Sock Monkey, Meet the Rockford Peaches
I suspect it’s a safe bet there’s only one place in the world where you’ll find a five-foot sock monkey statue just steps away from a mannequin dressed as a player from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (GPBL).
But that’s exactly what you’ll find in Rockford, Illinois’ Midway Village Museum.
Any fan of the movie, A League of Their Own, will easily make the connection between Rockford and the GPBL. We all remember Gina Davis and Madonna starring for the Rockford Peaches and those immortal words of Coach Tom Hanks, "Crying, there's no crying in baseball!"
As for that sock monkey? Well, he’s part of a display dedicated to everything sock monkey, including Nelson, one really big sock monkey made from 22 separate pairs of those classic red-heeled socks.
That’s because, in addition to its Peaches notoriety, Rockford is also where the first-ever sock monkey was made.
I’m a big sock monkey fan. A high school girlfriend made one for me that accompanied me for years, long after she was no longer a girlfriend. His name was Mumford. Somewhere along the line he decided to make a run for it and is now, I’m sure, experiencing many new and wonderful adventures.
I do still have a sock monkey of sorts. Darling Daughter gave me a wine bottle sock monkey, essentially a sock, that looks like a sock monkey, that fits over a wine bottle, that has its own special resting place on top of my bar.
The connection between Rockford and sock monkeys is pretty simple, that’s where both the iconic brown sock with the red heel originated.
The story begins in the 1860s when a Swedish immigrant named John Nelson invented and patented an automated knitting machine. The company he founded originally made mittens but by the time World War I came around its manufacturing plants were working around the clock making up to 3,000 pairs of socks per day for the army.
In what we look back at now as a stroke of marketing genius, the red heel was added to the sock in 1932 to distinguish it from competitors.
Fast forward to the 1950s. There was quite the conflagration regarding the patent for the first sock monkey. A woman in Colorado received the original patent in 1955.
But wait, hold your red heel socks.
After a court battle, yes, sock monkeys are important enough to have court battles over, it was determined the first-ever sock monkey was made by Grace Winget of Rockford in 1951, who made it as a Valentine’s gift for her grandson. After winning the fight the Nelson Knitting company worked with Winget to acquire the official patent.
If you’re hankering to make your own sock monkey, don’t worry, the patent expired 50 years ago so Mumford, Nelson or whatever name you use for your little guy or gal is free and clear.
There’s a great deal more about the sock monkey in a 46-page document, don’t worry, there’s a lot of photos, on the Midway Village website. There’s also early instructions in the packet for how to make your own.
The museum has all sorts of sock monkeys on display, from old to new. You can even take a selfie in front of Nelson, the 7-feet, 2-inch, tall sock monkey that was once the tallest in the world. (A woman in British Columbia, Canada made what is now believed to be the biggest at 13-feet, 6-inches tall, using 416 socks and weighing more than 100 pounds.)
Girls Professional Baseball League
Most people know the GPBL story from the movie, A League of Their Own. It was started during World War II when many Major League Baseball players were enlisting. The league lasted 12 years and the Rockford Peaches was arguably the best team of the bunch, winning four championships.
The museum’s display includes the team’s 1948 and ‘49 championship trophies, a recreated example of the player’s uniform, a glove and pair of cleats worn by one of the players and other miscellaneous memorabilia and information.
More to See
There are many more exhibits to see and explore in the museum. Among the others is a great early-Rockford town under roof with near life-size building fronts, replicating what the community might have looked like a century ago, and my favorite, other than the sock monkeys, The Greater Rockford.
The Greater Rockford is the actual plane Bert “Fish” Hassel and co-pilot Parker “Shorty” Cramer flew in an attempt at a flight from Rockford to Stockholm, Sweden, in 1928. The flight was the brainchild of a Rockford Daily Republic editor who hoped it would do for Rockford what Charles Lindbergh’s cross-Atlantic flight had done for St. Louis.
Unfortunately, due to weather conditions the pair ended up stranded in Greenland and spent two weeks making their way on foot through the frozen icecaps before finding help.
The Greater Rockford was left behind, for 40 years. It wasn’t rescued until 1968 with the help of a group of people including King Frederik IX of Denmark. The plane was briefly on display in a shopping mall, then sat in storage at the local airport before finally being restored and placed in the Midway Village museum.
You can read all about The Greater Rockford and the attempted flight to Sweden here.
Midway Village is much more than a museum. It’s a sprawling, 13-acre, complex that includes a Victorian-era village and historical gardens. There are nearly 30 buildings scattered throughout the 13-acre property.
During warmer months you can walk back in time, strolling the property, experiencing what life was like in small rural towns around 1900.
Bring your sock monkey along for the walk.
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