Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Main Street Stories: 415-417 S. Main

The business block at 415-417 S. Main might appropriately be called the Palmer Block after the jeweler and optician who built it, but the label also rightly applies to the entire row of storefronts from 405-417 S. Main.

Louis Eugene Palmer, who built his first commercial building at 405-405 S. Main Street in 1883, bought adjoining lots in the same block and was soon the landlord for several businesses on the west side of Main between Fourth and Fifth (now University Drive). The double storefront at 415-417 was built about 1896-97; when it was ready for occupancy, Palmer moved his jewelry store up the block from its previous location to 417; 415 was occupied by William J. Fraser, who ran a harness making operation there in addition to his justice of the peace office.

Palmer's son, Fred, and daughter, Pauline, followed him into the business and even operated stores in competition with their father at various times. The 417 S. Main location was a Palmer jewelry store until 1935, when the senior Palmer died in his apartment above the business.

Tenants in the 415 location have included Brownell's Grocery in the 1920s, and Baldy Benson's barber shop in the 1930s and 1940s; later occupants were Joe's Barber Shop, Wayne Heating and Cooling and Del Van Skiver's Avon Photography. The 417 side of the building was the home of the House of Custom Colors for a couple of decades, and was also a Sherwin Williams paint store for a time. In recent years, a variety of businesses have come and gone from the location.

In 1960, a major renovation of the building exterior replaced the original facade with a faux-colonial design, eliminating the cornice and the windows across the front of the second floor. The building is currently undergoing an historic restoration of the Main Street elevation which will return it to its 1897 appearance.

This postcard view of 415-417 S. Main shows the building when it was occupied by the Louis E. Palmer jewelry store and William J. Fraser's harness-making shop and justice of the peace office. Notice the clock on the pole in front of the store, styled as a pocket watch.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Vanished Rochester: The RHS Bridge

When Rochester's high school students moved from the old school at the corner of Fifth & Wilcox to their brand new school at the corner of Walton & Livernois in the fall of 1956, they had to adjust to living with a very unfamiliar building layout. Architects had designed the new RHS to be expanded as future enrollment might require, with two long wings extending eastward from a center hub. If a student had a class at the end of the south wing, which extended to the gymnasium, followed by a class in the north wing, the walk was almost impossible to make through the school corridors in the allotted time between bells.

The problem was solved as the result of a 1966 bond issue which funded the addition of a swimming pool in the gymnasium complex and an auditorium adjacent to the music classrooms on the north wing. To connect the north and south wings at their eastern ends, a covered pedestrian bridge was built from the gym to the auditorium, and it was opened to students in January of 1968. The Rochester Clarion announced the happy news:
Students at Rochester High will be saving miles of walking next week when this novel bridge is expected to open, linking two distant wings of the building. The bridge connects to the two front wings and will greatly cut congestion in the present main hall. Many students now dash through the cold across the concourse to reach classes on time.
In terms of its practical use, the RHS bridge turned out to be a short-lived feature of the building. By the time that my class arrived in the halls of RHS, only five years after the bridge had been opened, it was already off limits to student traffic. The north end of the walkway was blocked off and was used to house a student store, unimaginatively named "The Bridge." The south end of the walkway was used to store chairs, dollies and other paraphernalia needed in the gym. Once again, students were dashing across the lawn in order to make it from one wing to the other before the second bell rang.

A major expansion and renovation of the high school building in 1986 enclosed the former main courtyard area to accommodate a new media center and more gymnasium space, and that construction project consigned the RHS bridge to the pages of Vanished Rochester.

This photo shows part of the bridge as it entered the gymnasium complex at the end of the south wing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Subdivision Stories: Belle Cone Gardens

The Belle Cone Gardens subdivision was laid out in Section 33 of Avon Township, along the Avon/Troy boundary, in late 1926 and early 1927. The development was part of a post-World War I building boom that exploded in southern Avon Township along the Auburn/South Boulevard corridor. Belle Cone was one of several subdivisions that transformed the farmlands of Avon into affordable housing lots for laborers in the Pontiac automobile factories.

The subdivision lies on land that was owned by one of Avon's pioneer settlers, Linus Cone, who first came to Michigan from points east in 1821, and purchased land in Section 33 of Avon Township in 1826. He met and married Mary Crooks (of the family for whom Crooks Road is named) in the following year, and the couple farmed their land and reared three sons there. Linus Cone was well-known in agricultural circles for espousing modern farming theories and practices, and he also served for a time as editor and publisher of the Michigan Farmer. He lived on his farm in Avon until his death in 1875; the property eventually passed into the hands of his son, Frederick W. Cone, and then later to Frederick's widow, Annabelle "Belle" Cone.

In October 1926, the first of three plats for the development known as Belle Cone Gardens was filed on behalf of Belle Cone and several investors. The names of the subdivision streets reflect the names of the project's investors and developers. Belle Cone's partners were Detroit real estate broker Leslie J. Leinbach and his wife Grace; Leslie Leinbach's partner, Harry B. Leinbach, and his wife Rose; Mildred D. Decker; and Samuel W. Smith and his wife Alida DeLand Smith. Belle Cone Gardens includes streets named for the Cone family, Grace Leinbach, Mildred Decker, Alida DeLand Smith, and Samuel W. Smith.

Samuel W. Smith is another prominent figure connected to Belle Cone Gardens. Smith served as prosecuting attorney of Oakland County, was a member of the Michigan legislature, and served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1915. During his years in Congress he was known as a champion of the extension of rural free mail delivery.

The Belle Cone Gardens subdivision is 83 years old this year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Vanished Rochester: DeLisa's

In 1942, the area immediately north of Tienken and Rochester roads was "out in the country." National Twist Drill had only recently moved to the area from Detroit, and the rest of the Township of Avon that lay directly north of the village limits was still rural in character. Today, a wealth of dining and entertainment options are available at that very corner, but in 1942, Floyd L. and Oliver Relyea were the first on the scene.

On July 2, 1942, the Rochester Clarion announced that the Relyeas were about to open a new dining and dancing hall called Relyea Acres at 6980 N. Rochester Rd. Nine years later, in 1951, John DeLisa took over the business and changed its name to DeLisa's Restaurant. DeLisa's specialized in pizza pies, a fast-food delicacy that was just beginning to gain popularity in the United States at that time.

DeLisa's closed in September of 1968 and the restaurant building was torn down the following year to make way for the construction of a gas station.

The advertisement shown here is one that appeared in the Rochester Clarion in 1955.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Main Street Stories: George Burr Building

The building at 429 S. Main is the only older building in the downtown business district that has had only two retail occupants in its entire history. Hardware and implement dealer George Burr built the store in 1914, after he had outgrown his previous location across the street at 418 S. Main. George Burr was the brother of fellow Rochester merchants Charles A. Burr, builder of the Opera House block at 4th and Main, and Frank H. Burr, who built a two-store block to the immediate south of the Opera House block.

In 1920, George Burr retired from the business he had founded and passed the management of the store to his daughter, Neva, and her husband, Ward Crissman. When Ward Crissman died suddenly in 1935, Neva Crissman brought her own daughter, Arlene, and son-in-law Leon Robertson into the business, and they continued to manage it until they decided to close the hardware store and sell the building in June of 1965.

On August 30, 1965, the grand opening of Green's Artist Supply was held, introducing to Rochester residents only the second business ever located in the building. Forty-four years later, Green's still occupies the building erected by George Burr in 1914.

The George Burr building celebrated its 95th birthday this year.

This ca. 1961 photo from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier shows the building at 429 S. Main while it was still occupied by the Burr Hardware.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

This month is the forty-first anniversary of one of the most devastating fires in Rochester's downtown business district. In the early morning hours of December 12, 1968, a fire started in the Case's Hardware building at 335 S. Main Street. The blaze was first discovered at about 4:15 a.m. when a resident of one of the apartments in the National Bank of Detroit building next door was awakened by strange noises and realized that the adjacent hardware store was burning. The apartment resident called the fire department and awakened his neighbors, insuring that everyone was safely evacuated and possibly saving several lives through his actions.

