Saturday, May 16, 2015

Remembering Blodwen Morris Falconer

In a couple of weeks, the world will observe the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II. Code-named Operation Dynamo, the evacuation was carried out between May 27 and June 4, 1940.  A large number of British, French and Belgian troops had been cut off and stranded on the northern coast of France by a Nazi Panzer offensive.  A hastily-assembled fleet of privately owned boats of all sizes and purposes was successful in rescuing more than 338,000 troops from the beaches and ferrying them to larger naval vessels, or in some cases taking them all the way across the English Channel.  As they conducted the evacuation, these boats had to navigate heavily-mined waters and endure bombardment by German shore batteries.

The men who volunteered their services and their boats to evacuate Dunkirk were rightly hailed as heroes.  However, they were not the only heroes of Operation Dynamo. Though the evacuation was a huge success and dubbed a miracle, it was not without cost.  Over 200 ships were sunk during the operation and 126 merchant seamen were killed.  Many others were wounded or had been wounded during the fighting that led up to the evacuation.  These men were tended by the nurses who stayed with them throughout the treacherous journey across the English Channel -  through the mine-filled waters and under constant bombardment.

What does this have to do with Rochester?  In a quiet corner of Mount Avon Cemetery lies a hero of the Dunkirk evacuation.  Her name is Blodwen Morris Falconer, and she was a Canadian citizen and registered nurse who served with the English Civil Defense Corps during the war.  She was present at the Dunkirk evacuation to tend to the wounded and was decorated for her service.  After the war, she and her husband came to Michigan, and eventually to Rochester, where she died in 1953.  Her obituary in the Rochester Clarion said in part:

World War II Dunkirk Heroine is Dead; Received Bronze Medal
One of the highly honored veterans of World War II passed away last Wednesday afternoon when Blodwen Faulconer [sic], 3380 John R., died at Pontiac General Hospital shortly after admittance.
Mrs. Faulconer, born at Edmonton, Ontario [sic], was a member of the first contingent of nurses on hand to give aid to the wounded survivors of the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II. She was a graduate of Grey's Hospital, the oldest and largest hospital of its kind in the world.
Wearing the cap of a registered nurse, and as a member of the English Civil Defense during the Dunkirk evacuation, she was awarded a Bronze Medal for her heroic and outstanding services at that time.
Born on April 1, 1915, Mrs. Faulconer moved to Detroit from Toronto in June 1949. She came to Rochester in 1950.
This Memorial Day, when I visit Mount Avon Cemetery, I think I'll leave some flowers at the grave of Blodwen Morris Falconer, to remember her service. I invite you to do the same.

In the meantime, if you'd like to know more about the evacuation of Dunkirk, watch this British Pathé newsreel footage:




Friday, May 1, 2015

This Month in Rochester History

A half century ago this month, Rochester residents were talking about a new state law that would require photos to appear on driver's licenses beginning on July 1, 1965.  The law was a potential problem for the village of Rochester, which at the time issued driver's licenses at the police department.

My father remembers that when he applied for his first license in the early 1950s, his father took him to the police station in the old municipal building at Fourth & East Alley.  There was no written or road test. Sam Howlett, chief of police, pointed to my father and asked my grandfather, "Can he drive?"  My grandfather replied, "As well as I can, I guess."  That was good enough, and Chief Howlett issued the license.

With the new law requiring photos on licenses, the village had to decide whether to invest money in camera equipment and time in training to produce the new cards. Another option was to give up the license business altogether, which would require Rochester residents to travel to Pontiac to the Secretary of State branch office to conduct such business.  In May 1965, the village fathers decided to keep the license service, at least for a while.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

This Month in Rochester History

Fifty years ago this month, Rochester area residents were thinking about traffic. Specifically, they were concerned about the intersection of Rochester and Avon roads, which only had a blinker as a traffic control device - not a stop-and-go signal.  Leader Dogs for the Blind, located on a corner at that intersection, expressed concern for pedestrian safety and asked for a regular traffic light to be installed.

The state highway department initiated a study of traffic passing through the Rochester/Avon intersection and issued a report a few weeks later. According to state officials, a blinker light was all that was required, as the intersection had insufficient traffic to warrant the installation of a regular signal.

Local residents persevered, however; four months later, the highway department reversed its earlier decision and ordered a stop-and-go traffic signal installed at Rochester and Avon.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

At Home in Rochester: Samuel Baldrie Jackson House

This house on the north side of Seventh Street, east of Wilcox, was built in the fall of 1891 and is celebrating its 124th birthday in 2015.  Local carpenter and contractor Abram F. Burd built the house as a residence for his daughter, Maretta, and her husband, Samuel Baldrie Jackson, who had been married two years before, in 1889.

