The forest city became a manufacturing city in the 1850's. The first manufacturers in Rockford assembled farm equipment. Emerson Company made plows and hay mowers. The next wave of manufacturers made furniture starting in the 1870's.
"A lot of manufacturing began in support of furniture," says Dan Bartlett, Midway curator of exhibits.
Hamilton Sunstrand started up by making furniture finishers in 1906. Other companies became facets in Rockford's manufacturing economy by supplying parts to furniture makers.
"National lock developed by expanding product lines over years until it became the largest employer in Rockford," says Bartlett.
Nelson Knitting and Forest City Knitting also employed thousands over the years. Nelson made red heeled socks that were turned into sock monkeys.
"During the depression they had full employment, they weren't affected. The knitting industry remained a core of Rockford's industrial sector."
The knitting companies and Barber Colman were built on specific needs that evolved with the rise of manufacturing.
"One important part of Rockford manufacturers is individuals who perceived needs and then set about creative ways to fill those needs."
Many of the companies went out of business in the second half of the 20th century because they couldn't compete with manufacturers in the south and Asia. Advances in technology also eliminated the need for many employees in manufacturing plants.