According to William A. Cahill's history of the Rochester Fire Department, the Case's fire was a three-floor attack that was difficult work for the firefighters. Additional alarms were sounded and brought the Brooklands, Avondale and Lake Orion fire departments to the scene. By 5:20 a.m., the Troy fire department had responded to a fifth alarm after Rochester's veteran 1937 Seagrave truck blew a hose line. As firefighters attacked the fire from the Main Street side of the building using Troy's brand new aerial truck, others fought the fire from the alley side, elevated in the bucket of a Detroit Edison truck.

Cahill relates that the blaze was further fueled by the flammable goods and chemicals normally found in hardware stores. The intense heat of the fire also ignited the live ammunition stored there, making the firefighters feel as though they were in a war zone.

Weather conditions worked in the firefighters' favor, as the temperature was above freezing and winds were not a factor. Firefighters were able to save the surrounding buildings and there was no loss of life or serious injury.

Case's Hardware, however, was a total loss. The inferno had completely gutted the building and collapsed the storefront. My dad remembers that the huge safe in the office had fallen to the basement when the floor collapsed, and Byers' wrecker had a very difficult time pulling it out of the rubble. The losses were estimated at more than $100,000, and the cause of the fire was never precisely determined because of the utter destruction of the building. Case's Hardware, which had been a fixture at that location since horse and buggy days, never re-opened. The rubble of the old building was removed from the site and a new, one-story structure replaced it at 335 S. Main.

This photo from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier was taken about 1960, and shows how the building appeared at the time of its destruction. The original storefront had been covered with the "modern" facade in 1955.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hills Theatre Cat's Meow Now Available

As mentioned in a previous post about the Hills Theatre, the Rochester Avon Historical Society has selected the Hills and the Flummerfelt house as the subjects of their 2009 Cat's Meow figures. These items have arrived and are now available in local stores. The figure of the Hills Theatre is shown here, and carries the opening and closing dates of the business on the marquee.

Cat's Meow figures make great Christmas gifts, and you'll find other popular subjects in the collection as well, including the D&C, the PCYC and the train depot, among others. They are available at Holland’s Florist, the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, Dillman & Upton, Framer’s Workshop and Lytle’s Pharmacy, or by visiting the Rochester Avon Historical Society web site.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Window Night

This year, on the Monday following Thanksgiving, downtown Rochester merchants will kick off the holiday shopping season with their Lagniappe celebration, an annual event since 1973. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the Rochester Chamber of Commerce encouraged Christmas shopping with a promotion called Window Night. The program started in the week before Thanksgiving, when participating stores displayed prize merchandise in their front windows, along with a poster containing a winning number that was kept covered up until the appointed time. As shoppers visited the stores to conduct their normal business, they would be given numbered tickets. The shopper retained the ticket, hoping it would match the store's number to be revealed on Window Night.

On the actual evening of Window Night, the sidewalks were filled with people waiting for the fire siren to blow at 7:00 p.m., signaling the official unveiling of the winning numbers. Merchants uncovered their numbers, and shoppers moved from store window to store window, pressing their noses to the glass to compare their tickets to the posted numbers. A shopper holding a winning number was rewarded with the prize merchandise displayed by the merchant whose number matched the shopper's ticket. There was plenty of merriment and everybody enjoyed the excitement of searching for winning numbers while browsing the shops and looking at the Christmas lights along Main Street.

Of course, the holiday light display on Main was much more modest than the one we have today. It consisted of garland and colored light bulbs strung across Main from light pole to light pole, with a three red plastic bells in the center hanging right over the middle of the street. Each bell had a light bulb inside and the bulbs were sequenced to blink off and on going from left to center to right and back again, to simulate the motion of a ringing bell. The effect was charming but sometimes made it a challenge to pick out the traffic lights that were hanging near the bells.

The Window Night promotion was replaced by Rochester's own version of the Creole tradition of Lagniappe, "a little something extra," in 1973. The garland and the bells were retired years ago, and now we are a regional sensation with the Big Bright Light Show. Lagniappe will be held on November 30 this year, and the Big Bright Light Show will open on that evening at 7:00 p.m. Click here for details.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Main Street Stories: Hills Theatre Building

The Hills Theatre Building at 412-416 S. Main Street was built in 1941 by the proprietor of the Avon Theatre, Charles L. Sterns. Ground was broken in May 1941, just a few months before the nation entered World War II. Sterns built his new theatre on a vacant parcel that had been a used car lot owned by Ford dealer Larry Jerome.

The new Hills Theatre drew its name from Rochester's slogan, "The Heart of the Hills." As opening day drew near, owner Sterns announced that the older, smaller Avon Theatre across the street would operate on Friday and Saturday nights only, offering second-run double features and serials. The large and modern Hills, on the other hand, would serve as Rochester's premiere movie palace, operating every night with early and late showings plus a Sunday afternoon matinee. The opening night program featured Fibber McGee and Molly with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in Look Who's Laughing.

The auditorium of the Hills had a seating capacity of 820, and was lavishly appointed. An article announcing the theatre's grand opening in a January 1942 issue of the Rochester Clarion described it as follows:

The wood trim throughout the theatre is of light birch wood. Fluorescent light tubes of various colors line the walls on either side of the theatre. Indirect lighting will light up the foyer and lobby which have been decorated in rich tones of blue and pink.
The flooring in the lobby is a terrazzo composition and rich, maroon carpeting will cover the flooring in the theatre foyer and down the aisles in the auditorium.
...
The seats are of maroon plush upholstery. The overdrapes around the proscenium of the theatre stage are of maroon velvet.

The front of the building was faced with Vitrolite, an opaque colored glass tile that was popular in the era and was featured on many Art Deco buildings.

The architects of the Hills Theatre building were partners Lavern R. Bennett and Eugene D. Straight of Dearborn. Bennett & Straight specialized in theatre design and were also the architects of the Main Theatre in Royal Oak, the Bloomfield Theatre in Birmingham, the Allen Park cinemas, and the La Parisien Theatre in Garden City, among others. Carl VandenBerghe was the general contractor.

The theatre building also included retail and office space. The first tenants were the Dale and Nina Martin Insurance Agency and the optical offices of Dr. H. A. Miller.

The Avon Theatre closed in the early 1950s, and the Hills became the only movie house in town. In the early 1970s, multi-screen venues began popping up in the surrounding area. The Hampton Theatre opened with three screens in 1971 in a strip shopping center at Rochester and Hamlin Roads; the Winchester Theatre opened in the Winchester Mall at Avon and Rochester Roads; and the Northcrest Cinema (which notoriously switched from Hollywood fare to X-rated films a few years after its debut in 1973) opened in a shopping strip at Tienken and Rochester. Not long after, the community granted its first cable television franchise, and the pressure on the single-screen Hills Theatre became enormous. Bowing to the economic realities, the Hills went dark in 1984 and the building was remodeled as the Main Street Plaza, housing a group of boutique businesses and professional offices.

Although the marquee and box office are long gone, the box office "coming attraction" showcases still exist on the front of the building, flanking the entrance to the Main Street Plaza. The Hills Theatre building celebrates its 68th birthday this year.

Good news! The Rochester Avon Historical Society has selected the Hills Theatre building as one of its Cat's Meow buildings for 2009, and copies will be available in December. The popular Cat's Meow series includes a number of historic buildings from the greater Rochester community. Cat's Meow collectible figures are available at Holland’s Florist, the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, Dillman & Upton, Framer’s Workshop and Lytle’s Pharmacy, or by visiting the Rochester Avon Historical Society web site. If you remember the Hills Theatre fondly, or know someone who does, a Cat's Meow figure of the building will make a great holiday gift!

Do you have memories of the Hills Theatre? Post a comment!

This 1961 view of the Hills is from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Health Care in Rochester - 1960s Style!

The recent debate about health care reform led me to think back to the way such things were handled when I was growing up in Rochester during the 1960s. First of all, Howard McGregor's cattle were grazing where Crittenton Hospital now stands, so before the fall of 1967 Rochester residents had to travel to Pontiac when they needed hospital care. Ambulance transportation was provided by the two funeral homes; in the mid-sixties the town got a regular ambulance company and Rochesterites could then call upon Frank St. Onge to haul their bones to Pontiac in one of his orange station wagons.

