but bear with us and see if you don’t identify yourself at some point in our narrative.

For many years the Rockford Historical Society has operated the Rockford Area Museum (RAM) in an overcrowded and inadequate antique of a building adjacent to the Rogue River Dam in downtown Rockford. The current RAM houses the past history of the greater Rockford community and because of its size and condition it is totally inadequate to the task.

One cannot turn around in the RAM without bumping into one’s self. It is so full of the artifacts of the area’s history that exhibits overflow into one another and cannot be separated to be adequately appreciated. Many large and important artifacts are out of sight and stored elsewhere. The RAM building lacks the simple necessities of running water and restrooms. Lacking air-conditioning, it is stifling in the summer. It is poorly lit making it difficult to discover the many treasures hidden within. The RAM, in this location, lacks adequate parking for volunteer staff and visitors. We could go on and on but you get the idea. The rhetorical question should be, can’t the Rockford community do better?

“Given what the volunteers of the Historical Society have had to work with these many years, they have done an absolutely wonderful job,” said Museum Consultant Gerard Adams, “but it’s time to take the RAM to the next level. What the RAM now has is an antique shop without prices. What the RAM needs is to provide visitors an ‘experience’ in history.” (Adams is a highly credentialed museum designer who at one point served as curator/collection manager at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.)

Always harboring a desire to move the RAM to larger quarters, the Historical Society and its many supporters were afforded a one-year window of opportunity to relocate the RAM to the vacant Kent County 63rd District Court Building adjacent to Rockford City Hall. At the July Rockford City Council meeting in 2011, the Society was asked to raise upwards of $300,000 within a one-year time frame to make the move a reality.

Monies raised, along with in-kind services, would be necessary to renovate and update the somewhat neglected (by Kent County) interior of the Courthouse Building. New lighting, new flooring, new mechanicals (if necessary), etc., whatever it would take to bring the building up to Rockford standards. A portion of the raised funds would be set aside to insure ongoing sustainability after the new museum opens its doors.

The Historical Society would then be tasked with the design and creation of new displays, some interactive and changing monthly. It will appeal to the youth in all of us. For the first time, adequate space would be available to properly display the extensive collections of the RAM, many newly acquired.

The new RAM will have twice the display area of the old museum. It will be easily handicap accessible, as compared to the long ramp leading up to the narrow entrance and aisles of the current museum. It will have restrooms for both visitors and staff. It will have an office for museum staff. It will have storage space and a research area. And perhaps most important (for creature comfort), it will be air-conditioned and have the added plus of parking at its very front door along with additional parking at the rear of the building in the City’s Main St. parking lots.

The new RAM will, for the first time, keep regular hours. It will hire a part-time Museum Director who will be assisted by volunteers. It is hoped the new RAM will become a signature destination promoting the past, the future, and the excellence of the ENTIRE greater Rockford community. “It will be like no other museum anywhere in a town this size,” said Consultant Adams.

More than just the City of Rockford alone, it’s a Community effort

Raising $300,000 is a daunting task. From the git-go a few thought it impossible but RAM supporters are tenacious. Rockford Historical Society President Terry Konkle is now proud to say, “The Historical Society and its patrons, with 5 months left until the July 2012 Rockford City Council mandated deadline, have already secured donations (both monetary and in-kind) totaling half the required amount.”

“This does not mean we are home free,” said Konkle, adding, “We need to reach out to each and everyone in the entire 66,769 populace of the greater Rockford community, to reach our goal.”

The RAM is more than just the history of the City of Rockford and its peoples. It is the history of a community of peoples, with Rockford at its center, surrounded by the townships of Plainfield, Algoma, Courtland, and Canon. Many, if not most, identify Rockford as their hometown. It’s where they went to school. It’s where they’re employed. Faith based, it’s where they attend almost four-dozen churches. It’s where they play and shop and dine. It’s where they bring friends and relatives from out-of-town. It’s where they participate and attend annual events, festivals, and celebrations. It’s where they voted Rockford’s Farm Market – “America’s Favorite”. It’s where they volunteer their time, their talents, and their treasures to worthy causes. You get the idea. We are all – both the business community and individuals alike – part and parcel of the history of Rockford.

From its very beginnings as a little lumbering hamlet that grew up around a sawmill on the Rogue River then known as Laphamville, Rockford has also become home to a benevolent group of community minded businesses. One such company is Wolverine World Wide (WWW). The history of Rockford is entwined with the 1922 birth of Wolverine Shoe and Tanning Corporation, later to become known as Wolverine World Wide. Headquartered in Rockford, WWW is one of the largest and most prosperous shoe manufacturers in the world.

In Rockford’s more recent past one business, Herman’s Boy, is another example of business benevolence. The family–owned business is ever so proud of its history and loves to promote its home in Rockford as “one location world wide”.

For its part The Rockford Register, known today as the Rockford Squire, is Rockford’s oldest continually operating business. The first issue of the newspaper rolled off the presses on February 8, 1871. Soon to be 141 years old, the Squire has faithfully chronicled the lives and times of the Rockford area community. From the very beginning every single issue of the newspaper has been bound in annual books and presented to the Rockford Historical Society for placement in the museum. The Krause Memorial Library in downtown Rockford also has a microfiche file of every Squire issue. Indeed, the newspaper itself is a living breathing history of the area’s past.

Let’s git ‘er done

Rockford is envied throughout the state of Michigan for 4 things; its commitment to excellence, its reputation for getting things done against insurmountable odds, the all abiding generosity of its peoples, and most importantly, as Rockford Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler always likes to say, “The greatest asset to Rockford is its people.”

“It takes a village” and the Rockford Historical Society is reaching out to the community to fulfill “their impossible dream”. The dream of having a new home for the Rockford Area Museum, a home we can all be proud of.

You can own a piece of that dream. Donations, both small and large, are being accepted. Be it a buck or a $gazillion, all contributions are greatly appreciated. Konkle smiled when he told us, “Nobody’s checked the $gazillion box on the RAM donation pamphlet as yet but hope springs eternal!”

Tax exempt donations may be remitted to: Rockford Area Community Endowment, ATTN: Rockford Area Museum, P.O. Box 781, Rockford, MI 49341-0561 or contact Terry Konkle at 866-0530 for more information.

(**Reporters Note: At the annual January Meeting of the Membership of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, during a segment called “The year (2011) in review”, the best newspaper headline of the past year was announced. On the front page of an August edition of the Squire was a blaring headline: “Market contest ending, please VOTE! …even if you’ve never been to farm market or hate vegetables”.

So it only follows that – “Please DONATE to the RAM, even if you’ve never been to the Rockford Area Museum, or you hate old things.” Dig deep ladies and gentlemen, with the entire community’s support, Rockford won the America’s Favorite Farmers Market contest and it certainly deserves the best small city museum in America!)

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