Over one hundred and fifty years ago a group of local citizens, numbering one hundred and twenty, used a voice vote to conduct the first election of Winnebago County officials. On August 1, 1836, Daniel S. Haight, a New Yorker, took his place in area history as the first Sheriff of Winnebago County. The newly formed county included parts of Stephenson County and all of Boone County.
In the summer of 1839 county commissioners selected the site for a public square and plans were made to construct a courthouse on the eastside of the river. A large quantity of brick and lumber was donated by the civic-minded area people; but the construction of the building had to wait for further finances. A special session selected the southeast corner of block 9 for a county jail; however, it would never be built in that location.
On September 9, 1841, a proposal was made to county commissioners to furnish temporary county offices in West Rockford until a permanent location could be established. Later in the year a frame structure was erected at the southwest corner of Main and Chestnut streets and was occupied until the first courthouse could be built.
The first Winnebago County Jail was completed in the spring of 1842. Located east of the first courthouse, the log structure was about twelve feet square and had a heavy plank door to secure the entrance. The jail’s window was barred with irons set into the logs. Whenever a dangerous person was lodged in the jail, it was necessary to post a guard. This new jail must have made things much easier for the sheriff, since the nearest jail had been in Galena. This new jail would only serve the community for a few short years. Soon a public square, a new jail, and a courthouse were built. This feat was accomplished by the citizens of West Rockford at no cost to the county.
Very prominent in the early history of the area was Daniel S. Haight. He was not only our first sheriff, but the founder of East Rockford. Mr. Haight decided not to remain in the Rock River area, but moved during the winter of 1847-48 to an area in Texas near Shreveport, Louisiana. He is said to have revisited Rockford sometime in 1857. Local tradition, commonly accepted, at least in 1916, related the story of Haight as a confederate soldier. He supposedly died near Fort Worth, Texas, sometime after the Civil War.
When ex-sheriff Haight visited Rockford in 1857, he was no doubt distressed to learn of the murder of a Winnebago County sheriff. Elected to office in 1854, Sheriff John F. Taylor was fatally shot on November 11, 1856, while chasing Alfred Countryman.
AC Countryman and his brother, John, had come into town from Ogle County and were selling cattle for a price far below their market value. Payment for the cattle was withheld from the brothers until Sheriff Taylor and Constable Thompson could arrive. The Countryman brothers were arrested on suspicion. During a search for a weapon, several pistol balls were found in Alfred’s pocket. When asked for his revolver, he said that he did not have one.
Just as the lawmen and their prisoners reached the jail steps, Alfred Countryman leaped over a fence and ran down Elm Street. The sheriff was in close pursuit. At the next corner near Hall and Reynolds Livery Stable, Sheriff Taylor had almost caught up to his prisoner. Desperately, Countryman pulled a hidden revolver and turned, firing once. The bullet struck the thirty-one year old sheriff in the chest. Witnesses later said that the sheriff’s last words were, “I’m shot, catch him!”
Alfred Countryman ran into the woods north of Kent’s Creek where hundreds of enraged citizens cornered him. Amid shouts of an immediate lynching, he was taken into custody.
In those earlier days, it was the sheriff’s job to carry out any court orders for an execution. Winnebago County Sheriff Samuel Church did just that on March 27, 1857 when Alfred Countryman was hanged on Church’s farm just outside the city. There are reports that indicate eight thousand citizens witnessed the country’s first execution. Sheriff Taylor, who left a wife and baby, had many friends and had been highly respected.
There were to be three more executions in our county’s history. On September 5, 1893, John Hart killed his two sisters, Mary and Nellie. He was executed by hanging on jail property by Sheriff Joel Burbank on March 16, 1894.
On July 19, 1896, James French killed his wife during a family dispute. He was sentenced to be hanged, and on June 11, 1897, Sheriff Robert Oliver carried out the court’s decision.
The last execution in Winnebago County was done under the supervision of Sheriff Charles Collier, who's father had served as our sheriff in a previous term. On January 20, 1910, an aging widow was brutally murdered during a robbery attempt. The widow’s murderer, Clinton St. Clair, was hung in the courthouse square on April 15, 1910.
