Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bygone Business: McAleer Manufacturing - Part I

(Courtesy of Rod and Susan Wilson)
Today's post is the first of a three-part story about McAleer Manufacturing, one of Rochester's leading industries during the mid-20th century.

McAleer Manufacturing Company was founded in approximately 1923 in Detroit, Michigan, by a former garage foreman from Pennsylvania named Charles H. McAleer (1894-1968).  McAleer developed a formula for automotive polish in a washtub in his basement and launched a successful business during the prosperous 1920s. The company grew to national prominence, and in 1930 McAleer took to the skies on a cross-country promotional tour with an airplane dubbed “Miss McAleer,” from which a loud-speaker broadcasted commercials for the company's products to prospective customers on the ground. McAleer brand polishes and waxes were so highly regarded that they became the standard against which bids for such products furnished to the United States military were judged.

In 1940, McAleer sold his controlling interest in the company to brothers Carlton and N. Bradley Higbie.  The Higbie brothers were from Chicago, and both had extensive experience in commercial banking and finance; in addition, Bradley Higbie had served at the helm of a chemical manufacturing company.  When they took control of McAleer, Bradley Higbie stepped into the role of president and his brother, Carlton, served as chairman of the board.

In June 1941, the Higbies  made a decision that would have a major impact on Rochester's history. The brothers purchased the old Western Knitting Mills factory at Fourth and Water streets, vacant since 1937, and moved manufacturing operations here from Detroit. A banner headline in the Rochester Clarion issue of June 12, 1941 heralded the prospect of new jobs in a community weary of Depression-era unemployment levels.

Just six months after McAleer announced its move to Rochester, the Pearl Harbor attack plunged the United States into World War II.  In an effort to restore the company to a sound financial footing after the setbacks it had suffered during the Depression years, McAleer management sought to procure defense contracts and turned from the production of polishes and finishes to war matériel.   The list of items that McAleer was contracted to provide for the war effort was lengthy: a water resistant coating for airplane parts; gun oil; rust preventative;  control surfaces for airplanes; and most notably, the AN- M26 photoflash flare and the MK-46 photoflash bomb.  More photoflash bombs - 50,000 in all - were manufactured and shipped from Rochester, Michigan than from any other defense plant in the nation.  At the height of its wartime production, McAleer employed approximately 600 people in its Rochester facilities.

Coming next week: McAleer expands into powder production

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Subdivision Stories: Brooklands

The Brooklands Fire Department in the Christmas parade sometime in the late 1970s (Courtesy of Clarence and Dorene Whitbey)
Lying mid-way between Rochester and Utica along both sides of Auburn Road are the Brooklands subdivisions. The original Brooklands plat was laid out in 1916 on former farmland of August and Caroline Dobat that was situated west of John R and south of Auburn Road. The streets surrounded the brand new Brooklands Golf and Country Club, and were named for the most prominent amateur golfers of the day: Tom Bendelow, Harry Vardon, Jerome Travers, Chick Evans, and Ted Ray.  Some of these street names survived after the entire plat was vacated in 1920 and a complete replat was done.

During the 1920s and '30s, the Township of Avon created several supervisor's plats adjoining the original Brooklands plat to the east.  A grid of streets was created with small city lots appropriate for modest one-story or story-and-a-half bungalows that  attracted wage-earning autoworkers and their families who wanted to own their own homes.  Developments like Brooklands allowed factory workers in Detroit's auto industry to move their families out of the city into affordable housing in a country setting.  Many who worked in Pontiac's auto plants bought homes in Brooklands.

As more families located in Brooklands, the area began to evolve as community of its own. Auburn Road served as a pseudo-Main Street, and a commercial hub began to develop there. By the end of World War II, Brooklands was a de facto village unto itself.  Auburn Road through Brooklands boasted a school, a couple of churches, a grocery store, a hardware, a couple of drive-in restaurants, a couple of bars, and several other miscellaneous businesses. All the necessities of daily life could be had there without traveling to Rochester or Utica.  The Brooklands area even organized and operated its own independent fire department, entirely separate from the rest of Avon Township.

During the 1960s and '70s, the Brooklands area developed something of a "bad boy" reputation.  The stereotypical Brooklands youth, it was said, attended school somewhat sparingly, was quick with his fists, was not unacquainted with lawbreaking activity, and had driving skills and a car fast enough to outrun the cops.

By the early 1980s, a change was happening in the subdivision's character. A natural generational turnover was taking place in the neighborhood at the same time that other areas of the township - now Rochester Hills - were becoming increasingly affluent. Brooklands became the haven for young families seeking affordable starter homes with nearby schools. In the middle of suburban sprawl, they were also looking for a sense of community - something Brooklands has always had, in abundance.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

This Month in Rochester History

The Auburn Hills Nike base in 1964 before it was developed as Oakland Community College.
Fifty years ago this month the citizens of Rochester were learning about a new college that was coming to the area.  The announcement was made in October 1964 that a community college campus would be built on land in Pontiac Township (now known as Auburn Hills), immediately west of Avon Township.

The 247-acre parcel at Hamlin & Squirrel roads that was selected for the new campus was a deactivated Nike missile installation.  In the days of heightened tension after the Korean War, a missile defense system was deployed to protect the nation's major city and industrial centers, Detroit among them.  A ring of Nike bases surrounded Detroit and its industry, including the one at Hamlin & Squirrel and another on Woodall Road in Shelby Township.  Armed with Ajax and Hercules surface-to-air missiles that were stored underground, the bases stood ready to repel a threat that never materialized. 

In the case of the Pontiac Township site, the installation was deactivated in 1963. The buildings formerly used for the base were remodeled for use of the college, which opened to students in September 1965.

Click here for details and aerial photographs of the Auburn Hills Nike site.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

At Home in Rochester: The Albertson House

The Albertson house standing on North Main just before it was moved in 1953
On the south side of Ferndale Street, just west of North Main, stands a lovely house that fits beautifully with its surrounding neighbors.  The Woodward Heights subdivision, of which Ferndale is a part, was platted in 1920, so one could be forgiven for thinking that all of the houses on the street date from that time or later.

In fact, this particular house, originally part of the Albertson farm, is far older than its neighbors on Ferndale street.  The house originally stood on the west side of North Main, just north of the location of today's Rochester Athletic Club (or the old A & P supermarket for those of you who haven't been to town in a while).  When the supermarket site was being prepared for construction in February 1953, three dwellings that stood north of the property were sold off and moved so that the hill could be cut down and used as fill for the low-lying land on which the store would stand.  The Dr. Godfrey Hamlen house was moved to North Oak Street, where it still stands today; the Albertson house and one other were moved to Ferndale Street.

The Rochester Clarion, in reporting on the moving of the houses in 1953, remarked that the Albertson house was "built at least 90 years ago."  If the Clarion's estimate was at all accurate, the Albertson house was originally built around 1863, making it one of Rochester's oldest homes.

The Albertson family farmed a 56-acre parcel of land bounded on the east by North Main Street and on the north by what we know today as Woodward Street. Most of the farm land was platted and sold in 1900 as the Albertson Addition, creating the streets of Albertson, Griggs and Drace.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Record Harvest

With all of the growth and development that has happened in our community over the past half century, it is sometimes difficult to picture the Rochester area's agricultural heritage. But it really wasn't so long ago that the farmers of Avon, Oakland and Shelby were a strong economic presence here.  Witness this check, written by the Rochester Elevator in August 1953, in payment for what was at that time the largest single wheat crop that the elevator had ever purchased.  The seller was William A. Fisher, owner of a 250-acre farm on the southwest corner of Rochester & Avon roads. Fisher had been the president and one of the founders of the Fisher Body Works, and used his Avon Township farm as a country retreat when he wanted to get away from city life.

This check represented the proceeds from the sale of 9,310 bushels of wheat and a yield per acre from the Fisher farm of 38 bushels. The Rochester Clarion, which published this check on its front page in 1953, noted that the yield would have been much higher if Fisher's wheat crop had not been seriously damaged by a tornado in mid-June of that year.

Monday, September 1, 2014

This Month in Rochester History

In September 1964, Rochester saw the construction of a new church building when Ridgecrest Baptist Church broke ground for a new sanctuary at 1181 Harding Road. Built by Larry Aulgur of Utica, the facility included a 200-seat sanctuary and classrooms.  Members of the congregation did much of the finish work on the building themselves. 

Ridgecrest Baptist was started as a mission church by Columbia Avenue Baptist Church of Pontiac and first met in the old Masonic block on East Fourth in downtown Rochester.The congregation was dissolved in 1995, and the building became the home of the New Life Baptist Church, and after that the Goodnews  - Detroit Church.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Heroes in the Stones

Rochester's historic Mount Avon Cemetery is a place of stories waiting to be told and remembered. The Rochester Avon Historical Society will present some of those stories on Saturday, September 27, 2014 in its third annual Cemetery Walk, entitled "Heroes in the Stones."

Tour guests will meet some of the people buried at Mount Avon, brought back to life through the skills of historical re-enactors dressed in period costume.  The re-enactors will tell the stories of some heroes who lie at rest in our cemetery, including a Revolutionary War patriot, a War of 1812 veteran, and a World War II defense industry worker who was killed in the line of duty.  The 1925 Mount Avon mausoleum will also be open for visits by tour guests during the event.

The cemetery walk is a major fundraising event for the Rochester Avon Historical Society and supports the organization's local history education and historic preservation initiatives.  If you appreciate the work that RAHS has done and is doing, such as the restoration of the World War II Honor Roll, the restoration of the Beerbohm mural at the RCS administration building, the restoration of the historic Butts surrey, the walking tours, the free local history programs at the library, the theatre project, and more, you can support these efforts by attending the cemetery walk.

Tours will depart by shuttle van from the municipal parking lot at Third and Walnut streets at 20 minute intervals between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 4:40 p.m.  Tickets are issued for a specific tour time, so buy your tickets early to have the best selection of tour times.  Tickets may be purchased in person at the Rochester Regional Chamber of Commerce office at 71 Walnut Street during weekday business hours, or online from the RAHS online store.

Please join RAHS on September 27 to celebrate our Heroes in the Stones.