At the time, the Wilcox Paper Mill stood at the northern terminus of Wilcox Street, on the edge of today's Rochester Municipal Park. The Wilcox family was selling residential lots in the vicinity of the paper mill, and a number of new houses were being built in the area.
Jackson house as depicted in the 1897 publication Beautiful Rochester.
 The Rochester Era reported on September 18, 1891: "A. F. Bird [sic] is breaking ground for a new residence near the Rochester paper mill, between his home and that of W. H. LeRoy. It will be modern in all its appointments, and when completed will be occupied by Sam Jackson and family." About three weeks later, the Era further reported: "Sam Jackson's new home near the Rochester paper mill was raised last Tuesday by A. F. Bird." A photograph of the house appeared on page 17 of the promotional booklet Beautiful Rochester, published in 1897, and was captioned "residence of S. B. Jackson."

Samuel Jackson was associated with his brother, John F. Jackson, in the Jackson Foundry in Rochester. His father, William H. Jackson, had bought out the old Jennings Foundry in 1877, a business which had been located in Rochester since before the Civil War. Samuel Jackson attended school in Rochester and had the distinction of being the only boy in the Rochester High School graduating class of 1882.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Rochester Relics: John H. Jones Diary

John H. Jones 1917 diary page (Courtesy of Mike Antoniou)
Rochester Hills restaurateur Mike Antoniou made an interesting discovery at an estate sale not long ago.  He picked up this small pocket diary for the year 1917, the cover stamp identifying it as a promotional gift of the Randolph Hotel and Restaurant in Detroit.   Inside, the diary was identified as the property of "J. H. Jones, Rochester, Michigan."

The diary's new owner was intrigued and wanted to find out more about Mr. Jones, who had used the pocket diary to make notes about his daily life in Rochester nearly 100 years ago.

It turns out that John H. Jones was connected to a couple of prominent Rochester families.  John was born in 1870, the son of Harvey F. Jones and Belle Perry.  His father, Harvey, was the son of Burgoyne [sometimes Burgoine] Jones and Mary Ann Morgan, and he was the brother of Mary Ellen Jones Currey, the wife of attorney Daniel R. Currey.  The Curreys and their daughters, Grace and May (who were John's cousins), left their names behind in Rochester - the daughters donated funds for a children's room in the old Avon Township Library. The Currey sisters also platted the Golden Hills subdivision off of Harding Road, in which the streets Burgoyne and Mary Ellen were named for their mother and grandfather.

On Christmas Day 1894, John H. Jones married Matilda "Tillie" George, part of a family that operated farms north of the village of Rochester. In the early 20th century, Matilda's brother, Henry, owned a large part of what had been the Lysander Woodward farm before it was sold for subdivision.

John and Matilda had one son, Edward Leslie Jones, who was called by his middle name.

In the 1917 diary, John H. Jones makes notes about his daily life - where and for whom he worked as a day laborer, what the weather conditions were like, people he visited, and so forth.  The 1920 census tells us that John was retired from farming and living in town, and he notes in the front of the diary that his address is 1015 North Main, so we assume that he was retired in 1917 and was hiring himself out by the day for various jobs.  He mentions Dr. Robert Cassels, a local veterinarian, for whom he may have worked or with whom he may have had contact as a farm laborer.  He also notes that he works 10-hour days for Frank Gehrke, who owned a 71-acre farm on Sheldon Road adjoining one of the George farms.

Later in the year, John notes that he is working at Dodge Bros. for a wage of $3.50 per day.  At this time, the Dodge factory was located in Hamtramck (the plant that was locally known as "Dodge Main"), and John would have been able to commute there on the D.U.R.

In addition to the details of his work life, John Jones also noted a few local events.  On March 4, 1917, John notes “Griggs hit by car at 10:10.” This is a reference to Charles K. Griggs, the former owner of the Rochester Elevator, who was struck and fatally injured by an interurban car near the corner of Main and Fifth (now University Drive), as he was crossing Main street from his office in the Smith building (known today as the Crissman building) to go to the St. James Hotel on the opposite corner. After being struck by the car, Griggs was carried to his home, where he was attended by Dr. Strain, but died of his injuries four days later, on March 8, 1917.

On March 12, 1917, John notes “party for Leslie.” This would refer to the birthday of his son, E.  Leslie Jones, who was born on March 12, 1901, and would have been celebrating his 16th birthday on this date.