Needless to say, hospital visits were a rarity; most problems, even urgent ones, were handled by the family physician. When I was a kid, it seemed as though Doctors Kresge, Geist, Dayton and Siffring were taking care of most of the town, dealing with all of their patients' needs from cradle to grave.

Health insurance – if a family even had it – only covered the major expenses, like hospitalization. Visits to the doctor's office were an out-of-pocket expense, so we didn't go to the doctor for every ache, pain, sniffle or sneeze. Our health insurance for those kinds of ailments was the local pharmacy – Morley's, Hunter's or Cunningham's, depending upon personal preference – and the family medicine cabinet. (By the way, if you have any medicine bottles with these pharmacy labels in your cabinet, it's really time to clean it out.)

At the center of our medicine cabinet were two bottles that contained the cures for ninety percent of our medical problems: aspirin and Pepto-Bismol. Skin wounds got painted with Mercurochrome (it'll only sting for a minute). Other skin ailments, including rashes, scrapes and burns were treated with Mom's all-purpose tube of A+D ointment. Bug bites were covered with good old calomine lotion. Congestion due to colds called for Vicks VapoRub to be slathered on the chest. Sore throat? Pop a Parke-Davis throat lozenge (I wish I still had some of those – they were great). And last, but not least, all orthopedic problems from a strained muscle to a broken limb could be handled with an Ace bandage.

If a fever was suspected, Mom took our temperature with a glass tube mercury thermometer, and we didn't worry about it. Today, if you break one of those things the men in the haz-mat suits have to come in and decontaminate your building. It's amazing that we lived through childhood, isn't it?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Subdivision Stories: Christian Hills


The Christian Hills No.1 subdivision was platted on the north half of Section 20 of Avon Township in the spring of 1955. It was laid out on land owned by the Anchor Realty Corporation, whose president was Alfred G. Wilson. Wilson and his wife, Matilda (the former Mrs. John Dodge) owned Meadow Brook Stock Farm (which eventually became Oakland University) and the Christian Hills property was part of their extensive real estate holdings in the area. Wilson's Anchor Realty sold 265 acres between Crooks and Adams for development by Ranch Homes, Inc., of Birmingham, a company operated by three brothers named Alfred J., Thomas H. and Harry Macksey.

Ranch Homes opened Christian Hills No.1 to the public on April 15, 1955, by making four model homes available for inspection. Prices in the new subdivision ranged from $16,900 to $29,900 for the homes, depending upon the model selected from more than twenty options, plus an additional $2,800 to $5,000 for the lots, depending upon location.

Immediately after the opening of Christian Hills No.1, additional property acquired from Anchor Realty was platted as Christian Hills No.2. In August of 1955, property on the east side of Crooks Road was platted as Christian Hills No.3. Today, there are a total of 394 homes in the the three Christian Hills subdivisions.

The name of the subdivision has its roots in the earliest pioneer history of Avon Township. In 1822, only six years after the first non-native settlement in Oakland County was made by James Graham and his family, a pioneer settler named Smith Weeks purchased eighty acres of land in Section 20 and another 320 acres in Sections 19 and 29 of what would become the Township of Avon. An itinerant minister thought to have been the first Methodist clergyman in Oakland County, Weeks apparently had a very compelling personality and was known as an ardent preacher. Early settlers called his land “Christian Hills,” it is believed, in homage to the Reverend Weeks' dynamic pursuit of his vocation, and the name persisted through the years. A rural school located in the area, at Adams and Butler roads, was also named Christian Hills. Technically speaking, the land on which the Christian Hills subdivision stands today is slightly to the north and east of the property once owned by Smith Weeks, so the developers were exercising a small bit of license in adopting the historic name for their development.

Smith Weeks also served as a pathmaster of Avon Township, probate judge of Oakland County and as the first chaplain of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Michigan. He died in 1829 at the age of 69, but the name Christian Hills remains in use to this day, 180 years after his death.

This graphic is from a newspaper advertisement for Christian Hills that ran in the Rochester Clarion in the spring of 1955. I added color to the company logo to make it more readable.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Stony Creek - A Historic Community

Everyone is invited to the next meeting of the Rochester Avon Historical Society on Thursday, November 5 at 7:00 p.m., when Patrick McKay, director of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, will present "Stony Creek - A Historic Community."

Stony Creek village was first settled by Lemuel Taylor and his family in 1823 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Come to hear stories of the founding of the community and the people who helped to establish it, and learn about the ongoing efforts to preserve it. The program is free and open to the public and will be held in the auditorium of the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne Road.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

During the month of November, several anniversaries occur in connection to Rochester's South Hill Bridge. Imagine the approach to downtown Rochester from top of South Hill if the bridge did not exist, and you will have a mental picture of the way things were in 1927, before the bridge was built. Vehicular traffic (other than streetcars, which used a wooden trestle to enter the village) had to descend the hill and cross the Clinton River and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks. The road was often impassable in bad weather, and climbing the hill to leave Rochester was often more than the automobiles of the day could handle.

When the state of Michigan announced its plan to built a concrete viaduct to carry traffic from South Hill to the foot of Main Street, there was great rejoicing in Rochester. The opening of the 810-foot span on November 9, 1927, was greeted with grand festivities, including a parade, entertainment, prize drawings, and a dedication ceremony attended by state and local dignitaries. The hoopla was well justified, as the South Hill Bridge was the longest concrete bridge in Michigan at the time of its dedication. Click here to view newsreel footage of the event from the Detroit News archive at Wayne State University (best viewed over a cable or DSL connection; not recommended if you are using dial-up access to the Internet).

The bridge featured a two-lane, 28-foot roadway with a pedestrian walk. During the post-war population boom in Rochester and Avon, the traffic load on the bridge exceeded its capacity and it was expanded by adding two more traffic lanes on the east side of the structure. The new, four-lane bridge opened to traffic in November of 1958.

On November 1, 1983, part of the southbound side of the bridge deck cracked and collapsed after a support strap failed. The bridge was closed completely for a week while emergency repairs were made, and then was under construction for months to replace the aging deck and supports. The repaired span was reopened with a gala celebration reminiscent of the first "Bridge Day" in 1927, including a parade and remarks by Gov. James Blanchard.

The South Hill Bridge is 82 years old this month.

This postcard view, from the collection of Rod and Susan Wilson, shows the bridge as it appeared when it opened in 1927, looking southward from the foot of Main Street.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Main Street Stories: The Curtis Building

The building at 307 S. Main was built in 1907 by Lewis W. Curtis (1879-1976). Curtis was a 1902 graduate of the University of Michigan College of Dentistry, and after receiving his degree he returned to his home in Rochester to establish his dental practice. By 1907, he was successful enough to build a new brick building on Main Street which housed his offices on the second floor and provided retail space on the first floor.

Several different businesses have occupied the ground floor of the Curtis building. It served as the first home of the A & P grocery store after the chain located in Rochester in 1923. In 1926, Alvah N. Dean opened a feed store there, and a feed business would occupy 307 S. Main for over half a century thereafter. Dean asked one of his employees, Al Michalka, to manage the feed store in 1927, and Michalka added a line of pet supplies to the store on his own. By 1933, the Dean feed store and the hatchery business that he also operated were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression; manager Michalka was no longer being paid and his only income was that which he earned from his pet supplies side line. When Dean's business failed completely in the summer of 1933, Al Michalka decided to take over for himself. Al's son, Robert Michalka, shared this story with me:
...he met with the owner of the building, Dr. Lewis Curtis, and offered to rent the building at a reduced rent. Dr. Curtis said, "how do you think that you can make it when Dean couldn't?". My Dad said that he could and Dr. Curtis agreed to rent him the building with my Dad setting his own rent and raising it himself as conditions improved, which he did until he bought the building in 1960. The counter had been removed and my Dad went to see Mr. Dean and told him that he needed the counter as he was going in to business for himself. Dean said that he couldn't as he needed it. My Dad told him that he had not been paid for two months and that Dean was going to give him the counter and have one of his men and a truck deliver it. He then opened his jacket to reveal a gun. Mr. Dean provided the man and a truck. ... Those were different days.

