A look behind the scenes of Rockton Christmas Walk's rich history
Rockton Christmas Walk holds a rich history, one that dates back to 1984 when businesswoman Barb Cannell found a way to draw people buying Christmas trees at local tree farms to visit Rockton's downtown and to keep them there.
Barb Cannell, Steve Pomahac, and Ruth Pennycook teamed up to organize an event featuring local downtown businesses. A two-day weekend event was born out of this idea. People would walk door to door checking out what crafters had to offer. A craft person was in each store. Santa came in on a wagon.
Organizers made changes for the next event. Some rented costumes. As time went on, people began making Frosty, Rudolph and elf costumes. Visitors were greeted by these characters and given candy canes. The Wimpy's Fund Auction was also begun by that first group of organizers.
The Lighting of the Village Green Park was initiated in 1983. Rockton resident Larry Weber created and lit a unique make-shift type of tree which sat inside the pool fence. The next year Weber worked alongside Village President Bill Vedra. That year, the park building was lit up too, as decorations expanded. Red bows surrounded the entire building.
It started to catch on that Rockton was “Christmas ready.” Students at Rockton Grade School made bird seed ornaments which they hung on small trees in the park. President Vedra would say, “Larry, light the lights” and everyone in attendance echoed the same words.
Area schools singing Christmas carols and the arrival of Santa (in more recent years on a firetruck) are traditions started in those days that are carried into today’s event. A table was set up where visitors enjoyed hot cider.
By 1987, the Our Town Committee began decorating the Village Green Park. Leading this charge was Katie Cronin and a strong base of community volunteers. Lighting of the Park drew hundreds each year. During the third year of the Our Town Committee's dedicated work, Frank Saladino of the Rockton Public Works got involved. In his 20 year tenure with the Village of Rockton, Saladino oversaw the decorating of the park for a total of 17 years. He directed volunteers on where decorations should be located and positioned, added flood lights and did all of the wiring for 12 of those years. “Bruce Werrbach did it prior to me,” Saladino said. “There were years that no one showed up to decorate, so my wife and I did it. The people in the Sunday program were also lots of help in bringing out lights, checking them and putting decorations away after the season.”
After Katie Cronin's passing, the Rockton Chamber honored her memory with a special ceremony and lighting of Katie's Tree in the Village Green Park. Sharon Wolfe, also a member of the Our Town committee, was honored with a donation of two decorations given in her memory during the 2000 Christmas Walk.
Decorations remain stored in a trailer purchased at Finnegan's by the Our Town Rockton committee. Many decorations adorning the Village Green Park today have been donated. “Different volunteers used materials to make cut outs that could be painted or drawn on,” said Pomahac.
In years past, Michelle Marella took the initiative to start an “Adopt a Display” in hopes of improving decorations in need of fresh paint or repair.
Luminaria was purchased and placed all over town. Kelly Sand and Gravel supplied the sand.
Prince of Peace Church has served hot chocolate at the Lighting of the Park for a total of 18 years. Following suit was Macktown Lions Club who served in this capacity starting in 2019.
After traveling to another small town, Barb Cannell saw a lighted Christmas parade. Inspired by what she saw, Cannell pitched an idea to the Chamber of Commerce. By the early nineties Steve Pomahac had organized Rockton's first Lighted Christmas Parade. “Our first lighted parade had 20 entries,” Pomahac said. “The last time I ran the parade, we had between 100-125 entries.”
Pomahac says, "To keep massive crowds of spectators from getting too close to the streets we put up barricades. This allowed floats to get through smoothly... After four years we had to move the parade line up to the [Hononegah] high school. Previously the parade lined up on the street adjacent to Balsley Printing. Due to an increased number of entries, the route changed, moving the parade from Main Street to Union Street. When the school began basketball games on that weekend, the lineup was moved to the boat docks. This we found to be more challenging especially if it snowed, since the entries were going uphill to exit the boat docks. The parade is always the prettiest when it snows,” Pomahac reflects.
Helping Pomahac with parade line up and setting up barricades was a core group of around 10 friends, some non-Rockton residents, and business owners. “They just all knew how to do it and they got it done,” reflects Pomahac, “The parade started at 7 p.m. in those days. The Rockton Police Department put up notices in store windows, or stopped into places to ask customers to please remove their cars from the street... We had no problems with vehicles. Tear down was always quick.” Parade floats were judged in various categories with winners receiving a nice plaque.
Popular events over the years have included craft shows, the Prince of Peace Cookie Walk, Breakfast with Santa, the Rockton United Methodist Church chili supper, entertainment such as dance troupes, quartets, the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, and a community cantata directed by Steve Hamill of St. Andrew Church. One year, a live early morning radio remote provided the perfect kick off to the Christmas Walk. Live reindeer and handlers proved to be a true highlight of the 2000 walk. The Stateline's Got Talent was a popular attraction under the direction of Julie Mischler for many years. House decorating, business and a tree decorating contests drew great interest. Stars of Rockton were honored at different events.
In years past, Santa welcomed little ones to tell him Christmas wishes throughout the weekend. The Santa house was either located in the Village Park or between the Rockton Village Hall and Rockton Inn Pub Grub and BBQ. In more recent years, Santa was housed in the Dairyhaus. Santa has been welcoming visitors the last couple of years at Settler’s Park.
In 2021, COVID-19 limited some of the activities but new additions came along. One highlight from that Christmas Walk was ponies that young ones could visit along with their owners. Another was the beginning of lighted displays at Settler’s Park. 2021 also marked the addition of Dueling Pianos, which proved to be highly popular. In the past five years, a hot cocoa crawl and a pub crawl have added more options. New music has been added to the 2022 Christmas Walk with the return of the Rockford Barbershop Chorus and the River City Sound Chorus Sweet Adelines. In 2022 a Historic Homes for the Holidays tour is being reintroduced.
Today the Village of Rockton teams up with community volunteers to decorate downtown, assist in park decorating, and to make sure lights welcome guests to the Village of Rockton. Members of the Rockton Lions Club add Christmas spirit by decorating planters both in the downtown and in the Village Green Park. The long time popular tradition of horse drawn carriage or wagon rides adds to the overall allure of Rockton’s Christmas Walk.
From 2010: Rockton Christmas Walk Message
TV Commercial, 2010