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Thursday, Aug. 11, 2005 02:59 pm

Monkey shines in Rockford

They're going ape for Nelson!

Midway Village’s Joan Sage (left) with Nelson, the giant sock monkey

You probably had a sock monkey at some point during your childhood, but did you know that the wiry stuffed toy originated in Rockford, Ill.?

The story begins with John Nelson, a Swedish immigrant who invented a sock-knitting machine in 1869. Nelson’s company, Nelson Knitting, along with a later manufacturer, Forest City Knitting, became famous for red-heeled socks, popularly known as “Rockford socks.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, Ed Eisner, president of Forest City, was sending 50 dozen pairs of the red-heeled socks to nuns in Wisconsin for Christmas. The nuns turned the socks into monkey dolls to raise money. Eisner persuaded Sears stores to include a doll pattern with each of the seamless work socks they sold, then Nelson Knitting convinced Montgomery Ward to do the same with its stock of red-heeled socks. By 1953, when the town of Rockford acquired patents for both the red-heeled socks and the dolls, the sock monkey was already famous.

Since April, Rockford’s Midway Village & Museum Center has been celebrating Rockford’s unique role in American history with a special exhibit devoted to the sock monkey. Barbara Gerry, great-granddaughter of John Nelson, gets the credit for getting the ball rolling on this exhibit, which has attracted visitors such as Cece Bell, author of Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood, and Mary Jane Stewart, a teacher who has used a sock monkey named Oscar to teach her students.

The mascot for this endeavor has been a 7-foot-2 stuffed monkey created by Dee “Sock Monkey Lady” Linder. It took Linder 42 hours to construct the monkey “Nelson” using 44 red-heeled socks. Nelson, who weighs 15 pounds, has traveled all over the country, making appearances at events and even the Today show and Good Morning America. “Nelson’s travels have included Orlando, Fla.; Las Vegas, Nev.; a dinosaur dig in Montana; an art exhibit in Chicago,” says Joan Sage, marketing director at Midway Village. “Nelson has been through X-ray machines and done it all.”

Along with the exhibit, the sock monkey also is being celebrated all over Rockford with displays of 6-foot-tall fiberglass monkeys. Artists have decorated several and are still working on what will total 18 monkeys.

In addition to sock monkeys, the Midway Village museum features an exhibit of old dolls, among other displays. The village comprises 26 historic structures, including a hardware store, general store, print shop, blacksmith shop, one-room schoolhouse, fire station, two historic barns, police station, hospital, bank, carpenter shop, law office, and homes.

For directions to Midway Village & Museum Center, hours, and other information, call 815-397-9112 or visit www.midwayvillage.com.

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