Community History

Winnebago County

Winnebago County is nestled in the north-central part of Illinois and is home to a workforce that is second to none, including a booming aerospace industry that continues to make its mark around the world.

While manufacturing continues to be the county’s largest industry it is also home to three major medical centers and thousands of acres of the most bountiful farmland in the state. With access to Interstate highways, rail, and a top-rated regional airport, the sky is the limit when it comes to economic opportunity.

Winnebago County offers more than ten thousand acres of forest preserves and parks, Anderson Japanese Gardens, Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens, Khlem Arboretum and Botanic Garden, and numerous museums, bike paths, and year-round recreational opportunities.

Winnebago County is focused on increased job growth, expanded educational opportunities, enhanced public health and safety, and superior quality of life.


Rockford’s arts and culture scene are one of many facets. Whether it’s a trip to J. R. Kortman’s, a small, upscale shop and gallery in downtown Rockford, a day spent at the Rockford Art Museum, Illinois’ largest public art museum outside Chicago, or a night at the theatre, Rockford has something for every taste.

Pack up the car, gather the kids, and motor on to Rockford. We’ve got fun for the whole troop! Is it zooming down a slide at the one of nation’s largest public water parks that trips your trigger? Or, maybe you’d rather join the NASCAR racing buffs any weekend during the summer? Or, how about cheering on our championship water ski team at a free performance? How does a visit with Jane, a 65 million-year-old T. rex sound? She was found in the Badlands of Montana and is one of the most significant dinosaurs found in the history of paleontology. All this and more is waiting for you and your family. Plan your visit now!

Smile. You’re In Rockford, Illinois’ Holey City. It’s been said you can’t swing a flagstick in the Rockford Region without hitting a great golf hole. But we don’t just have quantity; we have quality. Golf Digest proclaimed Rockford the best mid-sized golf city in the United States thanks to our many green treasures. On top of that, green fees are as low as the cut on a bentgrass fairway. From water-rich, bunker-laden championship tracks with intimidating tee shots to low-key yet fascinating municipal courses, Rockford truly is a one-of-a-kind hole-in-one where golfers of all skill levels are truly blessed.

What do a dinosaur named Jane, a children’s discovery museum, a turn-of-the-century village and museum center, and a rare example of Victorian “exotic” architecture have in common?

Rockford, of course. Our fine list of museums and Rockford attractions will capture the attention of any history buff. From Rockford’s newest – and oldest – dinosaur (named Jane) at Burpee Museum of Natural History to the more than 250 hands-on children’s exhibits at the Discovery Center Museum, you can truly spend your day in Rockford’s downtown River District learning, listening, dissecting and discovering.

Hike, bike, and motor through a diversity of outdoor adventures. Winnebago County has one of the best park and forest preserve systems in Illinois with thousands of acres of natural areas, recreational areas, lakes, rivers, and forests to explore. From watching migratory birds being banded to boating at Rock Cut State Park, you’re sure to find all the outdoor experiences you could wish for.

Want to know where your local antique dealers get their merchandise? Visit the Rockford Region and you’ll figure it out in a hurry. We’ve got more than 30 antique shops, two MAJOR antique malls, and more than a dozen weekend shows and flea markets. We’re talking about a weekend or more worth of antique shopping here, so you might want to make some hotel reservations before you visit. Shop Downtown at a unique variety of shops and specialty stores. We’ve also got more than our share of shopping malls with everything from high-end retailers to national discounters and “big box” chains. Add a liberal dose of specialty and garden shops along with a nice sprinkling of art galleries and you’ve got enough shopping to challenge all but the highest credit card limits. Charge!

A city doesn’t have to be huge to have lots of sports. Admission and parking don’t cost as much and the hot dogs taste just as good! Cheer on the Rockford IceHogs professional hockey team or the Rockford Aviators professional baseball team if you want to show some team spirit! For those active in sports, Rockford has everything ranging from over a dozen quality golf courses to the rough terrain of a BMX training track and Rocky Glen’s off-highway vehicle park. The beautiful Rock River is an excellent outlet for sports. Rent a kayak or canoe through Paddle and Trail, or sit back and watch the world-class Ski Broncs team build a human pyramid on water skis right before your eyes!



