Here are some of the questions we frequently get about our efforts to transform the roundabout at North Main and Auburn streets in Rockford, Illinois – the area officially known as Veterans Memorial Circle – into a fitting tribute to Winnebago County veterans and their families.
Do you think planting thousands of flowers here is an appropriate use of our taxpayer dollars?
Absolutely not! That’s why this project seeks no public money.
Not one penny of what you pay in taxes has ever been used on the Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle beautification project.
Private donations pay for the thousands of flowers – and for a custom-made mobile watering system we use for the planted areas that aren’t irrigated.
What does a roundabout have to do with veterans?
It’s all about the military history of the area surrounding the intersection at Main and Auburn streets near downtown Rockford.
- At the northeast quadrant of the Main/Auburn roundabout is Greenwood Cemetery, the oldest and largest cemetery in Rockford and the final home of more than 520 people who fought in every major U.S. conflict – including the Revolutionary War.
- At the southeast quadrant of the Main/Auburn roundabout is the Churchill’s Grove neighborhood, home to Camp Fuller, a Union training base at the start of the Civil War.
When the Main/Auburn roundabout was built in 2013, the city’s design team worked with an Illinois historian to bring nods to this heritage. At each quadrant, the landscape buffer was made to include a monument wall which anchors a plaque. Altogether, the four plaques around the Main/Auburn intersection tell the story of Rockford’s military history, era by era.
How is planting all these flowers supposed to help veterans?
We hear from veterans – and their family members! – that whether they’re driving by or walking by, the colors and the scents of the flowers make them smile. On our planting days, some veterans stop by for selfies with our volunteers. Others come by, some in uniform, and share their stories. As we thank them for their service, they thank us for not forgetting them.
Among our earliest volunteers were suicide prevention coordinators from the VA.
An often-cited factor in veteran suicide – a crisis among post 9/11 era veterans – is the belief that troops are returning to an “uncaring” and “indifferent” public. A VA report outlining a national strategy to prevent veteran suicide highlights that small things people do to bring hope – things that show someone cares – make a difference to veterans who are struggling. (In the above link, please see Page 38 for “Community Engagement.”)
How is this different from other beautification projects in Rockford?
From what we know of other beautification projects across our city, the goal is to welcome visitors and encourage economic development. Our goal is to show veterans who live among us that their community cares to do something in their honor, at a place designated in their honor.
We plant thousands of flowers at this veterans’ memorial not to shine to the outside world, but to shine on the inside.
Who runs this project?
Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose board members are Rick Westlake, Ernie Redfern, and Helen Karakoudas Redfern.
The three of us, all residents of Rockford's Churchill's Grove neighborhood, started out in 2019 as a committee of the Churchill’s Grove Neighborhood Association. Our project grew to have active participants from the surrounding neighborhoods of North End Square, Edgewater, and Signal Hill, in addition to volunteers from throughout the city and across the region.
In 2022, we spun off officially as an independent charitable organization.
What support do you get from the City of Rockford?
Although no tax dollars are spent on this project, the City of Rockford is a crucial partner in our success. The gardening we do is on public streets that were built and are maintained by taxpayer dollars. So, the city’s Public Works department has a responsibility to make sure what we do on and near those streets is not harmful to the public nor degrading to the area.
At every stage of our project planning and execution, we inform Public Works and any other relevant city department. In late winter, we meet with Public Works and with command at Rockford Police District No. 1 to go over our plans for the year and address safety concerns. They work together to coordinate traffic mitigation for us on Spruce Up Day.
Throughout the summer, we provide Public Works with regular status reports that outline what we have done, what we are planning on doing, and what obstacles we may need help on from the city. For example, during the drought of 2021, they adjusted the length and frequency of irrigation on the beds that do have sprinklers.
The city’s Public Works department is also our IDOT interpreter and advocate.
Because North Main Street is a state road (Illinois Route 2), it has its own set of requirements and limitations. Our flower selection, so different from the native plants originally chosen for Veterans Memorial Circle, initially was met with some hesitation from the Illinois Department of Transportation. But Public Works fought for us and got IDOT approval. At the time, we were project organizers with big plans and no history of executing on those plans. We still are amazed that the city fought for us so strongly at a time they were skeptical of our ability to deliver.
How many flowers do you plant every year?
In 2019, the year we started this beautification project, we planted 6,200 flowers.
