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DAY TRIP_Heritage and history: Museum celebrates Rockford’s rich ethnic culture

ROCKFORD – In recent weeks the national news has been filled with the negative side of people’s differences, so it’s refreshing to visit the Ethnic Heritage Museum, where the only thing boiling over isn’t tempers, but a melting pot rich in the diversity that helped Rockford grow.

Combined with a tour of the Graham-Ginestra House next door, which has architectural gems that surprise and delight, a visit to Rockford will be a day trip filled with cultural and ethnic history.

To begin the tours, enter at the Ethnic Heritage Museum. There I met Jocelyn Hare, president of the Heritage Museum Park, who was my tour guide through the Graham-Ginestra House. The Graham-Ginestra House is a historic residence once owned by Freeman Graham Sr.,a prominent businessman and Rockford alderman, and later, Leo Ginestra, an Italian immigrant who owned a mobile home park.

The first part of my visit began with a walk across the yard to the house, which was built in 1857 by the Graham family and eventually sold in the 1920s to the Ginestras.

Freeman Graham, who built the home, owned the Rockford Cotton Mill, and built the first sour-mash distillery in the state.

It was through his daughters that the house survived, passing from Freeman’s daughter, Julia, to Leonard and Mary Ginestra. In 1978, the Ginestras’ daughter, Therese Ginestra-Schmeltzer, created Graham-Ginestra House Inc. to maintain the home and took steps to have the house listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. She even opened a museum in the home. The Ethnic Heritage Museum purchased the home in 2016. Hare said Ginestra-Schmeltzer’s dedication no doubt saved the house for future generations to view.

I toured the first and second floors of the house. As I walked through the rooms, it was hard to decide whether to look up or to look down. The ceilings are marvels and the hardwood floors are original to the house. Really eye-catching is the free-standing staircase and the stained glass window.

In the sitting room, cast your eyes downward to see the starburst that points the way into the library. The parquet floor is made of oak, black cherry, maple, walnut and pine.

Elsewhere, I explored the parlor and a 1930s’-style bathroom. As for fireplaces, only two of the original five remain, Hare told me. 

Hare and I went up the lovely staircase for a tour of the bedrooms. While there, I learned about the mourning customs of wearing dark colors – black, purple, dark blue and gray. A mourning dress is displayed across one of the beds, and I learned that during February the house is decorated as if in mourning, in memory of Freeman, who died that month.

After visiting the house, Lynell Cannell gave me a tour of the Ethnic Heritage Museum. She started me off with the Irish, who were the first to come to Rockford due to the 1845 potato famine in their home country. She said a lot of people left Ireland during the 5 years of the blight. 

Irish hands worked on getting the first train into Rockford in 1852 and helped build a bridge across the Rock River.

Cannell said the Irish came here during the time of sailing ships, but other ethnic groups came during the 1890s when steamships made travel more pleasant.

On display right now in the Irish gallery is a Gaelic season, Lughnasadh, the beginning of the harvest season. I also learned about the billberry, similar to the American blueberry. 

The next gallery we covered featured the Italians, the majority of who came to Rockford during the turn of the century (19th to 20th). Among those arriving were the Southern Italians Venetians, Romans, Northern Italians and those from Naples, Sicily and Lombardy.

Part of this current exhibit gives information about the two theaters that were across the street from the museum, once the places to go. The Capitol Theatre at one time had a promotion that gave away dishes. Some of those colorful lures are on display at the museum.

In the Lithuanian Gallery – Cannell said they arrived about the same time as the Italians – I saw amazing straw ornaments, colorful sashes and little doll costumes.

In the Polish gallery, the current display focuses on World War II. 

Moving on, we came to the African-American Gallery. Here I learned about Lewis Lemon, one of the early settlers in Rockford. He settled on Kent Creek about 1834. I also saw a copy of his 1842 manumission papers – when a slave owner freed his slaves – proving Lemon was a free man. The papers described him as having been born a slave in North Carolina and being 5 feet 8 inches tall, stout, and weighing 170 pounds.

The current special exhibit is about the Harlem and other Renaissance periods.

Last, but certainly not least, was a the colorful Hispanic Gallery, which includes a selection of Mexican pottery.The gallery also features displays from countries such as Chile, Guatemala, Ecuador and Argentina.

Missing from the museum – but not from being celebrated – are another group that has a strong presence in Rockford: the Swedes. They settled on the other side of the river and are featured in a different, unrelated, museum, the Erlander Home.

I’d encourage people to take a stroll through the park one day, and it’s worth a return trip, too, as improvement plans are in the works. It’s well worth the time to learn about the immigrants who helped Rockford become one of the largest, and most diverse, cities in the state.

If you go …

What: Graham-Ginestra House

Where: 1115 S. Main St., Rockford

What: Ethnic Heritage Museum

Where: 1129 S. Main St., Rockford

Note: Both part of Heritage Museum Park

When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays; closed in January and on Easter; for Christmas, call ahead; also call ahead for group tours

Cost: $7 for adults, $5 for students, $15 per family

Distance: About 50 miles from Dixon

Accessibility:Ethnic Heritage Museum accessible to wheelchairs; Graham-Ginestra House accessible first-floor only, no paved pathway to house from museum

Information: 815-962-7402 or

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