Our 2021 Road Trip #41: Sock Monkeyshines

no evil sock monkeys!

Sock monkeys performing the classic “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” sketch like all your favorite politicians.

Show of hands, who’d be excited to visit a sock museum? Complete lack of hands, right? But what if the socks were turned into sock monkeys?

Some things are all about presentation.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…

After passing through Wisconsin with only two stops — between which our sluggish but unanimous family voted to skip the Dells altogether this time — we ventured into cozy, familiar old Illinois and toward the city of Rockford, where we’d be staying for the final night of our vacation. I had a short list of potential attractions to check out, but due to exhaustion — and, if I recall correctly, due to potential road obstructions from downtown events — we chucked nearly the entire list except one place. It seemed harmless and sufficiently cute and benign for us, so we could say we did something with Day Nine.

Rockford’s Midway Village Museum is one of those specialist organizations devoted to local history, mixing familiar olde-tyme objects with native achievements and memorabilia they can claim as their own. Their website encourages guests to “explore Midwestern life as it was during the early 1900s”. We’re from the state next door. The Midwest is not an exotic subject to us. However, Rockford can boast of a claim to fame that we can’t: they’re the Home of the Sock Monkey. Since 2008 the museum’s largest exhibit has been “The Missing Link: Socks, Monkeys and Rockford’s Industrial Past”. Someone’s working on opening an official Sock Monkey Museum in another town northwest of Chicago, but as of July 2021 they were neither finished nor along our route.

I have no idea whether The Kids These Days are familiar with sock monkeys. I promise they’re a thing, and have been to varying levels of homespun ingenuity since the 1870s. They remained a patchwork sort of invention until after the Nelson Red Heel socks came around circa 1932 in the wake of the Great Depression as a sort of folk art. Their specifically odd socks paved the way for standardization in the sock monkey design community. The full story is much more exhaustive and available online in a 46-page informational packet with a documented history of sock monkeys and instructions for how to make your own, both the monkey-sewing steps and the sock manufacturing machinery blueprints. You’ll understand if I decline to summarize all that here.

To do sock monkeys right requires using the Nelson Red Heel socks as your primary materials, produced at Rockford’s own Nelson Knitting Factory. Done correctly, your sock monkey will have the distinctive cross-threaded speckling that looks like its skin is tuned to a TV channel that went off the air at midnight, the gaping mouth made from the sock’s heel in the same color as hope-my-boyfriend-takes-me-back lipstick, the digitless paws and feet they flail around to catch your attention, and those black eyes too full of meek self-pity to peer into your soul. Sock monkeys: they need your help to live!

Soxanne!

Soxanne, one of several giant fiberglass sock monkeys, is first to welcome you in the parking lot.

chipmunk!

Keeping Soxanne company: chipmunk!

sock monkey alluring!

A basic sock monkey tries to be alluring to new generations.

dangling sock monkey!

Free-range sock monkey dangles from ceiling, enjoys impressing visitors below.

sock monkey characters!

Sock monkeys can play a variety of characters, much like your average SNL vet but on cheaper salaries.

high wheeled bike sock monkey!

Not the first high wheeled bike we saw on this trip.

Cheap Trick sock monkey!

Among the giant fiberglass sock monkeys, Best in Show was this salute to another group of Rockford’s hometown heroes, rock legends Cheap Trick.

Constitutional sock monkey!

Giant fiberglass honorable mention: a proudly Constitution-bearing sock monkey.

J. Nelson Pollock!

An abstract sock monkey dubbed J. Nelson Pollock.

Nelson the World's Largest Sock Monkey!

Nelson here is the World’s Largest Sock Monkey, at 7-foot-2 and built from 22 pairs of Nelson socks. After our nine days on the road he looked like how I felt.

Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood!

Sock monkey literature is available in the gift shop, though I didn’t see any of Tony Millionaire’s NSFW Sock Monkey graphic novels.

Nelson Red Heel socks!

Nelson Red Heel socks, the skin, lifeblood and guts of every “real” sock monkey.

1966 tube sock!

Nelson also pioneered tube socks back in 1966. You can also make monkeys from those, I guess, if you must.

1920s sock dolls!

Evolutionary sock monkey ancestors include these 1920s sock dolls. A mutant branch would fork off from the same family tree and become today’s differently spineless Twitter sock puppets.

1951 homemade sock monkey!

This 1951 homemade prototype was a crucial piece of evidence in a contentious lawsuit against a 1953 would-be patent holder.

1955 patent certificate!

The official patent papers secured by the company in 1955. Accept no substitutes.

The Nelson factory found other places in history. They made socks for the military, including for at least one World War. Theirs were the Official Socks of many an organization and sports team. Rockford itself had other memorable moments to share. Mostly we were there for the sock monkeys, but we looked around a bit more.

Greetings from Rockford!

Rockford welcomes you to the other half of the museum.

Rockford Peach!

Uniform from the Rockford Peaches, their women’s baseball team (1943-1954) that won the 1945 league championship and appeared as rivals in A League of Their Own with some historical errors.

Greater Rockford plane!

The Greater Rockford plane, which in 1928 attempted a flight to Stockholm but ran out of gas over Greenland. It was returned 40 years later.

1836 US flag!

An 1836 U.S. flag with 25 stars.

Emerson Carriage!

Other local products of note included the Emerson Carriage.

Estwing geology tools!

The Estwing Manufacturing Company made an array of geology tools, some of which were used during our 1969 moon landing mission.

wooden owl!

Also made nearby: this creepy owl that used to sit on some building and judge all humanity.

Charity statue!

Even more judgey: this 1878 Charity statue that once perched upon the old Winnebago County Courthouse roof. On weekends she’d moonlight as a Doctor Who villain called the Judging Angel.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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