Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mills of Rochester Program Coming on March 5

Patrick McKay, Director of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, will present a program entitled "The Mills of Rochester" at the next meeting of the Rochester Avon Historical Society on Thursday, March 5, 2009. Pat's illustrated program will cover more than 30 water-powered mills that once operated in our community, including those that ground grain, squeezed apples, processed wool and produced sugar. The program will be held at 7:00 p.m. in the auditorium of Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne Road, Rochester, and is free and open to the public. Don't miss this opportunity to learn more about Rochester's pioneer industries. Everyone is invited!

Visit the RAHS web site to learn more about the Society's programs and events.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thou Harbinger of Spring, O Dairy Queen

We watched for it, breathlessly, every day as we passed by on North Main St. As the gray end of February melted into March, we waited for those magical words to appear on the letterboard marquee near the street. More important than Groundhog Day, spotting the first red robin in the backyard, or the opening pitch of the Tigers' exhibition season, the Dairy Queen's announcement “OPENING THURSDAY – 500 FREE CONES” was our annual harbinger of spring as kids growing up in Rochester.
And when that happy day finally arrived, we ditched our books the minute we got home from school and rushed down the block to join the line for one of those free ice cream cones. (And it was always a long line, so some of you must have been there, too!) As we savored those small vanilla cones - no chocolate dip or nuts – the last of the gray, exhaust tinted snow plow piles receded from the curbs and sidewalks, spring returned to Rochester, and summer vacation was just around the corner.
The Rochester Dairy Queen still continues this spring tradition, and although I no longer stand in line for a free ice cream cone, I can't hold back a smile when I see that announcement each March. It brings back fond memories of simpler days. O harbinger of spring, O Dairy Queen!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Home Town Rochester Presentation Coming on March 3

The Rochester Avon Historical Society's monthly Brown Bag Luncheon program on Tuesday, March 3 will feature an illustrated presentation of the Society's new book, Home Town Rochester. The Brown Bag Luncheon is held at the Rochester Community House, 816 Ludlow St., and begins at noon. Beverages and cookies are furnished, and attendees are invited to bring their own lunches if they so desire. Brown Bag programs feature speakers who share their memories of growing up in Rochester, and are always free and open to the public.
Home Town Rochester is the latest publication of the Rochester Avon Historical Society (RAHS), and provides an overview of the history of Rochester and Avon from 1817 to the present, with special emphasis on the four decades that have passed since A Lively Town was published during the 1969 Rochester centennial. The hardcover book includes more than 80 photos, some in color, many of which have never before been published. Home Town Rochester is available for purchase at Lytle Pharmacy in Rochester, at the gift shop of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, or at RAHS events. Books may also be ordered via mail for $29.95 plus $5 shipping and handling from: Rochester Avon Historical Society, P.O. Box 80783, Rochester MI 48308-0783 (make checks payable to Rochester Avon Historical Society). All proceeds from the sale of this book are used to benefit RAHS and to support the Society's educational and preservation initiatives.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vanished Rochester: Oak Gas Station

Today there are just three gasoline stations in the city of Rochester, but over the years there have been several of them along Main St. The one that I patronized after I learned to drive was the Oak gas station on the east side of North Main at Paint Creek, now the location of the Atallah Heart Center.
The property had been part of the D.U.R. power house and car barn site until the early 1930s, and in late 1939, Royal Oak entrepreneur Jacob J. “Jake” Levy bought the land to build another retail outlet for his Oakland County Gas & Oil Company. He built the modest service station and held a grand opening for his eighth Oak gas outlet on May 25, 1940. His opening special was eight gallons of gas for $1, plus a two-pound bag of Domino sugar as a premium. Newspaper advertisements for the new station boasted “You get what you were promised – and more! Jake always keeps his word!”
By the time I started buying gas, you couldn't get two gallons for a dollar, let alone eight, but Oak gas was always a penny or two cheaper than the rest. Although it had no frills, the Oak station offered full service right up until its last day of business, even though by then most stations were beginning the transition to self-serve pumps. The accompanying photo was taken in the early 1980s after the station had closed. It was razed to make way for construction of the Atallah Heart Center building, which opened at 610 North Main in 1986.

