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Tinker Tales
Article and photos by Kathleen Walls

Tinker Swiss Cottage in Rockford, Illinois
Tinker Swiss Cottage looks like it belongs in a fairy tale

Right in the heart of Rockford Illinois is a historical and architectural treasure, Tinker Swiss Cottage. The cottage is unique as it is one of just a few Swiss style homes built in the United states.

Robert Hall Tinker

The history of Tinker Swiss Cottage plays out like a Victorian soap opera. The typical elements that would create a intricate soap opera are all present; unconventional December-May romance and a May-December one as well, poor boy making good, rich and famous adversary pitted against unknown entrepreneur, legal battles, huge inheritances, untimely death, and unconventional business dealings. Throw in a young man's trip to Switzerland and a honeymoon in Hawaii and what more could fans ask.

The story began with John Henry Manny. In 1853, Manny invented a reaper which would harvest huge fields more economically. He moved to Rockford, which had needed rail transportation, with his new bride, Mary Dorr Manny in 1853 and began manufacture of his reaper. The following year he founded J.H. Manny & Company with several other investors to mass produce his machine.

Tinker Barn

Meantime, he was beginning to make inroads on Cyrus McCormick's profits from his reaper. McCormick had invented his reaper in 1831 and considered himself the "King of the Reapers." McCormick sued Manny for $400,000 patent infringements in 1855. The trial was originally scheduled for Springfield so Manny thought a local lawyer might be beneficial. He added a young local attorney to his team which was headed by a well-known lawyer named Edwin Stanton. The young local was named Abraham L:incoln (for more about Lincoln's early years) and Stanton was not impressed. He referred to the new lawyer as "a damned, gawky, long-armed ape." (Oh if Stanton could only see into the future when he would work under that same "gawky ape" as Secretary of War.)

Inside the conservatory of Tinker Cottage

Manny won the legal battle with little help from Lincoln who was sent back to Springfield when the trial was moved to Cincinnati. The win did Manny little good as he died less than a year later at only 30 years of age. Mary was left a rich widow. At the age of 27 she ran the business after Manny's death, a situation almost unheard of in that era.

That same year, 19-year-old Robert Tinker arrived on the scene to work with and later become partners with William Knowlton, Mary Manny’s business manager. (The plot thickens.)

In 1862, Tinker traveled to Europe and while in Switzerland he fell in love with the homes he saw there. a few years after he returned to Rockford, he began building his elaborate Swiss mansion. He created spectacular gardens on the grounds. Was it to impress Mary? Perhaps, the home was connected to Mary's Italianate brick mansion by a suspension bridge over Kent Creek.

Some of the furnishings in Tinker Swiss Cottage

Whatever his motivation, Robert Tinker married Mary Dorr Manny in 1870. They took a romantic honeymoon to Hawaii, Tinker's birthplace. The romance may have been dampened a bit by the fact they took Mary's sister Hanna and Robert's mother with them. They then returned to Rockford and his twenty room mansion.

The architecture of the cottage is amazing

They had no children but when Mary's sister died, they took in her two nieces, Marcia and Jessie. All lived happily in the Swiss Cottage until Mary died in 1901 and then Marcia died in 1904. Tinker then married his wife's remaining niece, 46 year old Jessie, who was then a widow. In 1908. they adopted a child, Theodore Tinker. Robert Tinker became a father for the first time at 72. (Told you it reads like a soap opera.)

At Jessie's death in 1942 the home was donated to the Rockford Park District. It was a unique time capsule. No other family had lived in the cottage and all the original artifacts remained.

When you visit, be prepared to immerse yourself in the most realistic Victorian setting you can imagine.

For more info: www.tinkercottage.com/

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.