For hundreds of years, this area was inhabited by Native Americans of the Winnebago Tribe who farmed the rich soil. In the early 1830s, as families were trekking across the country in search of new homes for themselves and their families, they came upon this land.

When they reached the Pecatonica River, they felt they had at last found what they had been searching for – fertile land situated on a navigable river. The river held the promise of a good supply of fish; the woodlands along the bank provided meat, and the good soil promised abundant crops. So they settled in this spot, which would later be known as Freeport.

William “Tutty” Baker, a very hospitable man, was the first white settler to build a home here. Travelers crossed the Pecatonica free on what was known as the Baker Ferry. Mrs. Baker was kept busy caring for the many strangers invited to share a meal or spend the night by her too generous husband. As the story goes, one evening a group of neighbors was discussing a suitable name for the town. Mrs. Baker, with a possible tongue-in-cheek attitude, suggested that the burgeoning community be called a “Free Port.” Meeting with a warm response, the settlement was thus named Freeport. A stone monument marks the spot where Tutty built his first cabin, just a short way’s walk from the Tutty’s Crossing Trailhead.

Since the region surrounding Freeport was being settled quite rapidly, it was decided to organize Stephenson County. This was officially done by an act of legislation in 1837. Stephenson County was created out of land that was originally part of Jo Daviess and Winnebago Counties.

It was decided to name it after Colonel Benjamin Stephenson, who served as Colonel of the Illinois Militia during the War of 1812 and was sent by Illinois to Congress in 1814. Colonel Stephenson never saw the county named for him. In June 1837, Freeport has named the county seat and has remained such ever since.

In 1840, the population of the town was 49; ten years later it had reached 1,486. As of 2013, Freeport’s population was 25,638.

Some of Freeport’s earliest industries were the Williams Threshing Machine Company founded in 1851 and the D’Armit Plow Company established in 1857. The Manny Reaper was invented here in 1856; and the manufacture of reapers, hay presses, and plows was also carried on in the town’s early pioneering days. Other early factories included wagon shops, followed by carriage, buggy, and vehicle parts makers, and then bicycles and automobiles. The Arcade Manufacturing Company which operated from 1885 to 1953 made what are now extremely collectible cast iron toys. The W.T. Rawleigh Company started in 1890 grew into a major purveyor of products sold door to door. Freeport currently is home to major companies such as Newell-Rubbermaid, Titan Tire Company, the Furst McNess Company, and MICRO SWITCH, a division of Honeywell.

The name of Freeport is closely connected with Abraham Lincoln for it was in this community on August 27, 1858, that Lincoln, the Republican candidate for the United States Senate, debated his Democratic opponent Senator Stephen A. Douglas in the second of seven debates held across the state. At the Freeport debate, Lincoln asked Douglas a fateful question regarding slavery and state’s rights. Lincoln’s question and Douglas’ answer became known as the “Freeport Doctrine.” Douglas’ answer discredited him with the southern Democrats and split the Democratic Party and helped to give Lincoln, although unsuccessful in his Senate bid against Douglas, the Presidency two years later in 1860. Debate Square in downtown Freeport memorializes this important historical event.

Over the years, Freeport has continued to grow and change and has become a thriving center of industry and agriculture as well as a community offering a wonderful quality of life.


The small community of Ridott in Stephenson County, eight miles east of Freeport, sits along the Pecatonica Prairie Trail. The English first settled in this area in the 1830s. Ridott, first known as Cochranville, came into existence in 1860 when its namesake brothers made a deal with the recently constructed Galena and Chicago Union Railroad Company. The railroad agreed to move the local railroad station to Cochranville which the speculators promised to layout on higher, better ground. The station building, a rural school, post office, and a number of other good buildings were physically relocated from the earlier nearby settlement of Nevada to the new village. The origin of Ridott’s name is a mystery. It might simply have been assigned when the post office was relocated.

Ridott grew along with the railroad through the early twentieth century with the addition of a grain elevator, lumber yard, stores, doctor, church, and school. Some of the earliest buildings remain including the large Babcock store building and the 1860 Smith’s store stone building, both located on Adams Street. Ridott is now a quiet residential and farm village. Lincoln Park, the small wayside park with shelter, is at the old railroad yard adjacent to the trail.

