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Thursday, June 2, 2005 06:33 am

Tinker's toys

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The Tinker Swiss Cottage was completed in 1878, the conservatory in the 1880s
PHOTO BY KEITH LADAGE

Looking for a day trip that offers history, a love story with a boy-gets-girl ending, and a self-made man who makes good — along with some Lincoln lore? The Tinker Swiss Cottage has it all: the story of John Manny, who invented the Manny Reaper, was sued for patent infringement, died young, and left a beautiful, wealthy widow who married a company employee, Robert Tinker.

The story begins when Cyrus McCormick invented his famous reaper in 1831 and became the undisputed “Reaper King” until a little competition heated up. An upstart manufacturer, the Manny Reaper Co. of Rockford, became a thorn in McCormick’s side when, at the Paris Exposition of 1855, the Manny Reaper beat the McCormick Reaper. Cyrus McCormick filed suit against John H. Manny for patent infringement.

Manny set out to prove that the reaper was his own invention. Learning that the trial was to be held in Springfield, he decided that it would benefit him to hire a local lawyer. The firm turned to Abraham Lincoln, who at the time was experiencing financial and political setbacks and was more than happy to be part of a high-profile trial.

With a $500 advance, Lincoln worked on his brief for months. Unfamiliar with patent law, Lincoln traveled to Rockford to learn more about the Manny Reaper. But the trial was moved to Cincinnati, and attorneys Edwin Stanton, George Harding, and P.H. Watson no longer needed or wanted Lincoln’s services. Edwin Stanton, who later served as secretary of war in Lincoln’s cabinet, said that he didn’t want to associate with “such a damned, gawky, long-armed ape as that.”

Lincoln arrived in Cincinnati in his best suit, but Stanton’s rudeness caught Honest Abe off guard. Stanton described his future president as “a long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat and the back of which perspiration had splotched wide stains that resembled a map of the continent.”

Lincoln handed the brief he’d prepared for the case over to the unimpressed lawyers and returned to Illinois. The brief was never used, but Manny’s lawyers prevailed. Although Manny won the suit, victory was short-lived: In 1856, 30-year-old John Manny died of tuberculosis. His widow, Mary, took over the operation of the Manny Reaper Co. and other Rockford properties. At the time of her husband’s death, Mary Manny lived in the Manny Mansion, an Italianate brick structure that was eventually torn down in 1900 because it was so close to the railroad that it was literally being shaken apart.

The year Manny died, 19-year-old Robert Tinker arrived in Rockford at the urging of William Knowlton, Mary Manny’s business manager. Two years later, Knowlton and Tinker became business partners. Tinker’s relationship with Mary, who was eight years older, would prove even closer: In 1870, the two married and embarked on a honeymoon to Hawaii, where Tinker had been born.

Tinker was a talented artist, and, during a nine-month European tour in 1862, he kept a detailed log of travels, including sketches of the places and farm machinery he saw. The trip provided the inspiration for Tinker’s greatest legacy. In 1865, Tinker began work on an elaborate 20-room Swiss cottage, a project that continued into the 1880s with the addition of a conservatory. The cottage was connected to the grounds of the Manny Mansion by a suspension bridge over nearby Kent Creek. A replacement for the original bridge, which was removed in 1976, is near completion, and an ice-cream social to formally dedicate the new structure is planned for June 12.

The Tinker Swiss Cottage has several characteristics of the Romantic style, including a front gabled roof, deep-bracketed eaves, and a second-story balcony with flat balustrades and trim decorated with cut-out patterns.

The cottage, which looks a bit like the dwarves’ residence in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is filled with the Tinkers’ furnishings, artwork, and diaries.

The Tinkers were a social force in Rockford. In addition to their business enterprises, they were active in the community. Robert Tinker served as mayor of Rockford for one year. Although Mary Dorr Manny Tinker never had children, she reared her nieces, Marcia and Jessie, after her sister died. In 1904, after Mary and Marcia were dead, Robert Tinker married Jessie; four years later they adopted a baby, and Robert Tinker became a father at the age of 72.

Robert Tinker died on Dec. 31, 1924 — his 88th birthday. Two years after his death, Jessie Tinker sold the cottage to the Rockford Park District but lived in it until her death, in 1942. The cottage has since been restored to its former beauty.

Tours of the cottage, which is located at 411 Kent St. in Rockford, are provided at 1, 2, and 3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. For more information, call 815-965-2424 or visit www.tinkercottage.com.

While visiting Rockford, you may also want to tour the Burpee Museum of Natural History, where “Jane” the dinosaur will soon go on display; the Midway Village and Museum Center; and the Magic Waters water park. For garden lovers, there is the beautiful Anderson Japanese Garden, along with the Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden. For those looking for a little cultural history, a tour of the Erlander Home Museum offers insight into Rockford’s Swedish-American Heritage. For Rockford tourism information, check out the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site, www.gorockford.com, or call 800-521-0849.

Directions: north on I-55, the north on I-39; approximately 3 hours.

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