The Getaway Guys’ 2009-10 visits to “The Forest City” were inspired by a reader who wrote about his discoveries in and around Rockford, Ill. Many years had passed since either Guy had thought about (or visited) Rockford, but always keen to explore the forgotten and overlooked, Neil and Alan asked: “Why not?”
Neil and Alan first went looking for the elusive (former) Camp Grant, a 5,460 acre area once used to train infantry for World Wars I and II, but finding Camp Grant (presently Seth Atwood Park) was easier said than done.
Located off Ill. 251 south of U.S. 20, this hub of former military activity and/or Seth Atwood Park is somewhat wanting in signage.
Now the place is devoted to recreation and almost totally devoid of evidence of its association with rifle and mortar practice. But vestiges of trenches and pill boxes can nevertheless be found (complete with warnings about possible unexploded ordnance).
Although Neil and Alan weren’t “blown away” by their tour, they enjoyed their hike and the adventure of possibly stepping on a mortar round. “Just like Verdun,” Neil muttered.
Barely surviving their brush with trench warfare, the Guys headed to the Rockford Art Museum, the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Discovery Center Museum, all conveniently located next to one another on North Main Street in downtown Rockford.
Here, visitors are in for a very pleasant surprise. Unknown to the intrepid travelers, the Rockford Art Museum is the largest museum outside Chicago devoted to art in Illinois. With an impressive permanent collection and an active exhibition schedule, RAM was a Rockford game-changer for Neil and Alan. In addition to works by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), Lorado Taft (1860-1936), Ed Paschke (1939-2004) and Phyllis Bramson (1941- ), a mega Hollis Sigler (1948-2001) exhibition during their first Rockford visit was a standout.
While Neil was keen on Lorado Taft and Reginald Marsh, Alan was engrossed with the penetrating Sigler works.
A natural history “nut,” Alan was thrilled with the Burpee Museum, where he could show off his extensive knowledge (a role reversal – Neil being the art know-it-all). Fascinating and well-organized, this is another must-visit Rockford destination.
On the first floor, “The Ordovician Sea,” “The Coal Forest” and “The Diary of a Dinosaur” exhibits are superb. On the second and third floors, the Geo Science, First People and Windows to Wilderness exhibits are equally outstanding.
Upon leaving the Burpee, the Guys hopped over to the Discovery Center Museum for a quick look. Too old to be parents of rambunctious preschoolers (but not yet a grandparent – Alan), the Getaway Guys got a kick out of the din and happy chaos. Both were impressed with the excellence of this interactive institution.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time finding Camp Grant-Seth Atwood Park, the Getaway road warriors arrived at the Anderson Japanese Gardens in time to witness its closing, thereby necessitating another pleasant Rockford trip in April.
The Guys along with Holly Clayson (Neil’s wife), indulged in a delicious and cost-effective (Alan’s litmus test) lunch in the Seasons Restaurant and then toured the premises, accompanied by insightful Kathy Boyd, manager of tours, volunteers and office.
Established in 1978 by Linda and John Anderson and designed by Hoichi Kurisu, the Anderson Japanese Gardens, with their endless nooks and crannies, are less crowded that at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Ms. Boyd says the gardens were designed to be more therapeutic than tourist attraction, and are dedicated to opportunities for personal reflection and contemplation.
Much larger than a typical Japanese garden, they accommodate a fair number of visitors but remain tranquil, reflective and contemplative they are another “must-see-to-appreciate” Rockford attraction.
With an hour to spare before closing time, the Guys and Holly visited the Midway Village Museum, not far from the Anderson. On 137 acres, the Midway features 26 authentic period buildings from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries and a museum dedicated to the history of Rockford.
The buildings are a cross-representation of small-town commercial structures and residences of consequence to the growth of Rockford. While the museum is open to the public all year, the village is only open between May and August.
Rockford is familiar with good times and bad. A hub of industrial activity until the Great Depression brought widespread unemployment and shuttered factories, the Forest City bounced back during and after World War II only to fall victim to a globalized economy and the transfer of labor to cheaper markets during the last quarter century.
Currently re-inventing itself, Rockford has embarked upon an admirable effort to make itself a hub of cultural activities. That seems to be working very well.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.