Saturday, June 7, 2014

At Home in Rochester: Frank Butts House

This house on the northwest corner of West University Drive and Wilcox Street was built in the summer of 1897 as the family residence of Rochester cigar maker Frank Butts.  Butts was born in Northampton County, Pennsylvania in 1870, and migrated to Michigan to settle in the Rochester area along with a number of other families from his native county.  In 1891, he married Florence Belle Davis, and the couple made their home in Rochester. In May 1897, the local newspaper reported that Butts was preparing to build a new house on his lot on West Fifth Street (now West University Drive). A month later the Rochester Era told its readers that the frame of the Butts house was up, and in August, it reported that Frank and Florence Butts were moving into their new home.

Frank Butts learned the cigar trade from his uncle, Simon Grube, who built a cigar store on Main Street in Rochester in 1891.  When Grube was ready to retire, he sold his business to his nephew, who ran it in the same location for another three decades.

Locals who knew him remembered that Frank Butts' store was less than pristine.  One resident said that the same layer of dust covered everything in the store from one year to the next.  The shop was a favorite spot for local men to gather to play cards, smoke, and shoot the breeze without female interference, for few - if any - women wanted to set foot in the place.

A 1954 publication on the history of the sugar beet industry gives us an interesting sketch of the character of Frank Butts.  The publication contained a profile of the failed sugar factory at Rochester, and described the reaction of the village residents to the big mill.  The article reported that virtually every citizen was planting sugar beets in his back yard, except for Frank Butts, who was described like this:

Frank Butts, the village cigar maker "stuck to his last." Every day starting at 5 o'clock in the morning, he made his quota of 400 cigars. He could not make varieties to please every taste, so he made the quality that enough men liked to absorb his output. In one year he turned out 100,500 cigars. During the fishing season he relaxed - "Allah does not deduct from man's allotted time the hours spent in fishing and hunting." As soon as his head hit his pillow he fell asleep. In 1950 he still used the stool which served him for 56 years, although he had retired from his manufacturing business.

The Frank Butts house is now used as office space. The house celebrates its  117th birthday this summer.

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