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When the West Was Illinois

Anna Carlson
Heritage School, Rockford

Stephen Mack was the first white settler in northern Illinois. He came to the Rock River Valley in the early 1820s as a fur trader. He was heading for Bird's Grove but missed a turn and ended at Grand Detour. He traded with the Potawatomi and married the Indian princess Hononegah. In 1835, after the Black Hawk War, Mack founded the town of Pecatonica where the Pecatonica River flows into the Rock River in Winnebago County. It came to be known as Macktown.

In 1839 he built a Greek Revival home, which was the largest frame house west of Chicago at the time. He also established a ferry across the Rock River and later built a bridge. He was supposed to receive money for it from the state, but he never did. In 1851 the bridge was washed out. Rockton was a town across the river founded by the Talcotts. Rockton was the rival that survived Macktown. After Mack's death in 1850, the town was slowly deserted.

Today Mack's house and the trading post survive. The Rockton Historical Society and the Winnebago County Forest Preserve restored them. Macktown is the only community from the 1830s that is standing in northern Illinois without subsequent development. After Macktown's demise, it was farmed and in 1926 became part of Macktown Forest Preserve. Re-creating this time period is difficult because there are few records from the 1820s and 1830s. There was no courthouse yet, because Winnebago did not become a county until 1836.

In 1991 three people—Ray Scott, Vira Geers, and Mark Keester, director of Winnebago County Forest Preserve—formed a society to rebuild Macktown. All three enjoyed history and thought that the time period of Macktown was rich with history. Ray Scott had visited a restored village in Indiana and hoped to make Macktown a tourist attraction to benefit Rockton. Most of the founding board members were also members of the Rockton Historical Society. They also thought that since Macktown was the first settlement in northern Illinois it should receive some attention. Ray Scott became president of the new Macktown Restoration Foundation.

Originally, foundation members planned to reconstruct the buildings and re-create the enure village. The board of directors later determined that the society was not ready to undertake the restoration. There are no records from the first five years.

Today tha foundation's name is "Macktown: A Living History Education Center." The goal is to recreate the town of Macktown not merely by restoration, but primarily by using the area as a living history museum. In some museums visitors are not allowed to touch anything and leave without having learned much. But at Macktown, a living history museum, visitors can participate in a re-creation of an average family day of the 1830s.

In the spring and fall, Macktown hosts school tours. Recently 633 children participated over a ten-day period. The children joined in the activities, making knee-patch biscuits and drying squash, pumpkins, and apples for winter. After this the children are separated. The boys dip candles and the girls make quilt babies. While handling tools and trade items, the students learn about trade and the settlement of this area. The field trip lasts five hours. In the future Macktown plans to train volunteers to reconstruct the buildings for educational purposes using period techniques.

For the school tours, Macktown uses the Whitman Trading Post; built in 1846, it is the oldest commercial building in Winnebago County. It is a medium-size, two-story stone building with three sections. The stone was quarried from the nearby cliff of the Rock River. One of the rooms is being restored as a tavern, and the other section is an office and gift shop. The last section has three rooms on the first floor with one above and serves as a period trading post.

Each year in June the foundation sponsors their annual Rendezvous. Participants include fur traders, voyagers, trappers, a colonial botanist, blacksmiths, a re-creation unit of the Illinois militia of 1832, and Roger's Cadets. The event re-creates a rendezvous for the people of the community. Participants learn what it was like in Illinois in the fur- trade era. Throughout the summer and fall on the weekends, Macktown sponsors other educational activities, including breakfasts. Spirit of Macktown,


The Whitman Trading Post, part of a living-history center near Rockton, is used jar students who visit the site for school-related activities.

Luminaria Walks, Women's Conferences on reen- acting, a farm implement show, an ice cream social, a ladies handwork exhibit, militia days, and craft events.

Another activity is archaeological digs. The first dig in 1994, by Midwest Archaeological Research Services (MARS), sought to place the site on the National Register of Historic Places. It provided proof that there had been life on that location for ten thousand years. Dr. M. Catherine Bird of MARS explained that all of Mack's Section 23 had been occupied during the Archaic Period. These discoveries reinforced the decision to make Macktown an educational center. There have been several subsequent digs. Students from William Rainey College, Harper Junior College, Elgin Community College, and the University of Illinois at Chicago have helped in these archeological digs.

Many experts have been surprised by the number and size of the clam middens found along the shore of the Rock River. (A clam midden is a pile of clam shells discarded by the Indians.) The experts declared that Macktown has one of the largest array of inland waterway shell middens in the country. Dr. James Theler, of the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, said these shell middens are comparable to ones that he looked at on the Mississippi River. These materials date from the late Woodland 'Period.

At present the Macktown Board of Directors is organizing to increase their funds. The center lopes to hire a part-time site director and educa- ional coordinator. Macktown allows visitors to step back in time to when the fur trade was declining, when the easterners were arriving in the land rush following the Black Hawk War, and when the West was Illinois.—[From student historian's interview with M. Catherine Bird, Jan. 16, 1998; Edson I. Carr, The History of Rockton, Winnebago County, Illinois, 1820 to 1898; student historian's interviews with Connie Gleasman, Jan. 14, 15, 1997, and Jan. 8, 1998; Joe Lamb, "Archaeologist Seeks Mack History," Rockford Register Star, Sept. 10, 1981; Rochelle Lurie and M. Catherine Bird, "Results of Efforts to Relocate the circa 1835 Macktown- Rockford Road and a Phase I Archaeological Reconnaissance Survey of Macktown, Winnebago County, Illinois; Stephen Mack manuscripts at Rockford Public Library, Rockford, 111.; Original Federal Land Survey Notes, vol. 374; "Mack Home's Future Looks Bright," Rockford Register Star, Dec. 25, 1981; "Mack, Wife and Son Lie in Quiet Philip's Cemetery," Rockford Morning Star, Aug. 25, 1929; "Macktown News: Macktown Restoration Foundation Newsletter," Spring 1997, Winter 1997; "Mack- town: Where First County Settler Lived," Rockford Register, Feb. 15, 1968; "Macktown's Trading Post Renovated," Rockford Register, Feb. 15, 1968; Hal Nelson, ed., Sinnissippi Saga; Hal Nelson, We the People a/Winnebago County; student historian's interview with Phyllis Peterson, Jan. 15, 18, 1997, Jan. 10, 1998; student historian's interview with Karen Richardson, Jan. 10, 1998; student historian's interview with Dean Sheaffer, Jan. 10, 1997; Dean Sheaffer, "Landscape Evaluation and Cultural Report"; "Trade Post Opportunities First Drew Mack to Spot," Rockford Morning Star, Aug. 29, 1929; "Traditions of Mack Family Color History of Rockton," Rockford Morning Star, June 15, 1928; Winnebago County Deeds, 1836-1845, Books D, E, F, G, and H; and John Woods, "Visit the 1800s Next Week," Rockford Register Star, May 30, 1996.]


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