Main Feed and Seed, the name by which Al Michalka's business was known, operated at 307 S. Main until March 1982, and is fondly remembered by several generations of Rochester residents. Even though Dr. Curtis may have questioned whether Michalka could make a success of the store, Michalka himself apparently had no such reservations. For the 1935 Double Jubilee festival held in downtown Rochester to celebrate the centennial of Avon Township, a commemorative program was printed which included an ad for Main Feed and Seed. That advertisement carried the tag line "we'll be here when your kids grow up." Al Michalka kept that promise. Main Feed and Seed was still there when I grew up, and my own father hadn't even been born yet when that Double Jubilee ad was printed!

Since Main Feed and Seed passed from the scene, the Curtis building has been occupied by a coffee house and several boutique businesses. The ground floor is currently occupied by the Dragonfly Boutique. The Curtis building celebrates its 102nd birthday this year.

Robert Michalka took this photo of 307 S. Main in June 1968 and kindly provided it for this post. The man shown in front of the store is Ernest "Red" Ennis, who worked for Sutton's Market and later, for Main Feed and Seed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Rochester's Famous Scientist

On 16th Street in Washington, D.C., stands a house that is a National Historic Landmark. This building is not a national landmark for its age or architectural significance, but for its connection to a man born in Rochester, Michigan who was an important historical figure in the field of science. The house on 16th Street is listed because it once served as the residence of Robert Simpson Woodward (1849-1924), noted American physicist and geologist.

Woodward was born in Rochester on July 21, 1849, the third of five children of pioneer farmer Lysander Woodward and his wife Peninah Simpson. Although Lysander Woodward was a progressive farmer who applied scientific agricultural principles to the operation of his farm and served as president of the Oakland County Agricultural Society in order to urge others to do the same, he nonetheless did not believe that university education had any real merit and had to be convinced to allow his son to attend the University of Michigan after he completed his basic education in Rochester.

Robert S. Woodward was graduated from the University of Michigan in 1872 with an engineering degree. He worked on the United States Lake Survey and also served as an assistant astronomer with the United States Transit of Venus Commission. He then moved on to the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was chief geographer in charge of the Division of Mathematics, and there conducted research and published numerous scientific papers.

In 1893, Woodward became Professor of Mechanics and Mathematical Physics at Columbia University. He remained at Columbia for a dozen years and then accepted the position of president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, at which time he made his home in the District of Columbia. He retired from the Carnegie Institution in 1921, three years before his death.

Robert S. Woodward also served as associate editor of the journal Science - still published today - from 1889 to 1924. He was regarded as a leading authority in his field, and the list of his publications, honors and awards goes on for pages. He died in Washington D.C. on June 29, 1924 at the age of 74, from lingering ailments after a bout of influenza.

A lengthy professional biography of Robert Simpson Woodward, prepared in 1937 for the National Academy of Sciences is available online here. A photo and information about his residence in Washington, D.C., a National Historic Landmark, is available here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Main Street Stories: First National Bank Building

The building at 339 S. Main Street has been occupied by the same type of business for its entire history thus far, and is one of only a handful in the downtown district that may claim the distinction. In 1924, directors of the First National Bank of Rochester, which was then located at 338 S. Main (in the Opera House block now occupied by Lytle Pharmacy), decided that the bank needed larger quarters and purchased property across the street on the southwest corner of Fourth and Main.

The Bond-Hubbard Company of Chicago designed and built the new bank block, which included office, retail and apartment spaces in addition to the bank quarters. Dillman and Upton supplied the building materials, including brick, hollow tile, cement, plaster and lumber for the $100,000 project.

The new bank opened its doors to the public on February 14, 1925. A few years later, during the banking crisis of the Great Depression, First National Bank of Rochester was liquidated and re-organized as the Rochester National Bank. When the bank re-opened, under the leadership of Milton H. Haselswerdt, community members showed their confidence by opening more than 400 new accounts. Haselswerdt was commended for restructuring the old bank without any harm to depositors.

In May 1955, Rochester National Bank merged with National Bank of Detroit, so the name on the front of the building changed, but not its purpose. National Bank of Detroit then became known as NBD Bank after its merger with First National Bank of Chicago in 1995. Four years later, another merger changed the name of the institution to Bank One, and in 2006, Bank One became part of J.P. Morgan Chase, the current occupant of the building.

The First National Bank Building will celebrate its 85th birthday this coming February.

This ca. 1961 photo shows the building wearing the National Bank of Detroit name.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Listening For the Calliope

When I was a youngster growing up in 1960s Rochester, Trick-Or-Treat was the main event of the autumn season. As stores broke out the Halloween displays, our minds mulled over costume ideas and we kids bugged our parents to buy us just the right mask for the event. Kresge's had a seemingly endless selection of the hard plastic masks held in place with a skinny elastic band that always broke before the Halloween night festivities could end.

A week before Halloween night, there was a special event in town that served to build our anticipation of things to come. The Monday prior to Halloween was Kiwanis Flare Night. The Rochester Kiwanis Club and the fire department came through the streets of town selling packages of road flares to be used to illuminate the sidewalks on Halloween night. Some years, they used a calliope mounted on one of the trucks to announce their presence in the neighborhood for the flare sale. Our ears strained to hear that music pipe up and we would immediately announce to Dad that "they're coming down our street!".

On Halloween night, Trick-Or-Treat was officially begun when the fire siren blew at 7:00 p.m. A few minutes before the appointed time, every father in the neighborhood was sitting on his front porch or stoop with a bundle of road flares in hand, patiently waiting for the siren to blow. Everyone was very obedient, and nobody ever lit their flares until the siren was sounded. Promptly at 7:00, we heard the long-awaited wail, and flares simultaneously lit the sidewalks up and down the street. The whole neighborhood was soon eerily alight with a pinkish-orange cloud of sulphur dioxide smoke, and kids raced out their front doors with plastic jack-o-lanterns or pillow cases at the ready to begin collecting their loot. Trick-Or-Treat was on!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Talley Motor Sales

In March of 1946, the Rochester Era announced that construction of an ultra-modern automobile dealership had begun on North Main at the corner of Drace. Talley Motor Sales had been founded in Rochester six months earlier, quartered temporarily at 115 East Third Street, in a building that had been used for storage by McAleer Manufacturing. President and majority owner in the firm was Charles W. Talley, who had previously worked for Community Motors and National Twist Drill. Other principals were Glenn Warren, vice-president; George Hillman, vice-president; and J. William Davis, secretary-treasurer.

Talley's success as the area's Chrysler-Plymouth agency led to the need for a new building. The garage and showroom at 1001 North Main was 90 feet wide and 165 feet long. The five-car showroom was of Art Deco design similar in lines to the D&C building at Fourth and Main, which was built during the same era. The construction cost of the new facility was estimated at $35,000.

The building served as an automobile dealership for its entire useful life. The firm later became known as Talley-Warren Motor Sales; in 1957, Ray Rammler and Les Dallas bought the company and added the Dodge line to the showroom floor. In the 1960s and 1970s, the company was known as Town and Country Chrysler-Plymouth, and after that Meadowbrook Dodge. After Meadowbrook Dodge removed to the corner of Auburn and Rochester roads about 1999, the Talley Motors building was demolished to make way for the Flagstar Bank branch office which currently occupies the site.

Photo: This photo of the Talley Motor Sales building at 1001 North Main was provided by Rod and Susan Wilson.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Subdivision Stories: W.C. Chapman Addition

One of Rochester's early real estate developers was William Clark Chapman (1866-1946), who with his older brother, Charles Sherwin Chapman (1864-1912), brought the Western Knitting Mills to Rochester in 1891. Both men made their home in Rochester after locating the WKM here, and both built fine residences in the village. In March 1899, William C. Chapman platted and sold land lying north of Fifth Street (now University Drive) near Paint Creek as the W.C. Chapman Addition. This plat consisted of six lots facing Fifth Street and seven pairs of lots lying to the immediate north of Fifth Street along a side street to be named Ludlow. This street was named in honor of the Vermont birthplace of William C. Chapman's wife, Ada Josephine Barney Chapman. William Chapman himself was born in Cavendish, Vermont, the town neighboring Ludlow. (The Chapman family had many friends and relatives in Ludlow, Vermont, and visited there often. At their deaths, both Chapman brothers were interred in a Ludlow cemetery near their parents' graves.)

