Friday, June 26, 2009

Fourth of July Fun

When I was a little kid, Fourth of July was all about fireworks and sparklers. In those days, there was a local fireworks display that was staged somewhere in the vicinity of the Rochester High School campus at Walton and Livernois. My grandparents lived on the hill at Romeo and High streets, and their front yard was a good vantage point from which to view the show, so the family always gathered there to watch the fireworks.

It seemed to take forever for dusk to come, and the anticipation grew and grew while our ears strained to hear that first, experimental BOOM that told us the show was about to start. We'd turn our lawn chairs to the west and prepare to be dazzled. There was no orchestration to accompany the fireworks in those days, but we were thrilled nonetheless.

After the big show was over, we were allowed to put on our own little spectacle with the sparklers. Grandpa would haul out the garden hose and fill a couple of buckets with water, then we kids were allowed to jump around with our sparklers, after listening with one ear to the standard speech about keeping them away from our faces and not throwing them. Soon the yard would be filled with a smoky haze and the aroma of sulphur dioxide as we wound down for the evening.

This year, the Festival of the Hills fireworks will be held in Borden Park on Wednesday, July 1. Click here for details.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Rochester Era Building

The Rochester Era was the community's first successful newspaper, established in April 1873, just a year after the first railroad line connected Rochester with the outside world. Truman Buell Fox and his son, William A. Fox ran the newspaper together until the death of the elder Fox in 1893; Will Fox continued on his own for decades after that. The Era of July 10, 1885 announced that “Will A. Fox of The Era has commenced the erection of a two-story brick office and residence on H.M. Look, Sr.'s homestead, between Main and Walnut sts. It will be 20x34 feet.” The new building was completed in November of the same year, when the editor crowed from the front page that the newspaper was now settled in the new quarters and would entertain visitors. An accompanying article explained that “for nearly thirteen long and rebellious years we had paid office rent,” and tiring of changing locations at the whim of landlords, father and son Fox had decided to put up their own building. A newspaper item that ran two months later with a review of recent construction activity in the village put the price of construction of the Era building at $1,000.

The building has worn a number of color schemes over the years, but one in particular was noted in an October, 1909 newspaper item which reported that the Era building had just been painted: "the brick red and trimmings colonial yellow."

The 1885 Rochester Era building still stands at 114 West Third Street, across the west alley from the Mind, Body & Spirits restaurant. It has housed a number of boutique business in recent decades, and is currently the home of the Talulah Belle Boutique.

The Rochester Era building celebrates its 124th birthday this summer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summer Fun in Avon Park

I grew up in a neighborhood bordering what is now the Rochester Municipal Park, known in those days as Avon Park. The park was both our playground and our family picnic area. Today, the playground is located in the same general area as it was when I was a kid in the 1960s, but it looks a bit different now. We didn't have engineered "playscapes," but we did have the monkey bars, jungle gym, teeter-totter, merry-go-round and the ever-popular swing set and slide. No environmentally friendly, non toxic, low-impact structures, these; most were constructed out of iron or galvanized pipe. They didn't have a foot of rubber mulch beneath them to cushion our falls, either. We landed on the concrete-like ground - beaten hard by thousands of kids' feet over the years - got up, brushed off our skinned knees and got on with the game. The seats on the swing set were rubber, and after few hours of heating up under the summer sun, they reached a temperature that could peel the skin from the backs of our legs. Likewise the slide, which was constructed of shiny sheet metal - not plastic - was hot enough to scorch our backsides.

We learned some of life's little lessons on that playground in Avon Park. The teeter-totter was a terrible danger; more than one kid took a smack from that 2x10 piece of lumber when bailing off the end of the board. The sympathy that we got from our parents ran something along the lines of "well, you've learned not to do that again, haven't you?" I suppose they figured that we were learning a lesson in physics - the use of the fulcrum, or maybe that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Anyway, kids had to be tough to hang out on the playground. It's a wonder we survived without helmets, knee-pads, elbow-pads and direct adult supervision!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Main Street Stories: The W. Harvey Greene Building

