Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Eulogy for our Neighborhoods

The year 2014 has been the most destructive in the history of Rochester. When future historians examine the record of this year looking for the cause of the devastation, they will not find narratives of fire, tornado, or bombs.  Instead, they will find that in 2014, when Rochester's landscape was riddled with the pock-marks of demolished vintage houses, the damage was wholly self-inflicted.

An amazing number of buildings in Rochester's residential neighborhoods have been razed during the past 12 months.  Not all were counted among the best of our historic properties, but some were - the 1888 Van Hoosen-Case house being a notable example and the most recent to fall to the wrecking ball.  We seem to be in the middle of an "out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new" cycle.  After all, old houses take a lot of time and money to maintain.  They are inconvenient - the walls are seldom square and plumb, the floors aren't completely level, they have inadequate closet space and the kitchens - gasp! - aren't usually roomy enough to accommodate an island cook-top and all of the latest appliances and gadgets.  So we rip them down and replace them with something more amenable to modern family life, and strip away a little more of our heritage in the process.

Just old buildings?  Not quite.  An anonymous person once said, "It's not good because it's old, it's old because it's good."  These houses are witnesses, if only we would take the time to listen to their testimony.  They all have stories to tell about the families they have sheltered over the decades, and the people in those families were the ones who built this community and left something behind for the citizens of today. Author and home restoration specialist Jane Powell once spoke quite eloquently on this issue; she said, in part:
American culture, and advertising in particular, has done an excellent job of convincing consumers that they are the center of the universe, and that their needs and desires should be more important than anything else. This has led to a huge sense of entitlement, including the idea that one's time is so valuable that it couldn't possibly be spent maintaining the house. Here's some news you may find distressing. You are not the center of the universe. I am not the center of the universe, either. We are temporary. We are not playing Monopoly, and there is no "get-out-of-maintenance-free" card. (Those who are elderly or disabled get slack.) A house comes with responsibilities, and a historic house comes with more responsibilities. We are only the caretakers of these houses, which were here before we owned them and which will be here after we are gone. They contain the wood from the old-growth forests, they are monuments to the skill of those who labored to build them, they represent our cultural heritage. To destroy them, or allow them to be destroyed by neglect, to remove their original fabric in the pointless pursuit of "no maintenance" is profoundly disrespectful both to the trees that gave their lives and to the labor and skill of those who built the houses - with hand tools, I might add.
The issue of historic preservation is now being studied in the halls of city government, and the coming year may see the topic addressed, perhaps by ordinance.  Personally, I hope that any discussion will include not only consideration of control by ordinance, but also a conservancy/trust model for the handful of our most precious historic gems.

A conservancy/trust for historic properties might look something like the greenspace initiative passed in Rochester Hills some years ago to protect certain land from development.  A millage was passed to provide the city with the funds to acquire these properties for the public good.  A similar approach could be used to acquire select historic properties, which would then be owned, operated and maintained by a public trust.  The properties could be leased - with the appropriate restrictions on the activities of the tenants in order to protect and preserve the buildings - and the income realized from the leases would be returned to the trust and invested, providing a fund for the perpetual care and maintenance of the properties. (If you are interested in such arrangements, check out the web site of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania Heritage Conservancy, which conserves both historic buildings and natural resources.)

In February 1968, Rochester suffered a loss when its Albert Kahn-designed Chapman mansion and ten acres of trees were bulldozed.  There was considerable public outcry at the time - after the fact, of course - and the Rochester Clarion was prompted to run an editorial under the headline "A Lesson Can be Learned."   The editor's closing words were these:
The lesson learned from this incident should be clear. Private industry is not in the park business. If enough citizens earnestly want to have a piece of land preserved, they should waste no time in urging some unit of government to grab it as soon as it is for sale - not six months later. They should also be prepared to possibly pay higher taxes to secure it. Natural beauty is not a luxury.
Forty-six years later, the evidence suggests we haven't learned that lesson yet. Demolition is a bell that cannot be unrung.  It is time to decide how we can progress while honoring our past, and how we can preserve our neighborhoods without heavy-handed infringement of private property rights.  This post is not aimed at the builders and developers who are doing what they have the legal right to do with privately-held property; it is aimed at their enablers. It is aimed at the citizens who signal by inaction their tolerance for bulldozers rolling down their streets, of graceless mini-mansions bulging at the lot lines and crassly towering over their neighbors in a vulgar attempt to make Rochester a clone of the zip code to our southwest.

