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]

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

This month, we look back thirty-eight years at the Grand Trunk derailment accident of July 9, 1971. At that time, Grand Trunk Western's No. 416 ran a daily route from Pontiac to Port Huron with two locomotives, usually hauling new GMC trucks, Pontiac cars, and automobile parts. The 416 normally passed through Rochester early in the morning, around 7 a.m. Upon arrival in Port Huron, the GTW crew would yard their train and make the return to trip to Pontiac in the afternoon as No. 415, passing through Rochester again around 1 p.m.

Fellow historian Robert Michalka tells me that he was working at the Rochester Paper Mill on Friday, July 9, 1971. He recalls that he was outside the building about 6:55 a.m. when he heard No. 416 start the signal for the Diversion Street grade crossing. Bob's attention was caught by the fact that the signal was never completed. Wondering what was amiss, he looked up the tracks in the direction of the depot and saw a dark cloud of what he thought was smoke. Actually, he was seeing a large cloud of dust and debris from the abrupt demolition of the Grand Trunk depot, which stood on the north side of the tracks, west of the South Hill bridge. No. 416 had derailed, knocking the office part of the depot forward, destroying the freight house section, and scattering its lading of new cars and trucks across the yard.

The second unit of the train's locomotive and thirteen freight cars had left the tracks; the train comprised fifty-six cars in total. On this particular day, the GTW crew consisted of engineer Carl Neimi, fireman David R. Butler, head brakeman Ken Hudson, flagman Bill Olinek and conductor Bill Byram. Butler recalled that he heard and felt the train's brakes go into emergency mode as they passed through Rochester; he and engineer Neimi looked back to see a huge cloud of dust as the train abruptly stopped.

Investigators later determined that a sharp flange on a wheel on the fourteenth car in the train had split the west house track switch (the track that ran behind the depot over to the east switch at Diversion Street). Fortunately for the station agent, he was not yet on duty at the time that No. 416 came into town, so he missed being part of the accident, and most likely death, by only minutes. There were no injuries or deaths among the train crew of GTW No. 416, nor any civilian injuries. The only fatality was that of the station agent's German shepherd dog, which lived in the freight house. The dog's lifeless body was recovered from the station debris.

Repair crews worked through the weekend to clear the twisted metal and wreckage of the depot from the Grand Trunk tracks. The depot, effectively reduced to a pile of kindling, was never rebuilt, and the track was abandoned by the Canadian National railway in 1998. Today, the former rail bed is part of the Clinton River Trail.

I am indebted to Robert Michalka for sharing his recollections of this event with me, and for putting me in touch with former GTW trainman Charles H. Geletzke, Jr., who marshaled his own sources in the industry and contributed most of the first-hand detail included in this article.

Photos: This photo of the Grand Trunk Western depot at Rochester was taken by Charles H. Geletzke, Jr. in September 1963. The photo showing the cleanup of the accident debris underway was taken by Sheldon Mowat.