In mid-September, the original campus of Rockford’s Barber-Colman Company was named an historic district and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a fitting end to one of Rockford’s best-known manufacturing sites. Founded in 1900, the Barber-Colman Company gradually built the 15-building plant between Rock and River Streets, by the very ford in the Rock River that gave this city its name.
By 1989, as Jon Lundin notes in his indispensable Rockford: An Illustrated History, Barber-Colman had “six divisions, with nine facilities in four states and in England, 3,000 employees, and $250 million in annual sales.” The Rock Street Plant remained Barber-Colman’s world headquarters until 1982; today, it sits vacant in a struggling neighborhood. Redevelopment plans, aided by tax credits that accompany the historic designation, are under way, and, if all goes well, the campus may one day come alive again. This time, however, the life will be commercial and retail and residential and even, perhaps, academic—but not manufacturing. Just as Barber-Colman itself did, large manufacturing has moved away from the river, the visible heart of Rockford, and it is unlikely to return.
By 1900, Rockford was already an established industrial town. As Lundin describes it,
Rockford had trouble keeping up with its booming...