Those of us of a certain age, having experienced the incredible changes to the Beloit riverfront and the central commercial district, take it all in stride with memories of what inspired the efforts.
In a very real sense, though, we have become the outliers. Time moves on and for a substantial percentage of the community’s younger population the current enviable conditions in the City Center are the norm.
It’s almost surreal when one steps back to take stock and remember, to realize all that has been accomplished. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind to Beloit. Like most northern industrial cities, Beloit experienced substantial erosion of its old-line business base. Growth all but disappeared. Vacant commercial properties proliferated. The housing stock deteriorated. Population stagnated. The community looked and felt old and tired. Then a group of business, civic and public leaders partnered in a process that came to be known as Beloit 2000 (later renamed Beloit 2020, and now Beloit 200). The transformative results are everywhere to be seen in a stunning makeover that has garnered state and national attention.
It’s important to remember the past to understand the present, and to chart the future. Which brings me to Carol Mankiewicz’s impressive research and publication of her booklet, “Beloit: A River Runs Through It.”
Mankiewicz retired in 2016 after nearly 30 years teaching geology and biology at Beloit College, She’s been an active volunteer with a number of important community organizations. She and her husband, Carl Mendelson (also a retired Beloit College professor), frequently hike and bike along the riverfront and, somewhere along the way, Mankiewicz became more curious about the history of that crucial city real estate. In association with the Beloit Historical Society, she decided to gather the colorful story of Beloit’s riverfront corridor and share it with others through a booklet.
Consider ourselves fortunate. In fact, I think the School District of Beloit would be wise to acquire her work and incorporate it into the curriculum of students’ study of history. I’m a big believer in teaching history -- state, national, world -- and local should be added to the mix.
I won’t spoil the fun for readers of “Beloit: A River Runs Through It.” The booklet is available at the Historical Society. It’s a quick read, around 50 pages. I suggest readers get it, read it for their enjoyment, and share it with their children, youngsters and young adults alike. For younger people, much of this information is new. Longtime Beloiters will learn a lot as well.
Here’s a sneak peek. The Mankiewicz booklet bears resemblance to a tour guide, highlighting various points along the riverfront and central corridor. But it does so with a complete historical perspective. What buildings and enterprises occupied sites over generations? How did the property evolve? What’s there now, and how was the plan conceived and executed? Did you know a mill race once powered industry on the west side of the river? Did you know the current Brown Swiss building at 800 Pleasant St. is likely the oldest industrial building still in use, first occupied in 1858? Did you know famed explorer Roy Chapman Andrews was born on the west side on E Street (now St. Lawrence Avenue), and that he survived a near drowning on the Rock River in an incident that claimed two lives?
I’ll stop there, with a recommendation for readers to spend a few hours some weekend reading the booklet, walking the path while making designated “stops” along the way to absorb the history and explanations Mankiewicz so ably provides. Bring your kids, or your grandkids. When you’re done, you will know this city we call home much, much better. And that’s a good thing.
A fitting tribute
My heart is warmed by news the Stateline Boys & Girls Club’s new home will be named for the late and former executive director of the organization, Joel Barrett. From 1964 to 1999 he headed this critical local agency devoted to kids. In my view, no one stands above Joel Barrett in the scope and reach of his positive impact on Beloit’s young people.
I had the privilege of working with Joel as a member of the organization’s board of directors for more than 20 years. He was an incredible leader and the board, over those years, was comprised of do-ers, some of the most able and creative individuals I’ve known in my time. That’s because Joel Barrett attracted people who wanted to make a difference. Under his guidance the club expanded to three facilities and, most importantly, switched from boys-only to incorporate girls into the programs.
What I remember most about Joel is his steadfastness of purpose and his unflinching character, no matter what challenge came along. He would always do the right thing. Every time.
His name belongs on the new facility. He built the organization.
Speaking of character
The passing of Gen. Colin Powell touched me in a way that’s hard to explain. Didn’t know him. Never met him. Still, his death from complications with the coronavirus seemed like a punch to the gut.
It’s the character thing, which Powell demonstrated throughout a lifetime of service. He was a son of immigrants. He had no advantages, other than his own intelligence and innate devotion to country, truth and honor. He fought and bled for America in Vietnam. He embraced a military career, rising to the top of its leadership. He advised presidents, Republican and Democrat. He broke racial barriers, rising to military and civilian leadership posts. When he made a mistake he owned up to it. And he called it like he saw it, refusing to be boxed in by Team Blue or Team Red. It was striking, in death, how many highly accomplished people across the political spectrum referred to Powell as their “North Star.”
Character counts. Oh boy, does it. In today’s divided, angry and often vulgar environment we need more people brave enough to exhibit that rare trait.
William Barth is the former Editor of the Beloit Daily News.