The way the old Barber-Colman complex comes up in the local papers, you would believe it’s always been abandoned. A perpetual blemish on the otherwise immaculate Rockford, Illinois industrial district, rather than a symbol of what built this blue-collar town.
It’s easy to forget that the sprawling semi-suburban neighborhoods gripping the meandering Rock River was instead spotted with more than 350 factories only a generation ago that employed 35,000… the second evolution of what began as a furniture-making city around 1900.
For a few years, Howard Colman, a man who grew up in the shadow of a textile mill in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, had been tinkering with ideas and tools for the mill and, by the time he was 16 a new warp-tying machine bore his name. In the fall of 1900 Colman invented what was soon to become known as the ‘Barber Hand Knotter’, named for Colman’s friend William Barber, a fellow inventor and machinist.
Sales of the device soon exceeded all expectations, inspiring the pair to build a dedicated Rockford factory in the summer of 1902 that proved so profitable that in late 1904 not only was a prototype for a new warp tying machine tested successfully, but the partners decided to incorporate: Barber-Colman Company was born.
Rise of Barcol
As the company became world renowned for its specialized machinery—the Barber Hand Knotter being used in 90% of all textile mills in the U. S. —the footprint of the factory expanded to 20 permanent structures, all built between 1902 and 1948 (although no buildings constructed prior to 1907 stand today).
Different areas of the plant specialized in different stages and components for the ever-widening range of ‘Barcol’ products, expanding from textile machinery to air conditioning parts, machine tools, small tools and even a machine to test Army pilots, though the latter proved unusable.
Powering the plant, among the continuity testers and steam pipes, were 3,300 some workers that manned the machinery in Barber-Colman’s long, pillared workrooms, except in rare instances, like the 1919 strike.
An interesting research note popped up on my radar that year when an ad appeared in the ‘Machinists’ Monthly Journal’ accompanied by complaints that Barber-Colman was attempting to break a strike by importing unemployed workers from around the country. Unfortunately for the company, however, strong unions and the bonds of the workingman dissuaded most non-striking workers from accepting such positions.
Recession, Atrophy, Shutdown
In the early 1980s a recession hit the United States manufacturing sector especially hard, forcing Barber-Colman not only to consider the juxtaposition of its role as Rockford’s first multinational corporation and an aging, unprofitable hold on an expansive, expensive property in the middle of Illinois. For the first time since the company’s conception, in 1982 Barcol moved its headquarters out of Rockford, and shut down operations, selling the riverside property to Reed Charwood two years later.
Their decision to liquidate the Rockford plant did not prolong the life of the company for long. In 1987, after three generations of Colmans owned it, Barber Colman was sold.
The empty factory became an incubator for small businesses, a very poetic use, considering the start that Howard Colman himself had in the back of a rented Rockfordian machine shop. A century after Colman left Barber’s rented workshop, however, the incubator folded.
In 2002, the City of Rockford bought the property, heralding a round of demolition in 2005 which took out two buildings near the river, for environmental reasons. Even today, the ‘No Trespassing’ signs cite the years-old environmental cleanup.
Braced Against the Wrecking Ball
Though this bastion of industrial architecture is still extant, a contemporary recession is still threatening the property the city wants to see turned into a sports complex; without private investors the project will never get off the ground and force continued demolition, and without an unstable economy that isn’t going to happen. Now, though a little charred after a November 2009 blaze, the empty factory seems safe from the wrecking ball.
But that’s not the way it felt looking out of the Building 7’s barred windows, the 1911-vintage windows a little thinner on the top than the bottom, obscuring the 250,000-square-foot monster, 5-story building across a paved courtyard.
It felt like the sound of wind through a broken window.
A whistle in the distance. Going the way of the steam locomotive. History.