Recreation & Destinations

Midway Village Museum: Watch History Come Alive

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Whether you visit the history museum indoors or the Victorian village outdoors, this impressive history museum provides many chances to engage with the stories of our region.

During World War I Days at Midway Village Museum, in Rockford, visitors can watch battles, explore a replica trench and meet more than 230 re-enactors.

With more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space, Rockford’s Midway Village Museum, 6799 Guilford Road, is a prime resource for any field trip, school project or stroll through local history.

Besides the numerous exhibits inside the museum and around its Victorian Village, Midway Museum hosts many events celebrating local history. It’s even home to some of the nation’s top war re-enactments.

“We are committed to educating and enriching the community with our programs and events,” says Lonna Converso, director of marketing and social media.

Midway Museum began in 1968 when the Swedish, Harlem and Rockford Historical Societies came together and created a museum to collect, preserve and interpret Rockford’s history. The Severin family donated 11 acres to the museum in 1972, and it’s grown ever since.

Today, the museum sits on 148 acres and has more than 150,000 objects including three-dimensional pieces, historical structures, delicate textiles and archival material.

“We have permanent exhibits on site and we also try to give the public multi-faceted programs,” Converso says. “Visitors can come and engage in local history on the property in many different ways.”

Inside Midway Village’s indoor museum, visitors can explore history through several galleries that are dedicated to the stories of our region’s past. Explore exhibits such as The Girls of Summer, which commemorates the Rockford Peaches women’s baseball team; The Missing Link, which highlights the region’s manufacturing heritage; and the Flight Gallery, which celebrates Rockford’s longstanding role in the world of aviation.

One of the newest and largest exhibits is Many Faces, One Community, a 6,000-square-foot exhibit that shares the personal stories of migrants and immigrants who have come to Rockford from dozens of countries and cultures.

Visitors can learn why these immigrants made Rockford their home and how they contributed to its present. Guests can also listen to and read firsthand stories of Rockford’s immigrants.

“That exhibit opened two years ago,” Converso says. “It’s a touch-friendly exhibit and people can interact with its various parts.”

People who come to the museum can also visit Victorian Village, a gathering of buildings including a hotel, blacksmith shop and several homes. These buildings, filled with artifacts from the area, sit alongside several 19th century gardens reflective of trends between 1890 and 1910.

Both inside and outside, the museum has year-round special events and history education programs that welcome more than 30,000 students each year.

“We have opportunities for educators to come to the property for school programming,” Converso says. “In particular, we have school programming that deals with World War I, World War II, the Civil War and other hands-on history programs.”

Adults, too, can learn about history and warfare at Midway Village during several occasions in the year. Besides hosting some of the nation’s largest World War I and World War II re-enactments, Midway Village invites the public to engage in several presentations during the Connecting with History Series lectures that happens this winter.

“This will help people learn and navigate through our history,” says David Byrnes, museum president. “You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been.”

The Connecting with History Series presents several lectures through the end of March, covering a range of topics. Upcoming lectures include The Development of Patriotism in American History, on Feb. 20, Rockford During Prohibition, on March 12, and music of the 1950s on March 19. A community forum, held on Feb. 26, draws together community leaders and the general public for a talk about the past, present and future of housing in Rockford. All lectures start at 2 p.m.

This year’s kickoff lecture, highlighting World War I, drew together local history buffs on Jan. 21. During the talk, Josh Fulton, a doctoral history student at Northern Illinois University, talked about why the war is still important and how its legacy continues to affect us.

Dr. Christopher McDonald, a professor at Lincoln Land Community College, in Springfield, Ill., shared his research on the Illinois regiments that fought in the war, their experiences and the war’s impact on those who fought.

Local historian Terry Dyer talked about Camp Grant, the massive Army encampment that arose atop farmland on Rockford’s south side and served as a training ground for combat troops in both World Wars.

“These programs are just another way for us to get people to learn more about this local history,” Byrnes says.

This year’s increased focus on WWI is no coincidence; it coincides with the centennial year of America’s entrance in “The Great War,” which was fought in Europe from 1914 to 1918. Byrnes encourages the public to learn about the war and its impact, both at home and abroad.

This spring, Midway Village continues the exploration into The Great War with the nation’s largest World War I re-enactment, scheduled for April 8 and 9. With help from The United States World War One Centennial Commission, visitors to “The Great War: World War I,” can tour the “encampments” of competing armies, tour a reproduction 150-yard trench, and watch large-scale narrated battle re-enactments.

The Commission plans, develops and executes programs, projects and activities to commemorate the centennial of America’s forgotten war.

“It’s great to know we have attracted the attention of the Commission,” says Kristen Hoeker, special events coordinator at the museum. “We are able to make this a national event and it’s great to know that we stand out among other similar events.”

Military experts will lead lectures throughout the day, live horses will be on hand for the cavalry units and kids can get up close to authentic tanks, including the FT-17 French tank.

Visitors can expect to see live musical performers playing songs from the 1910s, and militaria vendors sell real and replica WWI equipment, clothing, books and artifacts.

“We have 230 re-enactors and it grows every year,” Hoeker says. “Because it’s the centennial, we are expecting record attendance this year. We are also able to tie in the Rockford story with the greater picture of World War I.”

As re-enactors get ready for the local event, local students will get an up-close experience during an educational event on April 7, the day before the event. Students can explore in and around the encampments, talk to the re-enactors about life as a soldier, tour a World War I replica trench and learn about military strategies in the 1910s.

“Midway Village Museum collects the important stories and artifacts to inspire learning and to educate the residents on life as it was in the past,” Converso says. “This helps us look at our future to know where we have been and how we have grown, and the previous struggles and accomplishments that have shaped our community.”

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