She spends hours and hours in a house whose occupants have been deceased for varying degrees of decades and, in the case of the builder, over a century. She’s read their diaries, traces their time-lines, and keeps tabs on as many of their personal belongings as she can get her hands on. Ask her a story about the turn of the century in Rockford – not the last one, but the one before that – and there’s a pretty good chance that she can give you either an answer or an educated guess. She’s aware of the movers and shakers of generations gone by and how they adapted to the ever fast pace of modern civilization as it roared through their lives with amenities like electricity and automobiles and refrigeration.
No, Rebecca Mavencamp is not a “ghost whisperer.” Or, at least, she’s not admitting to it. Mavencamp is, however, Rockford’s very own historian and the Executive Director of the Rockford Area Historical Society (RAHS), a position she accepted five years ago. She’s been hard at work, ever since, preserving the memories of the area by making sure diaries and correspondence from the founding families are cataloged, stored, copied and distributed, and is even harder at work trying to find grant dollars to preserve the integrity of the “Stork House.”
The house was built by the Ames family in 1860, sold to a relative surnamed Florida, and then eventually sold to the Storks from which it was bought by an anonymous donor and given to the city as a historical landmark and museum.
So far, Mavencamp has been able to get a lot of the restoration work done with outside funding or volunteer help. But, the house is over 150 years old and needs some major rejuvenation. Upgrading and installing a new heating/cooling system is one of the next improvements she’s trying to bring into the house, and just one of many identified on a list compiled through a professional inspection. None of it’s been easy, but it’s all necessary in keeping the little homestead intact for now, and for many years going forward.
Mavencamp’s dedication to the historic residence is evident and is part of what she says keeps her focused. She is love with the house and its history, and is willing to do whatever she can to preserve what she can of both.
Part of that is instilling interest. Something she’s also been dedicated to, and successful with. Volunteers are always welcome, and appreciated, and a number of new faces are gracing the property on Bridge Street regularly.
Mavencamp and crew reach out to all ages with weekend programs that take visitors back in time through paper making and seminars on WWI among other topics, and a summer teen night event on Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m. has become a big hit.
Mavencamp’s dimpled smile can’t be kept at bay when she talks about how this program has taken off, with as many as a couple of dozen local youth wandering in to discuss oral histories, build birdhouses or just chat in a cozy, welcoming atmosphere that initiates conversation on its own and a sense of community. A lot of the kids that show up, she says, are not interested, or involved, much in athletics or other after school programs, but find a kindred spirit of belonging to something communal at the Stork House Teen Nights, and she’s watched as many of them have opened up to her and each other with interests and aspirations. The organization Children First sponsors the teen nights and, by Mavencamp’s account, it’s been a good investment in Rockford area youth.
She’s also very excited about some partnering the historical society has been involved in with the Rockford Area School District, 883. A junior Docent program with the middle school has resulted in good base of young historians who are able to run down the Ames-Florida-Stork history like pros. There is also collaborative curriculum in the works, highlighting Rockford’s history in flour milling. This is important she says. Keeping the past alive will rely on future generations. She’s pretty charged up about the one in the running boards.
The RAHS, with Mavencamp at the reins, has also integrated itself into a number of community activities; Night to Unite, Rockford River Days and A Crow River Christmas to name a few. In fact, there are very few community events that occur in Rockford or Greenfield that don’t have Mavencamp’s name listed somewhere among the organizers. She knows that there’s an interest among residents in the area’s history, but that the present is where she’ll find them. And, she does.
On a more personal note, Mavencamp is a single mother who often has her daughter in tow as she facilitates events and lectures, or does a little gardening at the Stork House. Like other staple volunteers, she seems shocked that she’s been singled out for “Rockford Volunteer of the Year,” but after peeling away a few layers of her “outside the Stork House” life, the clear-cut trail of life-long volunteering should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows her. She’s long been involved in her church, Cross Lutheran of Maple Lake, has played flute and clarinet for the Annandale Community Orchestra for eight years, and had a lead position in a group that helped families of service members maneuver obstacles while without them, and after their return. There are, not doubt, several other volunteer hats she’s worn over the years, and many recipients of her donation of time, but she’s not one to linger on the past.
Well, okay, at least not the portion of the century she’s been around to witness. Beyond that, game on.
Mavencamp majored in journalism, which is evident given her press releases and newsletters, and has been engaged by the up-and-coming Greenfield Historical Society to write its history.
Asked if there is a book in her future about Rockford, historical or no, she doesn’t affirm but neither dismisses.
“There’s enough for several books,” is her only answer.
And, we just might be that lucky.
I had a great time interviewing Rebecca Mavencamp. She’s dedicated and delightful. However, when I first contacted her to do an interview, she agreed with the stipulation that we make some kind of a pitch for membership to the Rockford Area Historical Society. Okay, “pitch” might be my word, but she’s got roots in the paper biz and couldn’t overlook an opportunity. I respect that. I couldn’t find a place in the story that worked well for a “pitch,” but I’d like to offer one now.
The Stork House is a treasure. It’s a little bit of past in downtown Rockford that has not been bulldozed for commercial use. In fact, other than upkeep, it’s barely been disturbed. And, it’s collectibles offer great insight of what it was like to live in an up-and-coming city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
You can read books, or Google, but you can’t emerge yourself in that kind of history so close to home unless you visit the Stork House. I suggest you do.
The RAHS gets a small stipend from the city, and as much grant money as Mavencamp can obtain, but membership is a driving force in keeping this house afloat. Please visit www.rockfordmnhistory.org