My home town is better than that.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Return of the Historic Butts Surrey

Rod and Susan Wilson, Gail Kemler and Carol Becker in the Butts surrey, pulled by Lace. (Photo by Gerald Larsen)
The Butts surrey, recently restored by the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, returned to the streets of Rochester today in the annual Hometown Christmas Parade.  The surrey's history was told in an earlier post, and since that time it has traveled to Nappanee, Indiana, where an Amish craftsman returned the well-worn carriage to the condition of its glory days.  Now approximately 115 years old, it looked beautiful today decked out in holiday finery and once again rolling down Main Street, Rochester.

Monday, December 1, 2014

This Month in Rochester History

Fifty years ago this month, the attention of Rochester residents was focused on a special election held on December 8, 1964. The purpose of the election was the consideration of a $190,000 bond issue to fund the village's portion of an urban renewal project for East Third Street.  The proposed project would relocate 33 families to other housing, raze substandard buildings, grade the land and install new water and sewer lines. The course of Paint Creek would be straightened and new bridges would be built.  After all of the work was completed, the lots in the area would then be sold for industrial use.

The East Third Street area had been devastated by a flood in 1946 when the old Western Knitting Mills dam was washed out. The area had never fully recovered from that disaster, and with the assistance of federal funding, was ripe for redevelopment.

The cost of project was estimated to be $709,000, three-quarters of which would be paid by a federal urban renewal grant.  The remainder of the cost was to be borne by the village through a bond issue.  The question passed on a vote of  357 to 149, setting the stage for a year of great changes for Rochester in 1965.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Got My Thrill on Newberry Hill

Just in time for holiday giving or enjoying on a snowy day is the latest publication from Rochester Avon Historical Society, a new book entitled I Got My Thrill on Newberry Hill: Rochester Area's World Renowned Ski Jump.  Author Penny Frank Reddish is uniquely qualified to offer this illustrated history of Rochester's ski jump: her family sold the property on which the ski jump was built, and her father and brother participated in its construction.

This book is full of photographs and accounts from Frank family diaries that are available nowhere else. If you'd like to read the authoritative story of the ski jump that hosted internationally-ranked competitors such as Olympian Anders Haugen and Norwegian jumper Johanna Kolstad, this is the book for you.  Copies are available for $9 at Lytle Pharmacy in downtown Rochester and through the Rochester Avon Historical Society's online store.  Also, copies will be available at the RAHS booth in the Kris Kringle market in downtown Rochester on the weekend of December 5-6.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bygone Business: McAleer Manufacturing - Part 3

ITT-Higbie plant in 1978 (Photo by Harold Mowat)
The post-World War II years were turbulent ones for Rochester's McAleer Manufacturing. Before the war was over in the Pacific, company officials had already plans for production of a new portable suction cleaner for automobiles.  The company had also just acquired the Bronson Reel Company of Bronson, Michigan; Bronson, now a McAleer subsidiary, claimed to be the largest producer of fishing reels in the world at that time.

On January 15, 1946, just five months after the war ended, owners Carlton and N. Bradley Higbie took their company public, offering 50,000 shares of preferred  McAleer stock at $10 a share and 50,000 shares of common stock at $5 a share.  The stock offering was intended to raise approximately $662,500 in new capital.

The following November, Carlton M. Higbie bought out his brother's share of the company and took his place as both president and chairman of McAleer.  Along with the announcement that N. Bradley Higbie was leaving the firm came the news that McAleer was ready to start production steel pressure tubing for the auto industry.  On May 5, 1950, company stockholders met and voted to change the name of the firm to Higbie Manufacturing Company.  Higbie was organized into four divisions: Avon Tube Company, McAleer Manufacturing, Bronson Reel, and the general crafts division. Two years later, the McAleer division was sold off, and the Rochester plant was solely devoted to the Avon Tube division.

In 1971, Higbie Manufacturing was acquired by International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) and became known as ITT-Higbie.  ITT-Higbie continued to produce tubing in the Rochester plant until 1994; the building was then sold for redevelopment and eventually became the home of the Rochester Mills Beer Company.