Photo: If you think there's something strange about this photo, you're right! It's a composite of two photos - I had one of the building and another of the sign, but I can only insert one image per post here, so I cropped the sign from one and merged it with the other to make one composite image. I'm not generally in favor of altering photos, so I'll always tell you when I've created a composite due to space considerations.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Main Street Stories: The Morse Block

A landmark building anchoring the west side of Main Street between Third and Fourth is the Morse Block, at 321-323 S. Main. Lorenzo D. Morse, a pioneer businessman and farmer in the village of Farmer's Creek, near Lapeer, relocated to Rochester after retiring from farming and built a home on Walnut Street. In the autumn of 1880, he started construction on a brick business block in the middle of Main, touching off a rebuilding of the downtown area that replaced most of the simple frame structures with more substantial commercial blocks. The Morse Block was built by the firm of Kennedy & Emmet of Lapeer, and the cost of construction was estimated to be approximately $4,000 at the time. The building opened for business in April of 1881, and the first tenant was Lemuel W. Hudson, who operated a grocery and pharmacy, along with the post office and American Express office.
The 321 side of the building housed a drug store for the first nine decades of its history. After L.W. Hudson, William S. Starring operated a drug store there for many years. He was succeeded by William Ford's drug store in 1923, and Ford was succeeded by Purdy Drugs in 1944. Purdy gave way to Hunter Drugs in 1963, the last in the line of pharmacies to occupy the space. Janet Varner's dress shop has occupied 321 since 1975.
The 323 side of the building has variously housed the A.E. Collins dry goods store, the Lou Shueller dry goods store, Selma's Smart Shoppe, the Mole Hole gift shop and, since about 1985, the Plain & Fancy gift shop.
The Morse Block is among the oldest business blocks on Main Street, and celebrates its 128th anniversary this spring.
Photo: This circa 1907 view of the Morse Block shows the William S. Starring Drug Store and the Batdorff & Shueller dry goods and grocery store.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Passing of the Paper Boy

The recent announcement by the Detroit newspapers that they will reduce printed newspapers in favor of digital editions likely means that home delivery of the paper as we know it is coming to an end, and it seems only fitting to mourn the passing of the paper boy. Of course, daily newspapers are delivered by motor carriers these days, but for my generation and those that came before, a newspaper route was usually the first paying job for a pre-teen youth. The newspaper route taught young entrepreneurs responsibility, discipline and an appreciation for the value of a dollar earned. In the late 1940s, my Dad was one of Rochester's delivery boys for a national weekly tabloid newspaper called Grit. Mom delivered the Detroit News and Detroit Times - but freely admits that whenever she could sweet talk a boyfriend into doing her route for her, she took advantage of the opportunity. She considers this to be evidence of her excellent managerial skills.
In the early 1970s, my sister and I trailed along behind our uncles, who delivered the Oakland Press (or Pontiac Press, as it was called until 1972) in the Parkdale/Charles/William section of town. The preferences of each customer were duly recorded in the route book: whether the newspaper was to be placed in the front door, side door, or porch box. Collections were made each Friday, and small receipt tabs were torn from the cards in the route book to mark the customers as paid. Tips were promptly wasted in the candy bar vending machine at the Sunoco station at the corner of Romeo & Main. About the same time, my future husband was an award-winning Oakland Press carrier in the Brooklands area of Avon Township, where he collected routes as other carriers gave them up, until he was delivering to half the subdivision. When he started his first hourly wage job as a grocery store stock boy, he was disappointed to learn that he earned less than he had with his paper route.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Return of the Drive-In Restaurant

Sonic Corp. has recently expanded operations from the southern states into the frozen north. The company has opened drive-in restaurants in Southgate, Flint and Mount Clemens in the past few months, recalling for us the days before “drive-in” morphed into “drive-through” in fast food service. The drive-in restaurant was a popular meeting place in the decades of the 1950s through the 1970s, allowing teens to gather and socialize, show off their cars, and play their music. In Avon Township (now Rochester Hills), the Brookland Drive-In on the south side of Auburn Road near Dequindre was an occasional treat for my family. During her high school years, Mom had worked there as a car hop; when we stopped there to visit her former employers, the owners would invariably treat my sister and me to the huge lollipops they sold there. After the Brookland Drive-In was gone, we patronized the A&W drive-in on South Hill near Avon Rd., where the Dunkin' Donuts shop is today. The Tuesday special was a coney dog and root beer in a real frosted mug for 75 cents. Even today's dollar menus can't beat that!
For a time in the 1960s, there was also drive-in service available at the Big Boy restaurant on North Main near Romeo, now the location of the Bangkok Cuisine eatery. That deep parking lot behind the building had speakers on posts where customers could park and order food from their cars, and waitstaff would bring their orders out to them. The car-side service was eliminated, however, long before Big Boy closed the location.

Photo: Mom on the job at the Brookland Drive-In about 1958.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Main Street Stories: 301 S. Main

The building at 301 S. Main which is now the home of the Mind, Body & Spirits restaurant was built by Burnett A. "Barney" Horvitz in the autumn of 1888, and opened for business in March, 1889. B.A. Horvitz was born in Russia in 1859, and emigrated with his family when they fled the persecution of Jews there in 1867. Horvitz came to Rochester in 1880 and went into the dry goods business with his brother, Max. When the Sidney House hotel opened on the southwest corner of Main and Third streets in February 1888, Horvitz had the good business sense to purchase the lot on the opposite corner of Main and Third, directly across from the hotel. The Horvitz dry goods store was apparently successful, but by 1907, the Horvitzes had moved away from Rochester. Over the years, the building at 301 S. Main has housed a number of concerns, the most notable including Sutton's Market (from the early 1930s until 1961), Dants, LaBelle's, and the Country Mouse gift shop, and Alvin's dress shop. The structure survived a major fire on November 16, 1971, which was fueled by a leaking gas meter and seriously damaged the interior. In more recent years, the Horvitz building has housed a series of galleries, boutiques and interior design firms. The Mind, Body & Spirits restaurant opened there in October 2008 after a complete renovation of the building which included the addition of geothermal wells, solar panels and a greenhouse. The B.A. Horvitz building celebrates its 120th birthday this spring.

Photo: The B.A. Horvitz building as it looked about 1897.

Friday, February 6, 2009

American Legion Hosts Polar Bear Filmmaker

A forthcoming documentary film about Michigan's "Polar Bear" soldiers in World War I will be discussed at a special meeting at Rochester's American Legion Homer Wing Post 172 on Thursday, February 12 at 7 p.m. Filmmaker Pamela Peak will discuss her new documentary, Voices of a Never Ending Dawn, which tells the story of the more than 5,000 Michigan soldiers who were sent to northern Russia to fight the newly-ascended Bolshevik government at the end of World War I. The soldiers, who dubbed themselves "Polar Bears" because of the extreme temperatures they endured, were left to serve on the frozen tundra for eight months after the armistice officially ended the war and most other American troops went home. Among their number was Rochester's own Homer Wing, who was killed in a railroad engine collision on the Archangel-Vologda railroad in May of 1919, just a few weeks before the Polar Bears were called home. In honor of his sacrifice, American Legion Post 172 was named for Homer Wing when it was chartered in 1920.
Voices of a Never Ending Dawn is scheduled to have its public premiere at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy on May 29. In the meantime, you can learn more about the film project by visiting You may also learn more about the film and the program in this recent Oakland Press feature.
The February 12 program at the American Legion Post, 234 Walnut St. in Rochester, is open to the public, but because it is a dinner program, reservations are required. The cost is $8 per person. For reservations or further information, call 248-651-6562 or 248-321-3114.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

In what may well be the coldest month of the year, we also observe the anniversary of one of the most devastating fires in Rochester history. The Detroit Hotel, which stood on the southwest corner of Third and Main streets, was completely destroyed by fire on February 22, 1927. Fortuitously, the village of Rochester had taken delivery of a brand new Type 12 American LaFrance pumper and 2,000 feet of new fire hose just one month before, spending more than $14,000 on the equipment. With assistance from the Pontiac Fire Department, Rochester's volunteer fire fighters were able to contain the flames and prevent the loss of nearby structures. The hotel, which was built in 1887 as the Sidney House and later renamed, was being used as a transient boarding house at the time, and had some small businesses operating in back, including a tire shop and a Willys-Knight/Overland dealership. Contents of the tire shop and auto dealership contributed to a deadly cocktail of toxic smoke and fumes which prevented firemen from entering the building, and thus the structure could not be saved. The accompanying photo is from the collection of the Rochester Hills Public Library, and shows the fire in progress. The B.A. Horvitz building at 301 S. Main, which now houses the Mind, Body & Spirits restaurant, can be seen at the right of the frame, and next to it, a billboard which stood in the adjacent vacant lot (more about the billboard another time).

Monday, February 2, 2009

There Was More Snow in the Old Days...

Was there more snow in winters past? Or are we simply subject to the phenomenon that makes everything look bigger from a child's-eye view (or memory)? We've seen nearly 50 inches of snowfall so far this season, but we aren't yet in the record books. A Detroit News article about the area's winter weather history recalls snow and ice storms going back to the turn of the twentieth century. The story reminds us of the major snowfalls in the years since 1950. Perhaps you recall shoveling out from under some of these record-breakers:

  • Dec. 1-2, 1974 - 19.2"

  • Jan. 26-27, 1978 - 19.0"

  • Dec. 19-20, 1973 - 11.2"

  • Jan. 13-14, 1992 - 11.1"

  • Feb. 25-26, 1965 - 11.0"

  • Jan. 25-26, 1978 - 9.7"

You can read the entire feature about extreme winter weather in Detroit area history by clicking here.

Meanwhile, enjoy this photo from November 1966, when the first snowfall of the season provided enough raw material for the Mowat kids and their neighborhood friends to build this 9-foot-tall snowman in the front yard of their home on Romeo St. Those were the days!