After two years of thinking and planning plus thousands of hours of hard work by dedicated volunteers, the the Rockford Area Historical Society, (RAHS) is proud to announce the Grand Opening of the NEW Rockford Area Museum on September 26.
The road to this point has not been an easy one. It started in 1969 when a small group of visionaries formed the Rockford Area Historical Society with the goal of opening a Rockford Area Museum to preserve the heritage of the area for future generations.
That dream was realized in 1976 when the Rockford Area Museum opened in a former powerhouse next to the dam in downtown Rockford. That building itself had played an important part in Rockford’s History. It was originally built to generate enough power for the city that would entice the Hirth-Krause Shoe Company to relocate its factory from Grand Rapids to Rockford. As is well known now, that company grew to become Wolverine World Wide, the third largest footwear manufacturer in the world. Without that powerhouse, the face of Rockford would likely look considerably different than it does today.
Volunteers operated the museum in that building for over thirty six years under difficult conditions. There was no running water or bathrooms, limited display space, a shortage of parking, and poor climate control, which made the proper care and safekeeping of artifacts, documents, and photographs, difficult.
Then, in 2009, Kent County consolidated the District Courts including the 63rd District Court in Rockford, into a new facility on East Beltline at Knapp in Grand Rapids. After a court battle by the City of Rockford to prevent the move, the move was approved. Later, the empty courthouse was purchased by the City of Rockford which began to seek a suitable tenant for it.
The Historical Society offered a proposal that would turn the building into a new museum, but the City was skeptical. The City Manager and City Council were understandably concerned that the Society, whose membership was limited and consisted mostly of older Rockford area citizens, would not be able to raise the estimated $350,000 that would be needed to renovate the building and pay for the expansion and move of the museum, as well as the future operating costs. To their credit, they listened as Terry Konkle, the Historical Society’s President and others from the group refused to take no for an answer, and continued to present their case for a new museum.
Many area residents shared the city’s concern that the project was too large for the Historical Society. “How could that group raise $350,000?,” they asked. In private moments, some Society members had the same concerns, but they kept working and spreading the positive message about this exciting new museum.
In 2010, the City offered the Historical Society a challenge: Raise half of the needed funds within six months and the museum proposal would be accepted. A fundraising committee was formed. Volunteers met with area groups and businessmen, talked to residents one on one, and attended the Farmers Market and the Blues Concerts to solicit funds. Fund raisers including a Frank Sinatra Tribute Show and an auction were planned and executed.
Thanks to the volunteers’ dedication, and the support of the Rockford area’s residents and business community, that initial goal was met. Work could then begin on creating a museum that would promise to be a new standard of excellence for small city museums. This would be accomplished by hiring Media Rare, a Grand Rapids firm with a wealth of experience designing and building museum exhibits for small museums and others including the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.
A lease agreement was reached with the City with the museum paying $1 per year in rent, but accepting responsibility for all renovations and up keep of the building.
Then fundraising continued and renovations began. The building was outfitted with new windows and doors, updated electrical work, roof repairs, and interior renovations needed to convert the old courthouse into a showpiece museum. In addition, the heating and cooling system which was known to be old, but was functioning properly, failed within a week of the signing of the lease, requiring it to be replaced at a considerable cost. That possibility had been anticipated in the budget, but was hoped that it would be required later rather than sooner.
As word of the new museum’s plans spread, so did the confidence that it would really happen. Doubters became interested parties. Interested parties became believers. Believers became donors and volunteers.
Now, after more than two years of serious planning, fund raising, and hard work, The Rockford Area Historical Society is proud to present Phase One of this ambitious project.
On the afternoon of September 14, the new RAM will host the Rotary Club’s Grand Prize drawing for their current raffle at 2:30PM. That drawing will be preceded by a performance by the highly regarded Rockford High School Jazz Band and followed by a “Sneak Preview” of the museum from 3PM to 4PM. The public is invited to this advance look at the museum. The museum will then be closed until the Grand Opening Ceremony on Thursday evening, September 26.
Visitors will see a chronological story about the development of the Rockford area and interesting displays showing everything from a horse drawn mail wagon that was used in the early 1900’s to deliver Rockford’s mail, to a two room “house” showing a parlor and a kitchen from past eras. There is also a large “forest” for storytelling, where young visitors can play with toys reminiscent of bygone eras. There is another surprise aimed specifically at young visitors. It answers the question “Why is Rockford here?” and captures the attention of all children who see it.
The entire museum has been planned to be family friendly with many interesting displays at low levels – perfect for young eyes. There are signs saying “FOR KIDS ONLY” that can be opened to reveal facts that are designed to be remembered by young visitors. Future plans include a series of original puppet shows that will be entertaining and educational and other surprises.
A lot has definitely been accomplished but the job is not over.
Between $30,000 and $50,000 is still needed to complete all of the new exhibits that are planned for Phase Two which will contain many other surprises and facilities that will further enhance the museum’s value to the community.
Volunteers are also still needed to ensure that the new museum will be properly staffed to offer expanded hours of operation and an increase in the level of services it will offer to the entire Rockford area.
Donations to purchase needed displays, materials, supplies, and equipment are also still needed. That includes equipment to help the museum’s staff of researchers, led by Research Director, Pat Frye, properly care for the museum’s extensive collection of research materials, documents, and photographs, and enhance their ability to help area residents with genealogy and other research projects. Other funding options including naming rights for some exciting exhibits as well as the two main exhibit rooms, are also still available.
Information will be posted on the museum website at www.rockfordmuseum.org as plans are finalized. Residents can also call the museum at 616 866-2235, Historical Society President, Terry Konkle at 616 866-0530, or Museum Managing Director, Al Pratt at 616 485-4144.