In 2020, we planted over 7,000 flowers.
In 2021, our goal was to plant 8,000 – and we wound up planting almost 9,000.
In 2022, our goal was to plant just over 11,000. We planted over 15,000.
Where does the money for all these flowers come from?
Private donations from individuals, families, and small businesses – either from PayPal and credit/debit card donations via our website, or by checks.
We have people give $10; we have people give hundreds of dollars. Our average donation is $45.
This project is 100% privately funded through a wide-ranging group of donors, some of whom have donated every year.
We have no major benefactor, where their loss would have a detrimental effect on our ability to keep hosting the project.
Where do the plants come from?
The west side of Rockford.
We buy local and are fortunate to have two independent nurseries that supply nearly all our flowers. Both Village Green on North Main and Didier Greenhouses are our suppliers. They each offer us generous discounts and, every year, we find flowers on the truck that we never ordered.
Community members also have donated perennials in honor, or remembrance, of a veteran.
Why isn’t the City of Rockford taking care of the upkeep?
Initially, they had been. After the roundabout was built in 2013, city landscape contractors planted salt- and drought-tolerant perennials – native plants that, on paper, were a once-and-done installation effort.
Several years later, few of these plants survived the mix of extreme winter cold and repeated splashes of road salt. City landscapers replaced these perennials several times, with the same eventual results.
Budget constraints and competing needs elsewhere in the city have put this area at a lower priority.
Why so many annuals? Can’t you just plant perennials and be done with it?
You’re right: We order annuals by the thousands and perennials by the hundreds.
This project began because the set-it-and-forget-it proposition with perennials didn’t work here. In the center bed under the flag and in all the other beds close to the road, none of the originally planted perennials survived.
When we adopted the area, the only perennials left from the original planting were some ornamental grasses, mostly behind the monument walls.
So, for most of the area, we favor annuals. Their long-lasting bloom time makes for a parade of color from early summer to late fall. And the energy it takes to plant these annuals keeps bringing a lot of people together to show our veterans and their families our commitment to honoring them.
The perennials that we do plant are in beds farther from the road – the centers of the medians, and the backs of the monument walls.
Perennials generally do not bloom all summer. An example of this is on the south median. Rockford has a resident who is a national judge at iris competitions. He donated some beautiful irises for us to plant; we did and they’re doing great. For two to three weeks, they bloom and are spectacular. To keep stand-out color in that spot for the rest of the summer, we bring in annuals.
How do you choose the perennials you plant?
The entire area is a laboratory. Knowing that proximity to splashes of road salt is detrimental to perennials, we factor this in while taking light tolerance and height restrictions into consideration too.
For some of the perennials we’ve planted as far from the curb as possible, our lab tests so far have succeeded as expected. Yarrow keeps coming back fuller and fuller behind the monument walls. Russian sage is standing tall on the north median. Shasta daisies rule the south median in the early spring.
We’ve also had some surprises. A good example is our experimenting with hibiscus. When we planted several hibiscus bushes on the medians in 2019, we researched and found out their survival rate would be minimal. Since then, they have flourished and come back every year. On the other hand, lavender bushes – well suited on paper and initially highly recommended – haven’t all come back.
How extensive is this beautification project?
Flowers in the project cover more than 6,500 square feet and stretch across almost 1.7 miles, including:
• The flag circle
• Fronts and backs of the four monument walls
• Four end caps
• Two medians on North Main Street (north and south of the roundabout)
• One area in front of Greenwood Cemetery (on Auburn Street)
• All the beds in front of the businesses on the 1400 block of North Main Street
• Beds around the city parking lot at the southeast quadrant of the roundabout
• 25 sidewalk plots on the Auburn Street corridor from the Rock River, individually adopted
How are the Auburn Street sidewalk plots related to this project?
Bringing color and charm to the 25 plots built into the Auburn Street sidewalks between the Rock River and the Main/Auburn roundabout is a part of the Veterans Memorial Circle project, but the massive planting and maintenance our Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle teams do at and around the roundabout doesn’t include these 25 flower beds.
Instead, to encourage beautification of this important corridor leading to Veterans Memorial Circle, we support neighbors and other community members who individually adopt these 12- by 4-foot plots.
We host a contest every August for the four prettiest beds. Judging is done by an independent panel of Rockfordians. The prizes are gift cards to neighborhood restaurants.
