Rockford Public Library Celebrates 150 years of Service

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

The Rockford Public Library is celebrating one hundred-fifty years of service to the Rockford Community this year. This seems like good time to share some of the tales of its history. One of the favorite stories is about the beautifully carved wooden dog that was part of the Rockton Centre Branch for decades.

This work of art was carved in Switzerland over one hundred years ago. It was brought to Rockford by Robert and Nellie Rew. Their story is like many who traveled to Rockford to build a better life.

Robert was born in 1853 in England to Mary Rew. When he was still a child, he came to the United States. Robert’s early history is a little harder to discover than when he became an adult. He would become a citizen of the United States in 1876.

Robert met Nellie Goodwin in High School when they both were part of the graduating class of Rockford High School of 1873. Robert went off to college at Northwestern where he studied to become a teacher.

Nellie Goodwin

Nellie was born here in Rockford. Her parents were Adelia and Azro Goodwin and they were considered to be pioneers of early Rockford. Azro grew up in poverty and worked very hard to put himself through medical school where he graduated with honors. Azro started his medical career in Clintonville, New York and it was there that he wed Adelia Fields on July 8,1852. They moved to Rockford in 1854 into a home at 726 Jefferson Street. Azro and Adelia quickly became popular in early Rockford’s Society. By 1857, he was the Assistant Health Officer for the city and also maintained a large medical practice.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Azro enlisted as an officer in the 11th Infantry Division and then joined the 108th Division. Azro was appointed the title of Assistant Surgeon for the battlefields. Azro’s regiment was sent to Vicksburg where he was horribly wounded in the stomach. Azro would suffer from this wound the rest of his life.

A.E. Goodwin, Nelle’s father.

After the war, he was elected as the Postmaster for Rockford and also served as one of the first members of the Rockford Public Library Board of Trustees. He was part of the group of local doctors that requested a charter for a hospital from the secretary of state of Illinois which was granted December 15, 1883. Rockford’s first hospital, Rockford Memorial, opened in 1885 in the former home of Dr. William H. Fitch on the corners of South Court and Chestnut Streets.

Azro must have been impressed with Robert’s hard work in school and his dedication to the community. He agreed when Robert requested Nellie’s hand in marriage. The young couple married on October 18, 1879. Robert had worked his way up from a teacher to the principal of West High School by the time of the wedding. The couple settled into Nellie’s childhood home.

Robert Rew

They had no children of their own but served the city in other ways. Robert would eventually become a lawyer and built a very successful law firm here. He would serve as a respected member of the Winnebago County Bar for fifty-one years. Robert also served as Rockford’s Mayor from 1917 through 1921. It speaks volumes about Robert’s character that he would run for mayor during such a traumatic time. There must have been many challenges for our city during the war years including building Camp Grant and facing the Spanish Influenza outbreak.

Nellie was an accomplished young lady in her own right. She was very involved with the rights of women, children and animals. She founded a chapter of the Illinois Humane Society for Winnebago County. Nellie would serve as secretary for the society for over 40 years. She would give presentations to sold out crowds about the places that she and Robert visited in their many travels.

It was on one of these trips to Switzerland that Nellie and Robert purchased the beautiful carved dog. He was displayed on the grand staircase landing in their home on Fifth Street. The area looks very different now than when Nellie and Robert lived there. It was a residential area with carefully tended gardens. In fact, there was once was a park in front of their home.

Former Rober & Nellie Rew’s home as Julian Poorman Funeral Home in the 1950s.

Nellie later gave the dog to the Rockford Public Library in honor of her father. Nellie died in 1926 and was buried in Cedar Bluff Cemetery at the top of the hill. Robert joined her after his death in 1934. Their tombstone reads “Until Day Breaks.”

After Robert passed away, the home on 5th Street became the Julian Poorman Funeral Home and has served families in Rockford for many years. The house is over a hundred years old now. Most people pass it without ever wondering about the family who lived there.,

The carved dog was displayed at the Main Branch of the Rockford Public Library for well over thirty years. At first, the dog sat on the landing that ascended on both sides of the central lobby. When the library was renovated, places to display the dog were eliminated and it was kept in storage for many years. Eventually, sometime around 1963, it was decided to make Rockton Centre Library Branch his home. Patrons seemed pleased to see him there. Many of them shared the stories of seeing the dog as children and then bringing their own children in to visit him. It is easy to tell the spots that have been worn on the dog’s nose and head from generations of Rockford children petting him.

The dog stayed at Rockton Centre Branch until 2021 when that library closed. It seemed fitting to move this library icon to the beautiful Montague Branch, now the oldest Rockford Public Library location. As Rockford Public Library celebrates its next chapter with the building of a new Main Library, it is comforting that this familiar face will continue to greet the patrons as he has for generations.

Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol