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."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

This Month in Rochester History

Pixley Funeral Home as it looked in 1964
The new Pixley Funeral Home building was unveiled to the public fifty years ago this month.  Over the weekend of November 7-8, 1964, local residents were invited to an open house to view the new Georgian-style funeral home building that had been under construction for fifteen months.  The new facility featured a chapel and five reposing rooms, and was a big expansion for the business, which had been formerly located in a converted house.

Although the building was new in 1964, the Pixley Funeral Home business had long roots in Rochester.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the firm of Edward A. Tuttle & William M. Sullivan operated an undertaking business on Main Street in Rochester.  William Sullivan left the partnership to start his own funeral business in Royal Oak, which continues to this day as the William Sullivan & Son Funeral Home in Royal Oak and Utica.  Tuttle then took as his partner Thomas E. Nichols, and Nichols eventually bought him out.  In 1920, Vern Pixley - a descendant of one of Rochester's pioneer settlers -  bought an interest in the firm, which was then known as the Nichols-Pixley Funeral Home. In 1953, after the death of Nichols, the business became known as the Pixley Funeral Home.

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: Part 2: 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.