We ask adopters of the Auburn Street sidewalk plots to:
- Buy plants appropriate for that plot’s level of sun and to fill at least half of the plot with vegetation.
- Commit to planting by a certain date.
- Take responsibility for weeding.
We support their work by:
- Delivering mulch provided by the city.
- Watering regularly.*
*These plots aren’t irrigated. We water them using Rosie, our custom-built mobile watering system.
Like the rest of the Veterans Memorial Circle project, organization of the Auburn Street plot adoptions is in full coordination with the City of Rockford Public Works department.
I see you guys out there watering. Isn’t there irrigation?
Irrigation covers about a third of this area beautified. The circular bed under the flag is irrigated; as are the medians on North Main Street, north and south of the roundabout.
We hand-water the rest:
- Fronts and backs of the four monument walls
- Two areas in front of Greenwood Cemetery
- Beds around the entrance to the city parking lot at the southeast qudrant
- All the beds in front of the businesses on the 1400 block of North Main Street
- 25 sidewalk plots on the Auburn Street corridor from the Rock River
To meet this challenge, we designed and built a mobile watering system, Rosie – named after Rosie the Riveter, the wartime icon of can-do spirit. This system allows us to transport over 250 gallons of water at a time and is equipped with a motor and hose for spraying. We also use Rosie to apply fertilizer.
To give you an idea of the time commitment:
- For 45 days during the drought of 2021, a team of volunteers manually watered the entire unirrigated area every other day, including the 25 sidewalk plots on Auburn Street. It took 9½ hours every other day.
What happens when there’s an accident?
We expect accidents big enough to damage our flower beds. And we have annual confirmation that we’re not wrong.
Every summer since we started this beautification project, at least one major accident has taken out at least one chunk of a flower bed. We promptly go to one of the nurseries we work with for replacement flowers. In many cases, they tell us to consider the replacements a donation. This is why you shop local.
We don't let these setbacks deter us. This beautification project is our thanks to veterans who in their military career faced significant challenges. And just as important, it's our show of support for military veterans in the challenges they – and their families – face on their return home.
I’m visiting Rockford. Where in relation to Rockford attractions is this veterans’ memorial?
Veterans Memorial Circle, at the Main/Auburn roundabout, is on the west side of the Rock River:
- about 2 miles north of Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront,
- a mile and half north of the Coronado Performing Arts Center,
- and a mile north of the Burpee Museum of Natural History.
If you’re visiting Anderson Japanese Gardens, you’re just over a mile from Veterans Memorial Circle. (Spring Creek Road becomes Auburn Street when you head west and cross the Rock River.)
If you're looking for a nearby family-friendly spot (where kids can find chocolate milk on their menu) and adults can find one of northern Illinois's best selections of craft beers, know that Veterans Memorial Circle is just a mile south on Main Street from The Olympic Tavern.
Hey, is this the roundabout you go through on the way to Mrs. Fisher's Potato Chips?
Yes, it is.
Mrs. Fisher's Potato Chips, known for their hot bag sales, is a short turn (left) off of North Main Street about a mile north of the Main/Auburn roundabout.
I’d like to stop and read the plaques you talk about. Is there parking near Veterans Memorial Circle?
Yes. On the southeast quadrant, there’s a city parking lot.
On the southwest quadrant, there’s another city parking lot behind the North End Commons businesses. These businesses, on the 1400 block of North Main Street, include Rooted (a home goods and vintage furniture shop), Wonderland Sweets (a bakery inside Rooted), The West Side Show Room (community theater), and The Norwegian (a brunchpub with a rotating weekly dinner menu and live music).
I wasn’t able to make it for Spruce Up Day. Is there another way I can help?
Yes, of course! And thank you for asking. Planting the thousands of flowers is the beginning of our beautification journey every year. Throughout the summer, we need to weed and water regularly. There’s also some pruning and a little bit of deadheading that needs to be done. Not to mention collecting discarded bottles, wrappers and other debris.
Contact us, so we can get you a safety vest and put you to work at your convenience.
Helen Karakoudas Redfern
Got a quick way I can share your story?
We certainly do. Here’s a link to our brochure:
What sources did you use for all the info you're giving in the roundabout facts quiz?
We detail them all, question by question, in this list: Sources for the Roundabout Facts Quiz | Beautify Veterans Memorial Circle (rockfordveteranscircle.org)
Last updated May 11, 2023