Traveling west on the trail from Ridott, you pass the site of Nevada, the hopeful early settlement turned ghost town. It was located near where the trail crosses the Pecatonica River on the long, two-span steel bridge a mile and a half west of Ridott on what became the Fairbairn farms. Next to the trail bridge are concrete pillars projecting out of the water, remnants of the bridge for the electric Rockford and Freeport Interurban Railway which operated between Freeport and Rockford from 1904 to 1930. The Interurban became a victim of automobile and highway improvements.


Pecatonica has a population of about 2000. Local leisure and recreation attractions focus on traditional family fun. Two miles east of town is Westlake Village, a golf course/lake community. The Winnebago County Fairgrounds are on the west side of town, adjacent to Sumner Park. Sumner Park is linear park access along the Pecatonica River and is a common meeting and excursion point for adventures on the “Pecatonica Prairie / Bike Path”. A real piece of America’s historic tradition lives on with Pecatonica’s Annual Memorial Day Parade. The second-largest in the state of Illinois. They come from 3 states to participate in a long-standing small-town tradition!

Sumner Park with its Ball fields, Tennis courts, Horseshoe pits, Children’s playgrounds, and a traditional grandstand with the track, connects with the recently acquired Pecatonica Wetlands Forest Preserve, both to the west and across the river to the south. Pecatonica Wetlands is made up of 1047 acres of flood plain forest, oxbow pond marshes, and upland forest along the Pecatonica River. The site has outstanding spring flora and birdlife. Site development is still in progress but when complete will include fishing access, hiking and equestrian trails, picnic areas, and wildlife areas. Also, The Seward Bluffs Forest Preserve is located nearby. The combined Public Parks and the Recreation Bike and Prairie Path offer a wide variety of recreation. It is a favored fishing spot along the Pecatonica River.

Special events at the Winnebago County Fairgrounds fill 3 seasons. The”PEC THING” in the spring and again in late summer is one of the “hottest” junktique markets in the tri-state area. The Annual Main Street”Memorial Day Parade” is one of Illinois’s largest, lasting an hour and a half. Pecatonica also boasts its local Youth Sports Program.

The name Pecatonica can be traced to the Indian word “peeketolika”, meaning “crooked river”. Early settlers first arrived in the area in 1835. The first settlement was about 2 miles southeast of town. A small stone tavern was located there from 1842 to 1914 and was the halfway point on the Chicago to Galena stagecoach trail.

On July 1, 1845, President James K. Polk deeded 56.56 acres of “Indian territory”, that is now downtown Pecatonica, to Dan Reed and his wife, Polly. Dan Reed “laid out” the roads and lots of a town he called “Peckatonick”.

Pecatonica Wetlands

Pecatonica Wetlands is made up of 1,048 acres of flood-plain forest, oxbow pond marshes, and upland forest along the Pecatonica River. The site has outstanding spring flora and birdlife. Includes fishing access, hiking trails, picnic areas, 1 shelter with 16 tables, seating 200, electricity, and wildlife areas;

Acres: 1,048
Access Road: Yes
Restrooms: Yes
Drinking Water: Yes
Picnic Tables: Yes
Shelterhouses: 1
Arrowhead: Stone shelter, 300 max. people, 16-12ft. tables, 192 seats, Electricity, No vehicle access, 2 grills.
Playground Equipment: No
Ball Fields: No
Horseback Trails: No
Hiking Trails(miles): 6.5
Campground Sites: No
Boat Launch: No
Canoe Launch: No
18 Hole Golf Course: No
Illinois Nature Preserve: No
Special Facilities: No
Donated Land: No
Natural Areas: Yes
All reservations subject to the GENERAL USE ORDINANCE.

Location – 5750 Best Road, Pecatonica, IL 61063
Pecatonica Wetlands may be accessed just north of the Village of Pecatonica and the Pecatonica River, on the west side of Pecatonica Road. The picnic shelter house area is on the east side of Best Road, west of Pecatonica Road, and north of Blair Road.