Miss the previous posts on this topic? Click here for Part 1 or Part 2 of the McAleer story.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering World War I

Today is Veterans Day, known in days past as Armistice Day, because it marked the armistice that ended World War I on November 11, 1918.  The community of Rochester observed the original armistice day in 1918 with a parade - a noisy, joyful celebration of the fact that the war was over and Rochester's boys in uniform would soon be on their way home.

However, events did not play out as Rochesterites expected on that happy day in November 1918. One of their own, a young private in the Army named Homer Wing, was in Russia at the time of the armistice. His unit was assigned to an expeditionary force known as the Polar Bears, and was left in the vicinity of Archangel, Russia with a mission to destabilize the newly-ascended Bolshevik government there.  Months went by after the armistice was signed and still the Polar Bears did not return home. Finally, bowing to public pressure, the government ordered them stateside.

Homer Wing was actually on his way home when he was killed in a railroad collision on the Vologda Railroad, and when at last he returned to Rochester in November 1919, it was as a fallen hero.  Members of the newly-chartered American Legion post, named in Homer Wing's honor, led his funeral procession through the streets of Rochester. The newspaper reported on the solemn ceremonies as follows:

November 18, 1919 -- Rochester business places were closed from 1 o'clock to 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon while the village paid honors to Homer Wing, whose body had been brought home from Russia for burial. Wing was a member of the 339th Infantry who was killed in a railroad accident overseas last May.
The Homer Wing Post, American Legion, consisting of about 30 soldiers in uniform, headed the funeral procession through the main streets of the town. They were followed by 30 members of the local Red Cross, the Mothers' Service Club and about 225 school children who had been given a holiday to assist in the services. The remains were taken to the Rochester cemetery where they were interred, Rev. W. H. Collycott officiating at the services.

Many of the Polar Bears were from Michigan. A monument to their sacrifice was erected at White Chapel Cemetery in 1930, surrounded by the graves of 56 members of the Polar Bear units.

This year, the Rochester Avon Historical Society's cemetery walk, "Heroes in the Stones," featured a portrayal of Homer Wing by actor Jacob Fulton.  Click the video link above to view the performance.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bygone Business: McAleer Manufacturing - Part 2

In September 1942, McAleer Manufacturing announced that it would build a second facility in Rochester. The factory in the former Western Knitting Mills building was already running shifts around the clock and McAleer had just won a new defense contract - to produce aluminum powder used in the manufacture of various types of explosive ordnance.

The new factory was built on South Street, along the banks of the Clinton River. It was financed and built by the Defense Plant Corporation, or DPC, a government agency created expedite the equipping of private sector industry for wartime production. Factories built by the DPC were given Plancor numbers for identification purposes. The McAleer powder plant on South Street was designated Plancor 2151, and it was built with the urgency that accompanied the times: the project was announced in September and the plant began operating in December 1942.

The work done at the South Street plant was dangerous, and several concrete bunkers were built away from the main plant to further isolate the risky operations. In December 1942, just after production began, an explosion in one of the compound's small cement and frame building killed two women employees and seriously injured a third. The women were blown out of the building when powder in a mixing machine they were using exploded, and they were burned when their clothing caught fire. Virginia Ann MacLeod, 22, of Rochester, and Ella Jane Brinker Thorne, 31, of Pontiac, died from their injuries. Audrey M. Shoemaker Fisher, 30, also of Pontiac, was the only one of the three to survive the accident.

Another fatal explosion happened a year later.  George Howard Smith was killed when the powder he was mixing exploded and destroyed the isolated building in which he was working. According to one newspaper account, Smith had been a member of the plant protection force before transferring to the job of explosives mixer. The day of the explosion was his first and only day on the new job.  In addition to these tragedies, several other serious but non-fatal accidents happened at the powder plant during the war years.

After the war ended, the McAleer powder plant was idled and in April 1946 the government offered it for sale as excess inventory. The main powder plant building still stands on South Street, looking much as it did during the war, but almost all of the outbuildings that were part of the compound have long since disappeared.  Several light industrial operations have occupied the former powder plant over the years, including Crucible Brass, Beaver Stair Company, and Boyle Engineering.

Next week: Part 3: McAleer in the Postwar Era.  (Click here to go back to Part 1.)

Click here to view  a video of the story of McAleer employee Virginia MacLeod, who was portrayed by actress Halley Anspach in the 2014 Mount Avon Cemetery Walk, "Heroes in the Stones."