At the time that the W.C. Chapman Addition was laid out and sold, there was great economic potential in developing land on the north side of the village. The Detroit Sugar Company was in the process of building a huge beet sugar processing plant on what is known today as Woodward Street, and an interurban streetcar line was laying track toward Rochester at the same time. Chapman's 1946 obituary commented that, having experienced a housing shortage for workers when he and his brother brought the Western Knitting Mills to town in 1891, he decided to invest in real estate and housing development when the Detroit Sugar Company faced a similar situation nearly a decade later.

Ludlow Avenue was extended to the north by two later plats of the land adjoining the W.C. Chapman Addition, and eventually ran all the way to Paint Creek, where it was connected to Woodward Street.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

This month we look back at a catastrophic fire on Main Street and a Rochester tradition that was born from it. On October 20, 1926, the newly-built Phillips & Jerome Ford showroom and service garage at 215 S. Main Street caught fire. An acetylene torch being used at the back of the garage ignited gasoline in a tractor tank and the resulting fire spread quickly, feeding on the various combustibles normally found in garages. An alarm was turned in, but the village fire siren failed to sound, and the members of the volunteer fire department responded only as word of mouth alerted them to the situation. The Pontiac Fire Department was also called to assist, but by the time firefighting resources could be assembled at the scene, there was little to do but contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading to neighboring buildings. Employees of the dealership saved a few automobiles by pushing them out to the street through the showroom windows, but in the end, the building and most of its contents were a total loss.

Local legend has it that the fire siren failed to sound because a bird had built a nest in it. A week after the Phillips & Jerome fire, the Rochester Village Council ordered that the fire siren be sounded weekly at noon to insure that it was in working order. That order was soon amended to make the siren test a daily event at noon, and that tradition has continued for the past eighty-three years, and counting.

Phillips & Jerome rebuilt their showroom and garage at the same location, and occupied the building at 215 S. Main until the mid-1960s. The fire department has installed more sophisticated communication equipment as the years have passed, but we still hear the noon whistle every weekday to remind us of that long-ago fire.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Selfridge Airplane Crashes in Avon Township

On a Thursday afternoon in March 1940, residents of Avon Township and the village of Rochester were looking up to watch two pursuit aircraft from Selfridge Field practicing dog-fighting maneuvers in the skies over town. The pilots of the two airplanes were assigned to the 39th Pursuit Squadron based at Selfridge, and they had been performing pursuit tactics in the area all afternoon when, at about 4:30 p.m., the P-35 airplane piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Wilmer W. Munzenmayer went into a stall. Having lost control of the craft, Lt. Munzenmayer bailed out, but plummeted to the ground when his parachute failed to open. His P-35 exploded upon impact and was destroyed by fire. The accident occurred over the Ferry-Morse Seed Farm in the area of Rochester & Auburn roads, and the wreckage was scattered over the entire seed farm area, the largest intact piece being the landing gear. Lt. Munzenmayer, age 23, was killed in the mishap and his body was removed to Selfridge Field by military ambulance. His remains were returned to his home in Kent, Ohio, for burial.

If you are interested in the history of Selfridge Field and the base's impact upon the history of southeastern Michigan, you are invited to attend the regular meeting of the Rochester Avon Historical Society on Thursday, October 1 at 7:00 p.m. in the auditorium of the Rochester Hills Public Library. Deborah Larsen, co-author of the book Images of Aviation: Selfridge Field, will present the program on the history of Selfridge, illustrated with photographs and newsreel footage of the historic airfield. The program is free and open to the public. Please join us.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Subdivision Stories: Woodward Addition


The second-oldest addition to the original plat of Rochester is the Woodward Addition, platted on April 20, 1874 on part of the farm of Lysander and Peninah Simpson Woodward. Lysander Woodward was born in Connecticut in 1817, the same year in which the village of Rochester was first settled, and arrived in Rochester with his wife in 1843. He was a prosperous farmer and one of the most influential men in Oakland County. He served variously as Avon Township supervisor, justice of the peace, state representative, Oakland County treasurer, and president of the Detroit & Bay City Railroad. He was chiefly responsible for bringing the first railroad line to Rochester. Lysander Street in the Woodward Addition is named for him.

This map of the Woodward Addition from 1896 shows the streets as they were laid out in the official plat that was approved in 1874, but this is not how the subdivision was eventually built out. High Street does not go through from Romeo Road to Terry Street, as shown on the map; it dead ends at the top of the bluff overlooking Lysander Street. Likewise, Short Street, living up to its name, runs only from Romeo to Lysander and not beyond. After the original plat was made, a large 10-acre plot of land in the middle of the subdivision was sold to August Thoel, and was not replatted until 1915, when the Avondale Park subdivision plat was created to the north of the Woodward Addition. The new plat, developed by Thoel along with Isaac Terry and J.B. Mahaffy, created the street configuration that we know today.

Friday, September 18, 2009

An Unsung Hero

During World War II, industries across the United States converted to war work, and the factories of Rochester, Michigan were included in their number. National Twist Drill and McAleer Manufacturing were two of the larger companies in the area holding critical defense contracts. The civilian men and women employed in these factories were called “soldiers without guns,” and their collective workplaces were dubbed the “arsenal of democracy” because the products that they built were crucial to the overall war effort.

Often overlooked is the fact that a large number of civilian defense workers also gave their lives for that war effort. A March, 1944 article in Popular Mechanics magazine, entitled “More Deadly Than War,” reported National Safety Council statistics on industrial casualties for the first sixteen months of American involvement in World War II. The numbers were startling: 64,500 Americans were killed on the home front in industrial accidents, the count actually outstripping the number of U.S. military deaths during the same time period. (Although the total number of Americans working in home front industries was far greater than the total number serving in uniform, the civilian death count is still shocking.)

At McAleer Manufacturing in Rochester, Michigan (the site of today's Rochester Mills Beer Company), dangerous but necessary war work was underway. McAleer produced military flares and the M46 Photoflash bomb, and industrial accidents involving the mixing of explosive metals in its bunkers on the east side of town resulted in injury and death for several McAleer workers.

One of those workers was Virginia Ann MacLeod. Virginia was born on November 17, 1920, one of four children of Alexander and Edna Parmenter MacLeod, residents of Willard Street in Avon Township (now Rochester Hills). She attended Rochester High School and was graduated with the class of 1938. A member of the National Honor Society, Virginia was labeled by her classmates as “honest, upright and dependable.”

After McAleer Manufacturing opened its doors in Rochester in 1941, Virginia got a job there. She and two other workers were seriously injured in an explosion at one of the bunkers on December 19, 1942. Virginia suffered second- and third-degree burns and died from her injuries at Pontiac General Hospital on December 24, 1942. She was 22 years old.

Virginia's brother, Kenneth W. MacLeod, was serving with the United States Army at the time of her death. If you visit the World War II Honor Roll located at the east end of the Rochester Municipal Building, you will find Kenneth MacLeod's name listed there. But don't forget his sister, Virginia, who was also a patriot and gave her life in the service of her country, even though she didn't wear a uniform.

Photo: This portrait of Virginia Ann MacLeod is her senior class picture from the 1938 RHS yearbook, courtesy of Rod and Susan Wilson.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Main Street Stories: Tienken Building

The building at 333 S. Main was built in the summer of 1916 by William Tienken. Born in 1869 in Avon Township, Tienken was the son of pioneer Henry Tienken, Sr., whose large farm in Avon fronted what is known today as Tienken Road. As a young man, Will Tienken gained business experience by working in New York City and Detroit, then returned to Rochester in 1899 to form a partnership with Charles W. Case in the hardware business.