One of our early county sheriffs was Goodyear Asa Sanford. He held the job for a two year period beginning in 1842. G. A. Sanford was able to trace his ancestry to the early settlers in America; they arrived from England in the 1630’s. He arrived in the Winnebago County area in 1837. Accompanying him on his trip west was Thomas Johnson, the first cabinet maker in Rockford. The Connecticut born Sanford was appointed as a deputy sheriff in 1838 and served in that position until he was elected sheriff in 1842.
Most of the men that held the Office of Sheriff in Winnebago County in the early years were businessmen that were concerned for their local government. Although G.A.Sanford served as our sheriff for two years, his capacity for public service extended far past the office. After retiring from the position of sheriff in 1844, Goodyear Sanford became involved in general merchandising at his store located at the intersection of State and Main streets. He served as President of the Second National Bank and was a trustee at Rockford Seminary, which eventually became Rockford College. His public life included terms as an alderman and as the school commissioner. He was on the building committee for the first bridge at State Street and was a charter member of the Second Congregation Church.
Frank F. Peats, who served as a two term sheriff beginning in 1872, was a veteran of the Civil War. Born in New York City on February 9, 1834, Peat served in the Seventeenth Illinois Volunteer Infantry and was promoted from captain to major in April of 1862. After the war he returned to Rockford and resumed his trade of sign writing, painting and decorating.
Sheriff Peats left the office in 1880, but returned to law enforcement in 1890 when he became Rockford’s Chief of Police. Serving briefly, Frank Peats resigned the same year for a position at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Quincy, Illinois. In his retirement he returned to Rockford.
Robert Oliver, elected as the sheriff in 1894, was another Civil War veteran. He began his military service as a corporal, but rose swiftly through the ranks to sergeant, master sergeant, lieutenant, and finally, as he mustered out of the military, captain. During the war, he was wounded twice; one of the wounds came at Shiloh. When he returned from the war, he began farming in Harrison Township and eventually owned much of the land in that area. Oliver finally retired to what was described as a beautiful and fancy home at 603 North Avon.
In 1898 another man that had been involved in the War Between the States was elected as the Winnebago County Sheriff. Willis E. Sawyer was born in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin on February 9, 1846 and enlisted in the Sixty-Seventh Regiment of the Illinois Infantry at the age of fifteen. Sawyer led a colorful life and soon after the war went on the road selling “Hamlin’s Wizard oil”. His travels took him to the west where he began a livery business in Santa Barbara, California. He spent some time in San Francisco before returning to Winnebago County to farm in an area near Durand before venturing into politics as the sheriff. W. E. Sawyer became a prominent horse dealer in this area and eventually erected a livery stable at Chestnut and Court streets.
There was another sheriff who apparently considered himself to be quite a horseman. William c. Bell, who was elected in 1930 and again in 1938, rode his horse up the courthouse steps, into the building, and down the long corridors in an attempt to disprove an Elm Street businessman’s claim that the sheriff was a lousy horseman. Sheriff Bell may well be remembered for that one act, but, in fact, he was a leader in the right to limit gangland activity in Winnebago County. He had been elected on a platform of cleaning out the county’s bootleggers, and as C. Hal Nelson, the author of a chapter in Sinnissippi Saga entitled “cops and Politicians,” writes, “He personally led his deputies on raids against speakeasies and moonshine stills several times a week.”
As the nation’s population moved west, Winnebago County grew, and, naturally, law enforcement kept pace. The sheriff’s department, along with the Rockford Police Department, established with the appointment of their first chief in 1852, and the Loves Park Police Department formed in 1947, employ most of the police officers in the county. The Illinois State Police firmly anchored their agency in the Winnebago County area when they established a substation in Rockford in March of 1958. Other police departments now working for a better Winnebago County include Cherry Valley, Durand, Pecatonica, Rockton, Roscoe, South Beloit and Winnebago.
Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Winnebago County, Vol. II, ed Charles A. Church, Munsell Publishing Co., Chicago, 1916.
Past and Present of the City of Rockford & Winnebago County, Illinois, Charles A. Church, S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago, 1905.
Reminiscences Sporting and Otherwise of Early Days in Rockford, John H. Thurston, Press of the Daily Republican, Rockford, Illinois, 1891.
Sinnissippi Saga, ed. C. Hal Nelson, Winnebago County Illinois Sesquicentennial Committee, 1968.