Museums, Japanese gardens and wakeboarding in Rockford on 1 tank of gas

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WLS) -- Roz Varon's special feature on One Tank Trips, fun places to visit on a tank of gas, continues with some hidden gems in Rockford, Illinois.

Because Rockford is relatively close to the Chicago area, most people don't think of it as a destination - let me show you why it is, and so much more!

Situated on the banks of the Rock River, Rockford has long been known as an industrial town, but in recent years, that's changed!

"I love telling people about this great city!" said John Groh, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Conventions & Visitors Bureau. "Over the past ten years there's been a lot of revival, a lot of renaissance, great activities for families, young people, girlfriend getaways and more! Over the past couple of years there's been an explosion of murals in our downtown core. More than 25 murals are now in the downtown area."

We started our tour not too far from those murals. Across the Rock River you can see the brand new Embassy Suites Hotel, built in a former 104-year-old factory building! We stopped at Crust and Crumbles, one of many new eateries that make up the Rockford City Market.

"We offer breakfast sandwiches, pastries, bread, lunch options, coffee and lots of yummy treats!" said Jojo Genden, owner and baker and Crust and Crumbles.

A three-minute drive brought us to the campus of Riverfront Museum Park. We checked out the award-winning indoor and outdoor Discovery Center Museum.

"We're a cross between a children's museum and a science center, so everything is interactive, but everything is also made for children to learn through play," said Ann Marie Walker, marketing director at the Discovery Center.

They have more than 300 STEM related exhibits for all ages and for kids at heart!

Here's something you wouldn't expect in the middle of north/central Illinois - a world class Japanese garden, complete with koi and other wildlife!

"In the mid 1970s my parents purchased this property," said David Anderson, founding family member for the Anderson Japanese Gardens. "So the garden started as a private backyard garden, 5 acres total property size, now we're over 12 acres // They will see waterfalls, plunging waterfalls, meandering streams, our guest house, authentic Japanese carpentry, authentic Japanese architecture// now the plants have to be for this temperate zone, so we're not using all the same plants they use in Japan, we have Japanese Maples, several different kinds of Japanese Maples, we have different types of pine, some spruce, so there are at least one hundred different varieties of plants."

From peace and tranquility to water sports! For the adventurous, you can try wakeboarding at West Rock Wake Park, using a cable system for all levels of riders.

I take things a little slower, so I opted for kayaking at Rocktown Adventures. A quick refresher lesson and we were on our way! If you want the river all to yourself, come on a weekday! A relaxing, and refreshing experience, without tipping over! AWESOME!

Our last stop was the Midway Village Museum, a living history museum on 140 acres with 26 buildings, many of them original, the oldest dating back to the 1840s!

"We'd be talking about life in the late 1800s, very early 1900s, practical things, how you preserve food, how you kept cool, what your ice box was all about, where you did your business, the importance of the blacksmith," said Robyn McDonald, a history interpreter at the Midway Village Museum.

We checked out the Midway Community Bank from 1882, where they printed their own currency! The general store had an amazing assortment of goods and a 50-cent Sears catalogue! I got to practice my cursive at the 1902 one-room school house, and marveled at the turn of the last century homes, complete with all the modern conveniences - for 1890, that is!

Other things you may not know about Rockford - early on the community was known as "Midway" because it was mid-way between Galena and Chicago. It was changed to Rockford, because of the Rock River.

And, Rockford is the birthplace of the Sock Monkey! Many factories manufactured the brown socks for soldiers during World War I - during the Great Depression, thrifty mothers used the socks to make dolls - and the rest is history!
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