Haight Village Historic District, Rockford, Illinois

Haight Village

Historic District

Haight Village National Register Historic District — Rockford, IL

228 South First Street — The Daffodil Cottage

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Gothic Revival

Home of Rockford's first mayor, Willard Wheeler. Nicknamed the "Daffodil Cottage" for its Yellow brick and green trim. Willard Wheeler, born in 1804, was a tinner and migrated from St. Thomas, Canada in September of 1839 settling here as the village's second tinner. He became Rockford's first mayor in 1852, serving only one term over a city of four wards, divided by the Rock River and State St. Of the initial concerns of the new mayor was to replace Rockford's first bridge, which was partially financed by Daniel Haight in 1845. In 1854, $15,000 dollars was borrowed to build a new bridge across the Rock River. He built the house in 1843 while Rockford was not yet at a population of 2,000 and lived here with his wife until April of 1861, when he lost the house due to debt. Later in his life, he tried his hand at other occupations including fur dealing, foundry work and insurance. He died in 1876.

Wheeler and his family lived at Daffodil Cottage until it was sold to Daniel Chapin and Julia Littlefield who came to Rockford from Essex, Vermont due to Mr. Littlefield's ill health. Mr. Littlefield passed away on January 13, 1884 after suffering 26 years from asthma. It was some time after the death of her father that the young widow, Florence Littlefield Blackman came back from Chicago. It was then that she brought a portrait of Rembrandt with her, along with a number of other things that her husband had collected from all over the world. Mrs. Blackman's husband was a member of the Chicago Board of Trade and picked up the portrait on one of his many trips to Europe. Julia Littlefield lived in the house until her death on May 27, 1914, just six weeks before her 90th birthday. The Littlefield family continued to live in the house after the deaths of Daniel and Julia. They were survived by two daughters, Mrs. Carlos (Florence) Blackman and Mrs. Will (Rosamond) Fisher.

In 1921, the house became the home of Mr. and Mrs. Louis (Ethel) Marsh upon the death of Mrs. Blackman. Louis Marsh was a deputy coroner and undertaker and the son and partner of Coroner Frank Marsh. Frank Marsh was the second husband of Rosamond Fisher until 1909. During their separation, she sued her husband for separate support, to which he responded by counter-suing the same day, charging her with "extravagance." Louis Marsh was related by marriage to Rosamond Littlefield Fisher, the younger daughter of Daniel Littlefield. After moving in, the Marsh's found the portrait of Rembrandt. When Mrs. Marsh sold the house a short time after her husband died, she loaned the self-portrait of the 17th Century Dutch master to the Burpee Art Gallery. Mrs. Marsh also believed that a member of Blackman's family may have retouched or restored the portrait at one time. Laboratory tests revealed that the portrait had indeed been retouched after being remounted on another canvas. X-ray prints revealed a slightly distorted underpainting which led some to believe that the painting may actually be an original self-portrait. This seems to be supported by the fact that tests on the original canvas revealed that it was made of hand-loomed flax, which was the type of canvas used by artists in the 17th Century.

Mrs. Marsh sold the house and a few of its furnishings to Dr. Frances Johnson in the Fall of 1945 and was living in Belvidere, IL in 1950 with Mr. and Mrs. A. H. Strong, her sister and brother-in-law. By 1971, Mrs. Marsh had re-settled in Rockford on Harlem Blvd. Dr. Johnson was a chairman of the Rockford College Physics Dept. At the time she purchased the house, Rockford College was just south of Haight Village where the Campus Towers High-rise now stands. During the time Dr. Johnson lived there, the house was furnished with a vintage look that combined several styles from Dr. Johnson's own collection and others from the collection of Dr. Mary Braginton. Dr. Braginton, a chairman of the Rockford College Language Department, shared the house with Dr. Johnson from 1946 until she died in 1973. In 1974, Dr. Johnson received an Eye-Delight award for efforts to maintain and restore local architectural history from the Rockford Environment-Enhancing Organization. In 1978, the Robert Hempstead Chapter of the Daughters of the American Colonists placed a plaque in front of the home. The plaque was dedicated in a ceremony on September 28, 1978. The plaque was commemorated by Haight Village on October 15, 1978 when we used the Wheeler / Johnson home to kick off our 1978 Village Tour. The plaque rests at the corner of the sidewalk on a boulder quarried from south of Rockford and donated to the Daughters of American Colonists by the Rockford Park District. John Spence, president of Rockford College and friend to Dr. Johnson, spoke at the ceremony, which was also attended by then Rockford Mayor Robert McGraw. After the ceremony, flowers were placed on the grave of William Wheeler in Cedar Bluff Cemetery.

Dr. Paul Van Pernis came to Rockford from Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1951, accompanied by their four young children. After moving to Rockford, the Van Pernises had four more children, all born at SwedishAmerican Hospital where Dr. Van Pernis was director of laboratories. In 1972, they moved to Wheaton, IL where they lived until Dr. Van Pernis and his wife reached retirement. They tactfully persisted until they convinced Dr. Johnson to sell her home in 1984. Dr. Johnson remained in the home until 1987 when Dr. Van Pernis and his wife Sally moved in after completing exterior restoration, which was done, at mostly by Kurt Bell and David Van Pernis, a son who is a professional cabinet maker. Bell is a professional restoration contractor and the husband of Dr. Van Pernis' daughter Sarah. In 1989, Dr. Van Pernis, at the age of 75, began doing research on the history by reading every issue of every newspaper, 27 to be exact, that had been published in Rockford since 1840. He would spend about two hours a day, five days a week going over old microfilm versions at the Rockford Public library. When he found pertinent information, he would then make copies for himself. In addition to his newspaper research, he combed local history books, talked to local historians, and interviewed Dr. Johnson. Although in 1993 he was continuing to read papers from the 1960s, Dr. Van Pernis rounded up all the information on the house and compiled a sampling of that data into a 10-chapter booklet, of which he published 20 copies. The booklet is available to the public in the Local History Room at the Rockford Public Library. The completed collection of information that he collected and compiled was all neatly assembled on plastic-covered pages of eight thick notebooks.

One the greatest mysteries of the house was of course the portrait of Rembrandt. Despite all his efforts, Van Pernis, as of 1993, remained unable to track down the painting or the results of the studies into its authenticity.

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