The hardware firm of Tienken & Case was dissolved in 1915, and the former partners continued in business separately. C.W. Case became sole proprietor of the hardware store that would bear his name until it was destroyed by fire in 1968. As for William Tienken, the Rochester Era reported in March of 1916 that
Will Tienken builds a new store this season, adjoining the Case block on the south.
The new store was the home of Tienken Plumbing & Heating until 1932, when Henry Feet's Red & White Grocery Store moved into the building. The Red & White store changed hands and was renamed Sisson Market in January 1942; it moved to another space on the block and a Western Auto store moved into the Tienken building. Western Auto continued at that location throughout the 1950s. From the 1960s until the mid-1980s, 333 S. Main was the home of the Rochester Optical Center, and after that, the Rochester Vision Center. Today it is the home of a women's clothing store called Boutique Angelique.

The Tienken building at 333 S. Main celebrates its 93rd birthday this year.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Dr. Rollin Sprague Residence

The Dr. Rollin Sprague residence formerly stood at 134 West Fifth Street (now W. University Drive). The exact date of its construction is unknown, but a 1923 Rochester Clarion article estimated that it had been built around 1849, the same year in which Dr. Sprague built his stone store on the northeast corner of Third & Main (now known as the Home Bakery building at 300 S. Main). Dr. Sprague was a prominent pioneer businessman and physician in Rochester, and was also active in township politics.

Dr. Sprague died in 1872, and his widow, Adeline, sold the house about 1884. After passing from the ownership of the Sprague family, the building served as the residence of the Daniel Curry family. Fred M. Shinnick owned the house in the 1920s, and donated it to the village for use as a community house. The community house operated for only a few years before the house was sold to St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church, which intended to use the building for a school until Depression-era economics forestalled the plan. Dr. Robert A. Woodruff operated a hospital in the house from 1933 until 1946, when the Homer Wing Post of the American Legion purchased the building.

The handsome residence may have been of timber frame construction, judging by a comment made by Wilson B. Severance in 1964. Severance, who had handled the purchase of the building for the Legion post, wrote of the house:
“I would say the building, particularly the framework, is the same as when originally built … the fact that it is the old time barn type of support. The lumber is thick sold oak. It is almost impossible to drive a nail into it.”
In 1966, the Rollin Sprague house was razed to make way for construction of the office and retail building that currently occupies the site at 134 W. University Drive. At that time, the American Legion moved its post headquarters to the former Michigan Bell office building on the southeast corner of Walnut and Third streets.

Images: The first image is a drawing of the Rollin Sprague residence which appears in the 1877 Durant history of Oakland County. The second image is from a postcard view of the house taken in the late 1920s, when it was serving as the Rochester Community House. Notice that the foundation of the house is of the same coursed cobblestone construction that was used to build Dr. Sprague's store at Third and Main (now the Home Bakery).

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Western Knitting Mills Boarding House

We can still see a portion of the former Western Knitting Mills building at Fourth & Water streets if we visit the Rochester Mills Beer Company, but in its early twentieth-century heyday, the WKM complex was much larger than the surviving building indicates. A now-vanished part of that industrial site is the boarding house area. Western Knitting Mills was a major employer in its day, and advertised for workers far beyond Rochester. Women came from all over to take jobs in the knitting mills, and in 1912 the company began building dormitories to house them. The Rochester Era described the first boarding house as follows:
The building is 80 feet long and 28 feet wide, is of cement blocks and is situated just south of the mills, enabling both heating and lighting to be furnished by the machinery in the mills. Fifty girls can easily be accommodated there.
The newspaper went on to say that the kitchen was furnished with a "large automatic dishwasher, the pride of the building." Quite a luxurious feature, for 1912!

Photo: This postcard photo from the collection of Rochester Hills Public Library shows the first boarding house, located along Water Street on the south side of the knitting mills building, just after it was built in the summer of 1912.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

Forty years ago this month, Rochester was gearing up for the biggest party in her history as the Rochester Centennial celebration culminated in a week of festivities during the second week of September, 1969. The centennial commemorated the 100th anniversary of Rochester's incorporation as a village, and was kicked off on Memorial Day weekend of 1969 with a regatta on Paint Creek known as the Floatable Boatable. The next month, to encourage the men of the town to grow beards and mustaches, a funeral was held for a giant straight razor. The Razor lay in state in a wicker coffin in the lobby of the National Bank of Detroit branch (now Chase) at the corner of Fourth and Main until the appointed day of the burial, when a funeral procession made its way through town. I was only nine years old at the time, and I remember thinking the whole thing was pretty bizarre!

The centennial also featured a huge pageant called "Hills-A-Poppin!" on the Rochester High School football field. The festivities wound up in September of 1969 with a parade that included well over 100 units. It seemed as though everybody in town participated in some way, and it was not uncommon to see folks on the street during that summer wearing their costumes - including hoop skirts for the women and beards and mustaches for the men.

If you remember the Rochester Centennial, you are invited to join the Rochester Avon Historical Society for their regular meeting on Thursday, September 3 at 7:00 p.m. in the auditorium of the Rochester Hills Public Library. The free program will feature slides, pictures, stories and artifacts recalling the 1969 centennial celebration, and everyone is invited to come and share memories. This meeting will also mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Rochester Avon Historical Society, which was organized during the centennial year. See you there!

Photo: My dad took this photo during the 1969 Rochester Centennial Parade. Notice the parade spectators in costume. The building in the background, located on North Main at the foot of Drace, was a furniture store at the time, and had previously been the home of Davey's Market. Today it is the Rochester Elks Club.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Vanished Rochester: The Charles K. Griggs Residence

The Charles Kelley Griggs residence was located at 210 West Fifth Street (now West University Drive), on the northwest corner of West University Drive and Pine Street. C.K. Griggs, a prominent Rochester businessman who owned and operated the Rochester Elevator, built the house in 1886 immediately after his marriage to Martha "Mattie" Kidder. Griggs lived in the house until his death in 1917; the house was later sold and became the home of the Avon Township Library in 1928. Terms of the sale allowed Mattie Griggs to occupy upstairs quarters until her death, which occurred in 1929.

The former Griggs residence served as the home of the Avon Township Public Library for two decades. It was razed in August 1949 as the library prepared for a new building on the same site. That building, the Woodward Memorial Library, opened in 1951 and was used by the library until 1992. Today it houses several small businesses.

Note in this 1907 picture of the Griggs residence the Camperdown elm trees which are visible in the front yard. The Camperdown elm is an unusual tree. In 1640, the Earl of Camperdown in Scotland discovered a branch growing along the ground in an elm forest. He produced the first Camperdown elm by grafting the branch to the trunk of a Scotch elm. As the tree is produced through this grafting process and cannot reproduce itself, every Camperdown elm tree in the world is part of that original tree.

The Camperdown elms on the Griggs property were spared when the house was demolished and the library was built. When the library moved to its current location on Olde Towne Road in 1992, it was hoped that the old elms could be moved there, but this was not feasible. A new Camperdown elm was donated to the library and now stands in front of the building, and the library uses a drawing of a Camperdown elm as part of its letterhead. Meanwhile, one of the two Camperdown elms that are seen on the Griggs lawn in this photo from a century ago still stands today on the lawn of the former library building at 210 West University Drive.

Next time you pass by the old library or visit the current library, be sure to take a moment to admire the Camperdown elms.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Main Street Stories: 303 S. Main


The building at 303 S. Main is one of the younger kids on the block. It was built in the spring of 1959 to house the Doris Hayes dress shop, and featured apartments on the second floor. For many years before the dress shop was built, the site had been a vacant lot where a large billboard stood.

The Doris Hayes shop gave way to Alvin's dress shop in the seventies, and the building was connected for a time to 301 S. Main during the time that Alvin's occupied both storefronts. Today, 303 is the home of Mixx Salon and Spa.

