Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pioneer Farmsteads: The John Fairchild Hamlin Residence

For at least 165 years, the home at 1812 South Rochester Road (west side, just north of Hamlin) has stood on a rise of ground like a sentinel guarding the southerly approach to the town of Rochester. Likely built in the early 1840s by pioneer Avon farmer and contractor John Fairchild Hamlin (1799-1863), the residence was well-appointed for its day, as befitted the home of a man as successful as its owner. J.F. Hamlin was born in 1799 in the state of New York and migrated to Michigan during territorial days. He married Laura Andrus of neighboring Washington Township in 1831 and the couple settled in Avon Township. Hamlin amassed significant real estate holdings; by 1857, he owned more than half of section 22 and part of section 23, totaling 545 acres, as well as lots in the village of Rochester and acreage in other sections. According to his probate file, when John Fairchild Hamlin died in 1863, the land in his estate was valued at more than $30,000.

Part of J.F. Hamlin's fortune came from farming, but some of it came from contracting work for transportation infrastructure in the new state of Michigan. Hamlin was one of the contractors for the section of the Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal running from Utica to Rochester, and after the project was bankrupted, he spent the next decade - along with others - petitioning the state legislature to pay him for his work. Hamlin was also a commissioner of the Rochester and Royal Oak Plank Road Company, chartered by the state of Michigan in 1847.

John's widow, Laura Andrus Hamlin, died in 1883 and ownership of the Hamlin farm, known as Oldhome, passed to John and Laura's daughter, Belle. Belle was married to Marsden C. Burch, who had a long and noteworthy career in law and government service. Burch had begun his law career at the age of 21, as the first clerk and attorney for the newly-minted village of Rochester in 1869; two years later he was appointed probate judge of Osceola County. He also served as a federal district attorney in Grand Rapids before moving on to Washington, D.C. where he joined the Department of Justice. Since the Burches resided for much of their married life in Washington, D.C., they used the old Hamlin homestead as a summer and vacation residence, visiting the Rochester area for a few weeks each year. Judge Burch continued the farm as a going concern by hiring a superintendent to operate it in his absence. In October 1903, the Rochester Era informed its readers about recent activity at the old Hamlin place:
Judge Burch has returned to Washington D.C. and his duties in the department of justice. During the summer the Judge has built over the old Hamlin home, two miles south of Rochester, until it is now one of the finest country residences in Avon township. Always a stately mansion, it has been added to and overhauled until now it is a most desirable home. Robert Featherstone, a good farmer and citizen, occupies the house and works the farm.
In 1916, the Burches sold part of the Hamlin farm holdings for subdivision, but retained the house and other buildings and a generous section of the property for themselves. In announcing the partial sale of the farm, the Era said:
It will be gratifying to the people of this region that Mrs. Burch holds onto the place where she was born [in 1846] and lived until her marriage, and that not one of the buildings is to be parted with, and Oldhome will remain as it is, and has been. It has been known far and wide as the Hamlin Place practically as long as Rochester itself, the mansion and many of the other buildings dating back to the early part of the last century.
A few weeks later, while reporting that some of the outlying farm buildings were being moved from the sold parcels to the property being retained by the Burches, the paper made this comment about their effort:
Their [the Burches'] anxiety to preserve these reminders of the past should be regarded as an example worthy of invitation [one assumes the editor meant to say 'imitation' here] by those who have and can retain the works of their ancestors.

Fortunately for the Hamlin house, it survived when it passed out of Hamlin family ownership in the 1930s. In 1993, the owners of the property were presented with the Earl Borden Award for Historic Preservation for their sympathetic additions to the building which preserved the original house. Today the building houses medical office suites.

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