The building at 311 S. Main currently houses a custom jewelry store, but for the first four decades of its history it was the location of a furniture and undertaking business. W. Harvey Greene began construction of the store in the summer of 1882 and the Rochester Era reported in August of that year that “the cellar-wall of Harv. Greene's new block is completed and brick-work will soon commence.” By the next spring, the Era was carrying advertising for Greene's Furniture Emporium at his “new brick store on Main Street.” Undertaking services were also available. (W. Harvey Greene was the son of Calvin H. Greene, the Avon Township man who commissioned an 1856 daguerreotype portrait of Henry David Thoreau that is now part of the National Portrait Gallery collection.)
In 1887, P.M. Woodworth announced in the Era that he was the successor to W. Harvey Greene and invited the patronage of his furniture and undertaking parlors, noting that the undertaking department furnished the free use of a hearse to customers. In 1896, Woodworth's widow took a partner and the business became known for a brief time as Woodworth & Lintz. In September of 1899, Woodworth & Lintz sold out to Thomas C. Severance, who advertised that W. Harvey Greene would once again be associated with the firm. Severance died in 1903 and his widow sold to Edward R. Metcalf in December of that year. E.R. Metcalf ran the furniture and undertaking business (adding a Ford automobile agency in 1910) in the 311 S. Main location until early 1911, when he left the state and sold to Dr. Vernor M. Spaulding.
Between 1920 and 1925, the building became the home of the Terry Sanitary Bakery. Terry was succeeded in 1931 by the Service Bakery, operated by C.C. Terrell, who remodeled the building. In May of 1936 the Clarion reported that 311 S. Main had been leased to Mrs. Edwin Behm, who held the grand opening of Behm's Dairy and ice cream parlor on May 23, 1936.
In the 1960s, 311 S. Main became home to David's Salon, which occupied the space for nearly three decades. In 1997, Paul R. Haig moved his custom jewelry business into the building and completed an award-winning restoration of the exterior, returning it to its 1918 appearance.
The W. Harvey Greene building celebrates its 127th birthday this year.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Heart of the Hills

Have you ever wondered how the "heart of the hills" motto came to be? If you've been around Rochester for more than a decade, you may recall the red heart that always appeared on the nameplate of the late Rochester Clarion, along with the newspaper's motto, "your hometown newspaper in the Heart of the Hills."

That slogan came about in the autumn of 1940, when the Kiwanis Club was planning to erect gateway welcome signs at the outskirts of the village (these signs still stand on Rochester Road and Walton Boulevard). The Kiwanis Club and village of Rochester sponsored a contest, promoted by the Clarion, for the best slogan to describe the community on the new signs. The winner was 12-year-old Russell Clanahan, whose suggestion "The Heart of the Hills" won him the first prize of $10. The Clarion also took up the slogan and added it to the front page of the newspaper.

Almost seventy years later, the Rochester Clarion is no more, but Russell Clanahan's ten-dollar idea lives on in some of our business and organization names. We have the Heart of the Hills Swim Club, Heart of the Hills Church, Heart of the Hills Barber Shop and even the Heart of the Hills Players.

It was a great idea in 1940, and it's still a great idea today. Here's to the Heart of the Hills!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Making the Elevator Shine

Yesterday's painting bee at the Rochester Elevator was a wonderful community event. More than 100 people turned out to pick up a brush and help to preserve an important piece of Rochester history. Standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder along the building, they all pitched in to put the finish coat of fresh paint on a structure that was once central to the town's agricultural economy. Professional painters supervised and sign painters worked on restoring the advertising on the gable end. Meanwhile, the Lions Club and members of the volunteer fire department served lunch for the workers.

Additional photos may be viewed by visiting the Detroit News coverage of the event, and video coverage from CMN News is available here.

Next time you are in town, be sure to check out the new paint job on the Rochester Elevator, and take a look at the new River Walk signage that was dedicated yesterday as well. The sign located in front of the old railroad depot on East University contains information about the depot as well as the elevator, and includes vintage photographs.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Main Street Stories: The D & C Building

Saturday, June 29, 1940 was a red-letter day in Rochester - literally. It was on that day that the D & C Store, a fixture on Main Street since 1926, opened to the public in its brand new building at 401 S. Main. The sleek Art Deco design complete with the big red D and C letters over the entrance replaced the old Lambertson block which had once housed George Dennis's store and following that, Axford's Sport Shop.