The building at 303 S. Main celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

Photo: This photo from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier shows the building at 303 S. Main in the early 1960s, not long after it was built.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Subdivision Stories: Albertson Addition


The first twentieth-century addition to the original plat of the village of Rochester was known as the Albertson Addition, the plat of which was approved by the village council in June 1900. Located east of North Main Street and north of Paint Creek, the new subdivision was laid out on the fifty-six acre former Albertson farm. The principal investors in the development were Albert G. Griggs and his wife, Minnie, and Frank Drace and his wife, Minnie. Streets in the new subdivision were named for the Albertson family, on whose farm it was created, and for the principal investors, Griggs and Drace.

On June 30, 1900, an auction sale of available lots was held in the Rochester Opera House. Advertisements for the sale boasted the advantages of the development: large lots with a 16-foot alley in the rear that allowed one to "drive to barn or garden without passing through the front yard," and the convenience of having the brand-new interurban line passing the property. "You have only to step from your door," the flyer commented, "onto the finest electric car in the country, running to Detroit, Romeo, Orion, Oxford and in the near future to Flint and the Saginaws. The time is not far distant, when 30 to 40 trains will pass this property daily."

On the day of the sale, all 136 lots offered were snapped up, and all but one of them sold to residents of the Rochester area. Superintendent of schools Abram L. Craft bought the first lot in the Albertson Addition sale for $200.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Main Street Stories: The Reimer Building


The building at 418 S. Main is the oldest structure standing on the east side of Main in the block between Fourth Street and University Drive, and has some ties to one of Rochester's best-remembered local businesses. It was built in the summer of 1885 by Joseph Reimer, who was associated in the hardware business with his son, Cyrus Reimer. According to accounts in the Rochester Era, Joseph Reimer moved into his new store in November of 1885, but sold out to his son, Cyrus, and a partner, Alvin S. Bliss, in June of the following year. Cyrus Reimer was a traveling hardware salesman for the Detroit firm of Buhl & Sons, and because he spent so much time on the road he left the management of the store to partner Bliss. In 1888, Bliss sold his part of the business to Harvey J. Taylor, who eventually bought out Reimer and moved the hardware store to a new building on the west side of Main in 1890. Taylor subsequently sold out to Charles Case, and the company, by then located at 335 S. Main, became known as Case's Hardware.

Meanwhile, the building at 418 S. Main hosted many businesses, including the Drace & Bartholomew meat market. In 1903, it became one of the early locations of George Burr's hardware and implement business. Burr remained there until 1914 when he built a large new store on the west side of Main (the location today of Green's Art Supply). In 1923, the Buchanan & Kemler pool room occupied 418 S. Main. By 1925, it was home of the McKinney Lunch & Billiards establishment. In 1929, Bruno Perna was operating a fruit and produce market there, and in the 1940s Young's Grocery was located in the building. McCotter's Lunch and Grocery and Gerda's Restaurant were there in the 1950s, and Stapp's Shoes was the tenant in the 1960s. During the 1970s and early 1980s, 418 was the home of Trackside Hobbies, and in 1998, The Gilded Rabbit was there. The Sumo Sushi & Seafood restaurant is currently located at 418 S. Main.

The Reimer building celebrates its 124th birthday this summer.

Photo: This view of the Reimer building was taken sometime after George Burr bought it for his implement business in 1903. Over the years, the building has had a least three different brick veneers on the Main Street elevation and the second-floor windows have been completely re-worked at least twice.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fifty Years for Fifty-Nine


It was standing room only at Knapp's Dairy Bar this past Monday evening, as members of RHS Class of 1959 swelled the ranks at the annual alumni gathering. The crowd of former Falcons spilled out onto the sidewalk when the restaurant could no longer contain all of the bodies. Members of the Class of '59 were in town for their fiftieth class reunion festivities, and made merry with an entire week of activities. Welcome home, '59, and best wishes!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Walnut Boulevard


Walnut Street is still with us, of course, but the boulevard islands that once defined the roadway vanished more than half a century ago. Walnut was once a picturesque thoroughfare lined with mature trees, private homes of leading citizens, and churches - seven denominations were represented in a three-block area. The streetscape featured a boulevard down the center even before the street was paved. And when it finally was paved, in the summer of 1931, the boulevard was incorporated into the streetscape. At various times, the island held both the 1917 Harris fountain and the World War II honor roll, both of which are now located at the east end of the Rochester Municipal Building.

Automobiles were the death of the boulevard on Walnut Street. In 1951, the village of Rochester was trying to come to grips with a serious downtown parking shortage. The village council voted to install metered parking on Main Street, and to offer free parking on Walnut. For parking on Walnut to work efficiently, the boulevard had to go. Besides, both the Walnut boulevard and the one in Fifth Street (now University Drive) were taking a beating from the increasing traffic in the downtown area. Drivers were regularly crashing into, or driving over the landscaped medians. In the spring of 1951, the village began the work of reconfiguring Walnut to accommodate higher traffic and more parking. The Harris fountain was moved to the intersection of Second & Main, and the Walnut boulevard vanished from Rochester's landscape.

Photo: This 1940s postcard view from Rochester Hills Public Library's online collection shows Walnut Street looking north from the intersection of Fourth Street. The First Baptist Church of Rochester (now the Village Shoe Inn at 401 Walnut), is seen at left. Note the Harris fountain standing on the boulevard island.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History


During the month of August, it is appropriate to reflect on the Rochester community's newspaper heritage. Rochester has been fortunate to have three long-running newspapers in her history, with a few short-lived upstarts sprinkled in along the way.

The first successful title was the Rochester Era, published by T.B. and W.A. Fox, which burst onto the scene with its salutatory edition on May 22, 1873. The weekly Era ran without noteworthy competition for a quarter of a century, until Charles S. Seed's Rochester Clarion launched its inaugural number on August 19, 1898. The Era and the Clarion went head-to-head for another fifty-one years, but gradually, it became clear that the Clarion was winning the competition for advertising. The Era shrank and took on an increasingly shopworn appearance until finally, on August 28, 1949, it surrendered the field and was bought out by the Clarion.

The Clarion soldiered on as a solo player with little competition for twenty-three more years. On August 3, 1972, the Observer & Eccentric chain of newspapers brought the Rochester Eccentric to town, and Rochester once again enjoyed the benefit of two weekly newspapers. Sadly, in October 1997, just a few months short of its century mark, the Rochester Clarion conceded defeat and was purchased by the Observer & Eccentric chain. For a brief time, the remaining newspaper styled itself as the Rochester Clarion-Eccentric, but the Clarion name was soon thereafter dropped and the newspaper went on as the Rochester Eccentric.

In the spring of 2009, the Observer & Eccentric chain reacted to the economic pressure that all print newspapers have been feeling in the digital age, and scaled back its print products. Among the casualties was the Rochester Eccentric, which ceased publication on May 31, 2009, in its thirty-seventh year. The community is poorer for the loss of its newspapers, but I fear historians of the future will feel the effects even more deeply than we do today.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Main Street Stories: 133 S. Main


The building at 133 S. Main was built in 1929 as an automotive dealership. Ralph B. Garner purchased the Chevrolet dealership in Rochester from partners Habel & O'Brien in 1928 and began construction of a new garage and sales room on the west side of Main, between Second Street and the bridge. The new structure was built by Dillman & Upton and included a spacious showroom and offices across the front of the building, while the rear space included the repair garage, tool room and wash rack.

A grand opening of Garner Chevrolet's new building was held on February 16, 1929 and featured dancing accompanied by Pat Dollahan's Recording Orchestra and movies of the General Motors Proving Grounds near Milford, Michigan. At the time, Garner Chevrolet was offering everything from a six-cylinder roadster for $525 to a convertible Landau model priced at $695.

L. Keith Crissman bought Garner Chevrolet in January 1953; in October of the same year, he moved the dealership to a new location on South Hill. After the auto dealership moved out, the building at 133 S. Main served as the home of the Food Center grocery store for the next three decades. The Food Center closed its doors in the 1980s, and the building was remodeled for the current occupant, a FedEx Kinko's copy center.

