Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens

Some of the best things in life happen when you stumble upon something you didn’t expect to find. I recently had that experience with Tinker’s Swiss Cottage in Rockford, Illinois. The heart of this old industrial city holds a museum that is a Victorian era Swiss Cottage. Since its opening in 1943, it has hosted thousands of visitors. 

The tan cottage with brown trim looks out of place amongst all the old factories that border the property. Don’t let that stop you from taking a tour of this beautiful historic place. Construction started as a single room in 1865. Upon completion five years later, it had 22 rooms. Inspiration came from a visit to a Swiss Chalet on a tour of Europe in 1862. 

Mr. Tinker was a prominent citizen who was very important to the prior history of Rockford. A founding member of the Rockford Park district and once held the office of mayor. He was also instrumental in helping Rockford get a public library and an opera house. He had a fondness for that city. It is very evident in one of his quotes “I only wanted to build a home that would give Rockford a name”– Robert Hall Tinker. Well sir, you have done just that! 

On the day of my tour, I met with the Executive Director of Tinker’s Cottage, Samantha. She had a wealth of knowledge of everything Tinker. She said that if Mr. Tinker were around today, he would be on Shark Tank for all his ideas. He was a visionary, craftsman, and an artist.  

Unlike many museums, this one has all the original items in it, and occasionally it gets new items on loan from the family. It looks like the family just walked out and left everything. It gives you a real feel for life in that era.  

Perched atop the limestone outcrop on Kent Creek adds to the charm of the Cottage. It is clear why Mr. Tinker chose this location. Dotted with large oak trees and a Native American burial mound. You can see how this location has drawn people to it for thousands of years. The property is on both sides of Kent Creek, and a small suspension bridge accesses it. Once across the creek, you will see the Railroad Garden. He built this garden for the enjoyment of people waiting for the nearby train. Many things Robert did, he did with other people in mind. Right from the start of the tour, you can see how he was inspired by things around him. The foyer has rustic furniture made from the roots of the trees cleared from the land. Who really thinks of building things from tree roots-truly unique.

For many people, the thought of a cottage inspires a small abode. However, this Cottage is roomy with high ceilings, fine trim, and rich dark woodwork. Like all fine places of that era, it had a parlor for entertaining in addition to a living room. Perhaps the standout feature of the Cottage is the spiral staircase that goes to the library. It is nothing short of miraculous. A single solid walnut piece that has been steam bent. It took him a full two years to complete it. Some of the appeal of Victorian architecture and design is that things were functional, but also had art infused in them. Look at the back of the steps on the staircase. They have designs cut in them to add to the aesthetics of the room. You find this all throughout the Cottage. Another place where creativity shines though is in the child’s room with the black and gold border painted where the wall meets the ceiling. The pattern was created by a carved coconut they got on a trip to Hawaii. The hollowed coconut had a candle placed in Jack O’Lantern style. It cast a shadow pattern on the wall that was traced and painted. When you see that in person, this idea will immediately impress you.

Another interesting fact is that this was one of the first houses to have electricity in Rockford. I can imagine that many a person changed their travel plans to pass by just to marvel at a house lit up at night. The construction and building of this house relied exclusively on hand tools. There were no power tools back then. Just stop to consider that every board was sawn and nailed by hand! To really put Mr. Tinker’s creativity and drive in perspective, he started construction on this house at the age of 29. What were you doing at 29? 

The one thing that was rather apparent was Mr. Tinker’s ability as an artist and his skill at drawing. Two of his drawings really stand out. The first was a drawing he gave his wife as a wedding gift. She was 40, and he was 33. He drew the picture of them as he envisioned they would have looked had they married at 18. Samantha showed me a photo and the picture he drew from it. It’s a low-quality photo of his father-in-law. The detail in this drawing is nothing short of incredible. She said he drew it with a charcoal pencil. I remembered thinking I must have purchased the wrong pencils because they cannot draw anything like that!  

It is easy to see why it is on the list of the National Register of Historic Places. If you need more convincing, they have plenty of activities to offer. Besides tours, they offer things like birthday parties to Murder Mystery nights. However, the most intriguing event will be the paranormal investigations and tours, as they say it to be haunted. When I toured the Cottage, nothing out of the ordinary happened that day. Samantha said it’s not uncommon for people to reach out after the fact with a ghostly image in their photos. The Tinker Cottage has been featured on the following paranormal television shows.  

SyFy episode Fear Factory Season 8 Episode 20 

Paraflixx’s Expedition Entity- Tinkers Swiss Cottage Season 2 Episode 6 

Travel Channel’s Jack Osborne’s Night of Terror – Tinker’s Swiss Cottage Season 1 Episode 2 


The Cottage and grounds have something to offer in every season. In the winter, it looks very festive with all the traditional Victorian decorations. It is only missing boughs of Holly decking the halls. During the growing season, the gardens are worth a visit alone. The rose garden boasts over 25 varieties of heirloom roses. Warm days will bring the glorious scent of roses and the gentle buzz of bees in the air. Can you think of anything better? Picture a time when women donned white dresses and wore big lacy bonnets or gently rested a parasol on their shoulder as they sipped tea during a garden tour. All the while, men played croquet nearby. Flower gardens were a sign of stature and success in those days. What would Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be without a tea party in a flower garden? While checking out the garden, don’t miss the Iris path. This beautiful path pays homage to Jessie Tinker, Robert’s second wife, as she had a real green thumb. It’s evident when you learn that she hybridized them and won numerous awards with her irises. 

If you decide to take the tour, one of the best ways to wrap up a visit is with a fine meal. After my tour, I dined at the Olympic Tavern 2327 N Main S, Rockford, IL. It’s a family-owned restaurant that has been in the same family since 1945! Few restaurants can boast that kind of longevity. There is a reason that they have been in business that long.

The restaurant has a wonderful outdoor dining area, delicious food with a great menu selection, and a friendly staff. I will make this a regular dining stop on future visits to the area.  

I hope you can take from my lead and find something unexpected in your life. Until that happens, put Tinker’s Cottage on your short list of places to visit, followed by some fine food at the Olympic Tavern.

Maybe you will come away with more in your photos than the cottage? 


Writing and Photography By: Vince Aiello