A Floyd County time since passed relived through donated memorabilia
By Kelly Terpstra, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’ve called Floyd County home for the last half century or so, you’re probably well aware that Rocky Ford is not one of the Ford brothers or from a family at all.
He’s in fact the familiar mascot of a once thriving business that flourished just past the western outskirts of Rockford. The image has been retired for quite some time from its regular job representing the Rockford Brick and Tile Co. But it still helps guide visitors along a path to find ancient buried archaeological treasures at the Fossil and Prairie Park.
Area residents and history aficionados will now be able to relive that link to the past and soak in plenty of memorabilia from that era after the Rockford Historical Society donated all its artifacts pertaining to the Rockford Brick and Tile Co. recently to Floyd County Conservation.
Thousands of photos, advertising signs, posters and even blueprints were all given to the Fossil and Prairie Park’s Nature Center so that they can be displayed and enjoyed.
“They gave us basically everything they had,” said naturalist Heidi Reams. “A lot of it will get into our existing exhibit on kind of a rotation basis. It’s one of my winter projects to organize it.”
Rockford Brick and Tile was incorporated in 1910 and operated on the site that now sees thousands of visitors annually try to unearth Devonian period fossils near its nature center and park. Reams said she saw checkbook ledgers and board of directors minutes dating back to 1911 when she was inspecting the collection.
“It was a major industry,” she said.
Rockford Brick and Tile prospered for eight decades before closing in 1976 and was bought out a year later by Allied Construction. The company mined blue shale that it formed into agriculture clay drainage tiles and building bricks in 16 Beehive kilns on site. Two of those kilns remain on the quarry property that was purchased by the Floyd County Conservation Board in 1990.
“Although their bricks were not that sought after, their drainage tiles were the best in the area and everyone drove from all around to come get them,” said Reams.
Don Nelson, who is one of just three members left of the Rockford Historical Society, said the prairie center has better facilities to store the memorabilia.
“They have an air-conditioned building. The historical society did not have that,” said Nelson. “It made a lot of sense to transfer them to somebody that could take care of them.”
Nelson said the advent of plastic drain tile was a death knell for the local company as demand for clay title decreased. He said prior to plastic taking over and making the business less profitable, the company built a kiln where green tile was put on carts that were heated and then cooled in assembly-line fashion.
“They were very innovative,” he said. “Instead of filling those beehives, the idea was that they could just run the tile through continuously.”
Many of the pieces of history from the tile company are lighters, pens, key chains and golf tees.
“It was a salesman a lot of the time that would carry his things around,” said Adam Sears, director of Floyd County Conservation.
The business had strong local ties to the Rockford Country Club and its 9-hole golf course – which was due east of the kilns and was in operation from 1964 until 2011. Trees were removed at that time and the parking lot was bulldozed.
“They were going to give it to the city but the city wouldn’t take it. Now it’s a farm field again,” said Nelson.
Nelson said the Rockford Historical Society may be on its last leg as well. The museum is currently closed and the lease with the depot may be terminated and given back to the railroad, he said.
Nelson said several members have left the group and the society has been restructured according to Reams. Efforts to raise money to improve the infrastructure at the museum downtown and the depot that held most of the brick and tile pieces has been slow going.
“Most of the things in the depot have been moved out. We’re planning on moving the rest out in the spring and maybe have an auction or sell them some way,” Nelson said.
Many items have been donated to museums in Rudd and Marble Rock or the Cedar Valley Engine Club. Nelson said items have also been given back to families or individuals that originally provided them.
The group has scanned many photos that were once on display at the museum, but they are not yet available online, he said. The photos are kept in an archive room at the Rockford City Hall.
“The biggest problem is we can’t find people that are interested in being on the museum board or taking part in it. So without people that are really interested in keeping it going, it’s kind of hopeless to try and raise money,” said Nelson. “It’s likely that there won’t be a historical society much longer.”
Nelson said the historical society has held onto wooden water pipes that were used in town for city plumbing, items that were linked to local merchants and written records.
Reams said the memories came flooding back last month when she put all of the items available for the public to look at in the basement of the prairie center during an open house. A small contingent of past employees and those affiliated with Rockford Brick and Tile took a step back in time and remembered what once was.
“They came out that night,” said Reams. “You could almost see them kind of go back. It’s just how we are when we look at a picture. You can go right back to that time and they were telling me the stories. I heard stories I haven’t even heard before.”
Reams said a lot of the workers were young adults and teenagers that went to work at the tile company.
“When you look at the payroll books, they went straight out of high school and worked there because it was really good money,” she added.
“We’ve already lost a lot of the people that would have worked there and a lot of that knowledge,” said Reams.
The rotating displays will help keep those memories alive.
“We’d like to make it more interactive,” said Reams.