The building at 133 S. Main celebrates its 80th birthday this year.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Subdivision Stories: Golden Hills


This post inaugurates a new occasional series for Remembering Rochester, entitled "Subdivision Stories." Each post in this series will look at the history of a subdivision in Rochester or Rochester Hills (the former Township of Avon), and will provide information about the farm from which the subdivision was developed, and the names of owners and developers. When available, information about street names or interesting stories related to the neighborhood will also be provided.

Today's post looks at the Golden Hills subdivision in Rochester Hills. Golden Hills lies in section 15 of Rochester Hills, and is situated north of Harding Road and east of Livernois Road. Lots in Golden Hills were first offered in a public sale held on October 2, 1926, on behalf of Misses Grace and May Currey. The women were the surviving daughters of Daniel R. Currey (1838-1921) and his wife Mary Ellen Currey (1843-1921), who had owned the 77-acre parcel comprising the east half of the northwest quarter of section 15, abutting the western boundary of the village of Rochester. According to newspaper advertisements for the sale, lots could be secured for two dollars down and one dollar per week payments, with sale prices starting at $195. Twenty-eight lots were sold on the first day they were offered.

The Rochester Clarion reported that the streets in the new subdivision would be named for members of the Currey family. The original street names were Currey (for Daniel R. Currey), Mary Ellen (for his wife), Grace and May for his daughters, and Burgoyne Boulevard (for Burgoyne Jones, the father of Mary Ellen Currey). However, the name of Currey Road was later changed to Curzon, and Grace Road was changed to Utah, probably to avoid confusion with the Grace Avenue that was platted in 1941 in the Homestead Acres subdivision in section 33 of the township.

The map shown here is the original subdivision plat approved for Golden Hills, and carries the original street names. (Click on the map for enlarged detail).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Main Street Stories: 223-227 S. Main


The building at 223-227 S. Main can trace its roots back to a livery stable opened by Clayton C. Barnes about 1900, on the lot just south of the Detroit Hotel at the southwest corner of Third & Main streets.

By the mid-1920s, the livery stable had given way to the Rochester Lumber & Coal Company, and the building was modified to suit the new business use. The Clarion described the renovation work in July of 1927: “The Rochester Lumber & Fuel Co. [sic] have torn out the front of the old former Barnes livery barn, adjoining the Ford garage, and will replace the same with a 60-foot brick front of modern type, overhauling the remainder of this large structure for the storing of interior finish etc., in connection with their present yard on Water Street" [the Water Street yard referred to here later became Nowels' Lumber Yard].

Nine years later, the building changed purposes again and was remodeled once more. William Woolcott Motor Sales, which had been doing business as a Buick agency at 119 S. Main since 1934, leased the former Rochester Lumber & Coal building at 223-227 S. Main in September of 1936. Renovations began immediately. The Clarion reported that the front portion of the building was left intact (this would be the brick front erected by the lumber company in 1927), while the entire rear of the building was demolished and replaced by a cement block and steel structure to be used as an automotive sales room and service garage. Woolcott Motors moved into its new home in 1937.

The following year, in October of 1938, the dealership was reorganized and renamed Community Motors. Zeno Schoolcraft was president of the company, and the other officers were Grover J. Taylor, Al Michalka and William Woolcott. Eventually, Harold Hopkins took ownership of Community Motors, and also operated a used car lot at the corner of North Main and Romeo streets (later the site of a Sunoco gas station and now a Seven-Eleven store).

In 1959, Harold Hopkins sold the business to Clarence E. “Bud” Shelton, who operated his Pontiac-Buick dealership there briefly before moving to the South Hill location that the company occupies today. A tire shop was subsequently located in the building, and in 1971, Clarence Whitbey's Avon Printing Company moved in. For about a decade during the 1970s, the Sea & Sky Pet Shop was also located there.

After Avon Printing closed in 1996, the building was once again remodeled, this time for restaurant use. Today, it is the home of the Fieldstone Winery, Give Thanks Bakery, and 227 Bistro.

The building celebrates its 72nd birthday this year - although to be technically correct, the front is 82 years old.

Photo: This view of the building shows Community Motors occupying the space during the World War II years, when new vehicles were not available. (Notice the brick pavement on Main Street). My thanks to James Hopkins for sharing this photo from his family collection, and for providing me with details about the history of Community Motors.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

RHS All Class Reunion at Knapp's Dairy Bar


All former Rochester High School students are invited to attend the Fifth Annual RHS Alumni Gathering at Knapp's Dairy Bar in downtown Rochester on Monday evening, August 3. The event will run from 6:00 p.m. until close, and it is a great way to reconnect with friends. There are always plenty of yearbooks and photo albums there to jog those old memories and kick-start a conversation over a Knappburger and fries. No reservations are necessary - just stop in and join the fun!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vanished Rochester: The Butts-Swayze House


The northwest corner of Main and University (formerly Fifth Street) has been the site of a gasoline service station for nearly forty years now, but for more than a century before that, it was the location of the Butts-Swayze house, a part of the village landscape since before the Civil War.

The exact date that the Federal-style residence was built is unknown, but a remark by Lyman Wilcox that was published in the Rochester Era in 1909 related that Alonzo Rosier, who owned the property from 1837 to 1853, originally built the house. In any case, it was sold in 1859 to William Swayze, who operated a livery stable located immediately west of the house on Fifth St. (University Drive). When Swayze died in 1887, he left the house to his wife, who in turn, left it to her son, Dr. Philip C. Butts. After the death of Dr. Butts in 1914, the house passed to his daughter, Edna, but was sold in 1919 and remodeled for use as business space and apartments.

Shearer's Barber and Beauty Shoppe was located in the Butts-Swayze house for about four decades; the building also housed Kremer Electric in the late 1930s, and the Rochester Camera Shop in the 1950s and 1960s. I can remember going with my Dad to the camera shop to buy film for my first camera (a Kodak Instamatic 44 that used the 126 cartridge).

The Butts-Swayze house was razed on April 13, 1970, at which time it was somewhere between 117 and 133 years old. An automotive service station replaced the stately home on the northwest corner of Main and University.

Photo: This view of the Butts-Swayze house by Clarence Whitbey was taken not long before the house was torn down in 1970. The camera is looking east along W. University Drive toward the intersection of Main. The gas station shown in the background on the east side of Main is now the location of Knapp's Donut Shop. My thanks to Clarence Whitbey for sharing the photo.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Native American Burial Grounds?

A few months ago, when the state began preliminary planning for a proposed reconstruction of Main Street, Rochester, local historians alerted MDOT officials to the possibility that Native American remains might exist in the vicinity of Third & Main. I just came across an interesting news article from the summer of 1899 that sheds a little more light on this topic. During the summer of 1899, the old stone store at Third & Main (known today as the Home Bakery) was undergoing a major renovation, including a total replacement of the front facade. (This is why the building's cornice, which was installed during that renovation, is dated 1899, while the building itself was constructed in 1849). The following article, reporting an incident in connection with that remodeling work, is quoted in its entirety from the Rochester Era, August 11, 1899:

A Gruesome Find
Last Saturday morning workmen were engaged in deepening the cellar under the stone store. There was a cement bottom, under which was a layer of cobble-stones. They noticed in the northwest corner of the cellar that the cement was of a different kind, showing that the bottom had been patched. After they had taken up the stone they dug down and about two feet under the patched portion they unearthed two skeletons, one with the head to the east, the other to the west. The bones were gathered up and it was not long before the matter was noised about town and a large crowd gathered to view the remains. One of the skulls was quite perfect, the other one was badly broken. The teeth were remarkably firm and even, although worn down very much, denoting evidently a very old person. No trinkets of any kind were found. It has been suggested that the store was on the site of the old Indian burying-ground, but Mr. T.J. Jones, who has been a resident of Rochester for sixty-five years, says he never heard of such a thing, the burying-ground being on the Michigan Central railroad east of the village, which was unearthed when the road was put through. Another theory advanced was that as The Era office occupied the second story for many years, the remains might have been some of The Era competitors of by-gone days. Still another, and undoubtedly the most feasible theory is, that the bodies were medical subjects placed there by two physicians who forty or fifty years ago did business in the old stone store. It is of course a mystery that will never be solved. Something of a sensation was caused by the discovery, but it soon quieted down. [END QUOTE]