One of the last entries in the diary, made on December 15, notes the funeral of George Flumerfelt. This refers to George M. Flumerfelt, who lived in the house at 339 Walnut (now the Potere-Modetz Funeral Home). He had died on December 12 and his funeral was, as noted in the diary, held on December 15.

Thanks to Mike Antoniou for sharing this local history treasure and giving us a glimpse into Rochester life in 1917.  If you're interested in seeing the diary in person, stop in at Antoniou's Towne Square Pizza on South Hill and ask for Mike.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

This Month in Rochester History

Clarion photo of the school bus yard after the big snow of '65
Not to jinx us, but this month's post is about a weather event.  Fifty years ago this month, Rochester residents were busy digging out from the Blizzard of 1965.  A foot of snow was dropped on the area, carried by 50-mile-an-hour winds.  According to the Rochester Clarion's report, schools, factories and most downtown businesses were closed for two days.  The snow removal cost the village of Rochester $4455 and 742 man hours.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Movers and Shakers: The Journey of John Fairchild Hamlin

Hamlin Road, Hamlin School, Hamlin Pub - the Hamlin name has high visibility in the greater Rochester area more than 150 years after the death of John Fairchild Hamlin, a pioneer settler of the Township of Avon.  So who was John F. Hamlin, and why do we remember him today?

Hamlin was born in 1799  in the Finger Lakes region of western New York state, in the town of East Bloomfield in Ontario County. He was one of 11 children of Elijah Hamlin and Lydia Pope, and his family line can be traced back to Hamlin immigrants who came to America from England in colonial times.  Some of John Fairchild Hamlin's cousins settled in the Buffalo, New York area and were prominent in business there. Cicero J. Hamlin was a successful industrialist and breeder of trotting horses whose home is a landmark in Buffalo today, and Cicero's great-great-grandson  is actor Harry Hamlin of L.A. Law fame. Another Buffalo cousin, Emmons Hamlin, was a founding partner in the firm of Mason & Hamlin, manufacturers of fine musical instruments.

In the year 1820, when John F. Hamlin was 21 years old, he set out on a westward journey in the company of his older brother, Adolphus, his sister Olive, and her husband, William Burbank.  The travelers embarked on a river journey at Olean, New York, where they picked up a keel-boat on the Allegheny River. The group followed the Allegheny for 325 miles to the Ohio, and then traveled the Ohio for 981 miles to its mouth at Cairo, Illinois. At Cairo, they continued on the Mississippi River and then to the Missouri, until they reached St. Charles, Missouri, where they had been enticed by friends to settle.

For reasons that are not recorded in history, the Hamlins and Burbanks were dissatisfied with life in St. Charles and decided to move on within a year of their arrival in Missouri.  Adolphus Hamlin decided to settle in Galena, Illinois, and John F. Hamlin decided to go to Detroit to seek his fortune.  The Burbanks stopped briefly in Sandusky, Ohio, where Olive Burbank decided to return home to western New York to visit her family while her husband, William, traveled on to Detroit to meet John Hamlin so that the two of them could look for homestead land north of Detroit.

John Hamlin and William Burbank decided to settle in Oakland County in what would later become the Township of Avon.  John Hamlin bought land in section 22, at the corner of today's Rochester and Hamlin roads, and established a large and prosperous farm where he raised sheep.  The family home that he built for his wife, Laura, and their six children, has been a landmark in the Rochester area for more than a century and a half and still stands at 1812 S. Rochester Road.

As a farmer of some means, John F. Hamlin had a keen interest in improving transportation infrastructure in an area that was basically a wilderness when he arrived.  Access to city markets was important for farmers, and Oakland County had no travel routes except rivers and wagon trails.  When the Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal project was launched in 1837, Hamlin signed on as a contractor to build part of the canal route.  After the canal project failed a few years later, he turned his attention to railroads and was one of several Avon men who applied for legislative approval  in 1844 to organized the Troy and Rochester Railroad.  Unfortunately, the scheme was not economically viable and the rails were never laid; instead, Hamlin and some of the others in the railroad venture organized the Rochester and Royal Oak Plank Road Company, an improved road that was financed through tolls and followed the route of what is known today as Rochester Road.

By the time that John Fairchild Hamlin died in 1863 at the age of 64, his holdings were worth about $5.2 million in terms of today's dollars. He had a résumé of public service that included terms as supervisor, justice of the peace and collector of Avon Township, and his name was forever associated with the founding of the community.