The advertisement for the grand opening of the new store welcomed customers to a "greatly enlarged modern daylight store, complete with new fixtures, sanitary candy department and many new and enlarged lines of merchandise." That candy department was hard to miss, being located right inside the door where it tantalized the kids of the town. On opening day, according to the ad, the special was cream nut fudge for 19 cents a pound.

Other opening specials were souvenir needle books for the ladies and yardsticks for the men. A quart of Aerowax floor wax could be had for 35 cents, and clothes hampers (choice of 3 colors) were on sale for 89 cents.

At first, the D & C Store did not occupy all of the space in the new building at Fourth & Main. The back of the building, with a separate entrance off Fourth Street, housed at various times the Tot to Teen store, Plassey's Market, and Mason's Market. Eventually, the D & C expanded to use the entire space.

Rochester's D & C Store was part of a chain founded in Stockbridge, Michigan in 1926 by brothers James and Paul Dancer and their partner, Glen Cowan (hence the D and C name). Their business expanded to 54 stores across Michigan at its high point, but by 1993, the giant discount retailers had taken their toll and the D & C chain closed its stores, including the one in Rochester.

After the D & C faded into memory, the building was remodeled for restaurant use. The first tenant, opening in late 1994, was America's Pizza Cafe; it was replaced in 1998 by Andiamo's, which currently occupies the space.

OK, readers: most people remember the squeaky wood floors, the candy counter, and maybe the legend of the ghost. What do YOU remember about the D & C?

Photo: A view of the D & C building about 1950.

Monday, June 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

On the 18th of this month, we mark the 63rd anniversary of the day that Rochester's downtown landscape changed forever. On June 18, 1946, the earthen berm around the Western Knitting Mills dam on Paint Creek - already waterlogged by unusually heavy rains - gave way when it was placed under tremendous pressure by the failure of the upstream dam at Rudd's Mill in Orion Township. When the WKM dam failed, it unleashed a torrent of floodwater from the mill pond on to the east side of Rochester.

The Western Knitting Mills built a new factory at Fourth and Water Streets in 1896 (the building is occupied today by the Rochester Mills Brewing Company). The WKM improved the dam and mill pond formerly used to power the old Rochester Woolen Mills which once stood on the site, and in 1901 the company further expanded the pond. It was approximately 12-14 acres in area, and featured a small island which was used by area scout troops for camping exercises. The pond was variously referred to as Chapman Pond or Chapman Lake, as WKM president Charles S. Chapman had an elegant home that stood on a bluff overlooking the water. A 25-foot fall provided power for the knitting mills, but after the knitting operation closed and McAleer Manufacturing took over the building, the dam was no longer used to generate power.

The flood that ensued when the dam gave way on June 18 washed out the New York Central railroad tracks on the east side of town. It also swept up two women who were leaving their Third Street home for higher ground, when the porch of the house collapsed beneath them. One of the women was able to hold on to the post of a child's swing until the fire department could rescue her, but she was unable to help her companion, Mrs. Alice C. Garnett, who was swept away by the current. Mrs. Garnett's body was recovered downstream later that day.

Following the flood, the first recovery efforts concentrated on restoring railroad service on the New York Central line. A train was stranded at Goodison because the tracks in Rochester were washed out. A temporary trestle was fashioned to carry the trains through the flood area.

Paint Creek was unwilling to be forced back into its old channel, and the dam was no longer needed to generate power, so later in the summer of 1946 some filling was done in the lake bottom, and the Chapman mill pond disappeared from Rochester's map forever. Today, the former lake bottom is occupied by the Rochester Post Office, Rochester Hills Public Library, and the Royal Park Hotel. The library stands approximately where “Scout Island” was once located.

Map: This 1908 plat map of Rochester shows the location of the Chapman Pond, lying along the east side of Water Street (hence the street name). Note the location of the Rochester Elevator and today's University Drive, marked for reference.