SWISS COTTAGE MUSEUM - ROCKFORD
The Tinker Swiss Cottage and Gardens is a 27 room historic house in Rockford, Illinois, set in a park and garden grounds on a shallow bluff of limestone along the Kent Creek where it empties into the Rock River. Located on grounds were the city itself was founded with a sawmill and grinding mill in 1834 by Germanicus Kent for whom the creek is named, the Tinker Swiss Cottage is impressive, and bit deceptive from the outside. Though called a cottage, the house is really a Victorian era industrial age mansion, built by Robert Hall Tinker, a businessman and eventual mayor of Rockford. The Swiss design for the “cottage” comes from Robert Tinker’s travels through Switzerland in 1865. Born to a family of missionaries in Hawaii, but raised in Westfield, New York, Tinker ventured to make his fortune in the expanding “Wild West”, finding employment as an accountant at the Manny Reaper Works in Rockford.
For an historic property of its age the Tinker Cottage is impressive in that the furnishings are original with the family. The preservation of the house is a result of Robert Tinker (who has nothing to do with the toys), and his family having lived in the house for 75 years before turning it over to the city as a museum, completely intact, essentially as they resided in it. Dishes from the different eras of the mansion are laid out, along with personal items to illustrate periods of its life, but is essentially as it would have been around the turn of the century. Paintings and art collected decorate the rooms and hallways. Perhaps most impressive is Tinker’s library, an octagonal two story chamber or rich burnished wood with Swiss coats of arms on the ceilings. A spiral staircase to the second floor was carved from a single piece of walnut wood. And lining the ceilings of the formal dining room are painted scenes of Switzerland and inlaid wood panels.
Tinker liked to make furniture from driftwood caught in the flows of the stream and the house is strewn with the brambles twisted into casual chairs, among the more elegant furnishings of an industrialist’s home. The house is only open through guided tour, which begins in the separate former barn, also with a Swiss alpine flavor, though where chickens once roosted, a gift shop and event room now take up the space. On the park grounds is a Pre-Columbian Indian burial mound, a dome of grass among the trees, just near the barn, watched over by a majestic marker tree, groomed by the long vanished Indians, with its branches pointing in four directions. Across the Kent Creek stream by a suspension bridge are the Railroad Gardens, an elaborate garden path created by Tinker when the railroad bought the remainder of the estate to build a rail station. Passengers could stroll the garden path while waiting for a train.
The founding of the house and Tinker’s fortunes are perhaps as intricate as its Victorian designs, tied to the story of the Manny Reaper and a patent dispute. The town of Rockford was once called “Reaper City”, not from the grim one, but a machine. John H. Manny had developed the Manny Reaper, a horse powered combine harvester. The Manny Reaper beat the machine of Cyrus McCormick in a head to head competition at the 1855 Paris Exposition. McCormack sued Manny for patent infringement. Manny’s side was represented by an Illinois lawyer growing in popularity named Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton. Manny won the case but the stress apparently hit him hard and he died soon after in 1856 from tuberculosis or a stomach ailment, depending on which report you accept. McCormack ended up with the fame and historical credit for inventing the mechanical reaper and the founding of International Harvester. John Manny’s widow, Mary Door Manny, received an annual income of $200,000 and a position on the board of the company.
Robert Tinker took a trip to Europe in 1862, traveling in Switzerland, and was deeply impressed by the country with its scenic beauty and Alpine architecture. Upon his return to the plains of Illinois in 1865, Tinker began building a house near the location of the reaper factory, on land directly across the creek from Mary Dorr Manny’s house. The suspension bridge joined Tinker’s property with the Manny property and Tinker married Mary Dorr in 1870. Mary Dorr Manny Tinker died in 1901 and Tinker eventually married her niece, Jessie Dorr Hurd. In 1906, when the Illinois Central Railroad expanded through Rockford, Tinker sold the land across the river for the right of way and the Rockford rail station. Tinker was an officer of the Illinois Central and one could suggest some insider trading, but it was after all the industrial age. Tinker died in 1924 and the house was given to the Rockford Park District for a museum in 1943.
Is the Tinker Swiss Cottage haunted? An occasional Paranormal Tour of the house is offered with some spooky offerings around Halloween. The relatives of the Tinker family say no, the house was a happy home, so there's no reason for lost spirits to be wandering about in the middle of the night bumping into the furntiure. But you never know about those Pre-Columbian Natives under the burial mound, who might not be so restful.
Visiting the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum
The Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens are open Tuesday through Sunday with tours at 1pm and 3pm. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for children 6-17, and under 5 years are free. © Bargain Travel West
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