History of Greenwood Cemetery

Founded in 1845 Greenwood Cemetery (previously known as West Rockford Cemetery until 1921) was the fourth cemetery dedicated in Rockford and the oldest remaining. It began in 1844 as a site along Kent Creek, located on the land now occupied by Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum’s Railroad Garden and the railroad yards. The cemetery trustees were prominent citizens; John Taylor, Richard Montague, Cyrus Miller, and Benjamin Kilburn. Mrs. Montague was the first person interred in the new cemetery.

Due to the expanding needs of the Galena and Chicago Union Rail in Rockford, Greenwood was conceived as a means of centralizing the existing burial grounds and freeing up space for the railroad’s expansion. Bodies were relocated from the previous three sites, centralizing community burial in a single location. In 1852, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad bought the land to build a railroad yard in Rockford. The trustees needed to move the cemetery to a new location. May of that year, the cemetery trustees bought a 33-acre tract for $1200.00 on the corner of North Main and Auburn Streets. Over time, the cemetery grew to its current size of over 100 acres. David Alling was hired to move 175 bodies to the new cemetery. Greenwood now contains the burial plots of many of the seminal families and individuals from Rockford’s first few generations and from every tier of the economic and social hierarchy. From Lewis Lemon, Rockford’s only documented slave, to Thomas D. Robertson, one of the early pioneers and wealthy entrepreneurs of the community. Veterans of every war (except the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan) are interred in Greenwood Cemetery, including one Revolutionary War veteran and 529 Civil War veterans. The distinctive Chapel, designed by Chicago architect Henry Lord Gay, was built in 1891. Gay had also designed the Winnebago County Court House in 1877. After the Court House was demolished in 1967 the bronze statue of the Civil War soldier was relocated to the southwest corner of Greenwood Cemetery (at the corner of North Main and Auburn Streets). The statue has since been moved to Memorial Hall.  Founders of Rockford College, prominent local church congregations, and regional industries are easily found in Greenwood Cemetery.

One such grave in Greenwood has tremendous significance on national history as well as regional history. John H. Manny, an influential inventor, and engineer developed and produced the Northern Illinois Reaper in Rockford. Lured here in 1853 by the potential of burgeoning hydraulic power resources, Manny’s product was successful regionally and then nationally as a rival to the McCormick reaper. This prompted a direct conflict with McCormick, who launched a lawsuit against Manny in 1848 for patent infringements. The result would be a showcase of burgeoning legal and political talent, involving soon to be secretary of war Edwin Stanton and a young Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, recommended for the case by Ralph Emerson, a business partner of Manny’s who is also buried in Greenwood. The case would lead to Lincoln’s one and only visit Rockford on July 7th, 1855 when Lincoln stayed for half a day in order to inspect and study the Northern Illinois Reaper first hand. Lincoln’s role in McCormick v. Manny was restricted to one of support, as Stanton ended up actually arguing the case in court. Lincoln’s familiarity with the Illinois courts became a disadvantage when the case was moved to Cincinnati. Never the less, Lincoln’s role in Manny’s eventual victory earned him $1,000 dollars, enough to gain the financial freedom to build a new Springfield residence and afford a run for the US senate shortly thereafter. From Lincoln’s experience with the Manny case, he also gained a new understanding of law and politics. On their way back to Illinois, Lincoln told Emerson, “These college-bred fellows have reached Ohio, they will soon be in Illinois, and when they come, Emerson, I will be ready for them.”

The impact of Manny’s economic and legal success on Rockford cannot be overstated. Water power became a legitimate local enterprise, and the other firms the Northern Illinois Reaper attracted to the community had a seminal effect on the Rockford industry. Like almost every other trend in Rockford’s history, this root-like expansion of a community through economic and social progression is well illustrated in the plots of Greenwood Cemetery. John Pels Manny, also in Greenwood and John H. Manny’s cousin, came to Rockford on John H’s advice. A successful engineer and mechanic, he contributed to Manny’s business and eventually established a reaper manufacturing firm of his own. In 1855, it was reputed that one in every ten citizens of Rockford worked for Manny’s in some fashion. It’s through the cluster of individuals we find at Greenwood that the roots of present-day Rockford are the most evident.



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