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.
In the corner of most of the factory floors, freight elevators flanked restrooms to leave more central space for machines and their masters.
This is one of my favorite images of the year because of the color, light and textures. Someone told me once that the medium of photographers is not film or digital sensors, but rather shadows. This photo is evidence of that.
The warped floors caught my eye in this room too–a symptom of turning off heat and not patching a leaking roof in the midwest.
Grimy windows and the other half of the complex trade interests and stares.
This bay would host boxcars as workers would fill them with the fruits of the factory.
Safety signs decorated every floor, machine and, yes, door. This message spoke to me for reasons my coworkers will understand; suffice to say, I need to take this message to heart.
Demolition following the arson of the Administration Building.
I found a historical photo of this room showing 10-foot high machines with wires hanging by the mile from looms and schematic charts.
An abandoned gatehouse bearing the name of the former factory.
Goals for 1980, still tacked onto the wall.
Mushroom pillars hold up the dreams of so many, the profits of so few.
The fresh snow makes the whole complex look a lot cleaner than it actually is.
A shipment board for customers that may or may not exist anymore. Let’s assume any of the products made here are probably on backorder.
This is the building with the water tower on top, full of Barcol stuff that did not sell at auction and not worth the trouble to scrap.
A wide view of the complex from a far rooftop.
The powerhouse had two elevated tracks behind it, one for coal and one for deliveries.
This gives you a sense for what it looks like to stand on the roof of the main production building at sunset.
This is one of the biggest warps I’ve ever found in a wooden factory floor hasn’t broken yet. When you stand on it, it make a very loud popping sound as the boards shift. The poster on the pillar near the left side of the frame advertises recreational boating, presumably to the factory workers who left this floor in the early 1980s.
These racks lined many of the floors, although I couldn’t decipher their purpose. Tastes like duotone…
Looking from the powerhouse across to the old Electrical Assembly side of the plant that manufactured products like thermostats. Most of the complex is connected by skyway and tunnel systems.
In one of the small offices there’s this machine that bills itself as “The Recorder.” I’m an old tech geek and I still don’t know what this really does.
Fire doors separate the buildings.
This is an example of the equipment that was originally manufactured at Barcol.
Steam pipes snake up the walls like vines, but with asbestos.
Everyone loves water towers.
One thing I like about the oppressive globalist-wrought future is the idea of numerically subdividing spaces; my geek side sort of wants to live in a flat that can be sorted by as Dewey Decimal-like code.
No wonder the factory shut down; everyone was scheduled to work 9 to 5 and the clock’s broken! (In all seriousness, this is/used to be a beautiful timepiece, especially for a utilitarian factory like this.
A comrade lights-up where so many workers apparently congregated to do the same.
(1907). Fibre & fabric: a record of American textile industries in the cotton and woolen trade, 46. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=ChcAAAAAMAAJ
(1919). Machinists' Monthly Journal. Official Organ of the International Association of Machinists, 31. Retrieved from http://books. google. com/books?id=kUoMAQAAIAAJ
Ad for barcol garage door opener. (1949). The Roatian, 47(5), Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=r0YEAAAAMBAJ
Alexander, J. W. (1952). Rockford, illinois: a medium-sized manufacturing city. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 42(1), Retrieved from http://www. jstor. org/stable/2561044
Barber knot. (1907). Textile world record, 32. Retrieved from http://books. google. com/books?id=ZfbNAAAAMAAJ
City of Rockford, (n. d. ). Draft action memorandum Retrieved from http://www. ci. rockford. il. us/uploadedFiles/developmentbuildzone/development/Barber_Colman/Dr aft%20Action%20Memorandum. pdf
City of Rockford, Community Development. (2006). Rockford historic preservation commission Rockford, IL: Retrieved from http://www. cityofrockford.net/uploadedFiles/go vernment/CommunityDevelopment/HistoricPreserva tion/Commission/Min%205_9_06. pdf
Copeland, M. T. (1912). The Cotton manufacturing industry of the united states [Vol. 8]. (Google Books), Retrieved from http://books. google. com/books?id=iOkJAAAAIAAJ
Gary, A. (2008, March 10). Getting pulled back into the family business. Rockford Register Star, Retrieved from http://www. rrstar.com/communities/x39085063
Gary, A. (2009, November 19). Fire shouldn’t alter redevelopment plans. Rockford Register Star, Retrieved from http://www. rrstar.com/news/x1945258862/Reed- Chatwood-building-fully-involved-in-fire
Mindell, D. A. (2004). Between Human and machine: feedback, control, and computing before cybernetics (Google Books), Retrieved from http://books. google. com/books? id=oQ7qpscuYbsC&dq
Westphal, M. (2008, April 21). It's history: find secures rockford manufacturing records. Business Rockford, Retrieved from http://www. businessrockford.com/biznews/x14980 99739