Friday, February 26, 2010

Survey of Historic Barns To Be Presented

The next meeting of the Rochester Avon Historical Society will feature Oakland Township Historic District Commissioner Janine Saputo, who will present "Local Barns - Fascinating Relics of Bygone Days." Janine's illustrated program will highlight the historic barns identified in a survey conducted in Oakland Township a few years ago.

Barns are becoming more and more uncommon in our area of the state, and those that remain are precious icons of our agricultural heritage. The public is invited to attend this informative program to learn more. The meeting will be held on Thursday, March 4 at 7:00 p.m. in the auditorium of the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne Road.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

X-Rated Rochester

Got your attention, didn''t I? And for those of you who are wondering, "where's the picture that goes with this post?" - you are out of luck. This is a family-friendly blog.

The recent news about the Detroit City Council's efforts to control the number, location and nature of strip clubs in Detroit reminded me of the Rochester area's own struggle with the same issue almost thirty years ago. The controversy involved the Northcrest Cinema at 298 W. Tienken Rd., near the intersection of Rochester & Tienken.

The Northcrest was a conventional movie theater when it opened in 1976, with a 352-seat auditorium less than half the size of the Hills Theatre. Problems developed four years later, after the ownership had changed and the theater began to offer x-rated fare. Avon Township officials made an attempt to shut the Northcrest down, and there were citizen protests complete with picket lines, but the theater prevailed against the initial challenges on First Amendment grounds. The Oakland County Sheriff's Department conducted at least three raids on the business, which successfully defended its right to stage nude "amateur nights" in 1986.

After Avon Township became the city of Rochester Hills, the new city enacted a zoning ordinance in 1987 to control the location of adult entertainment venues that might be proposed in the future. Northcrest Cinema was not located in an area zoned for such use, but had to be grandfathered in because it was established before the ordinance was adopted. The theater owners pressed their luck in 1988, however, when they applied for permits to remodel the building. The proposed work would have removed the theater-style seating in favor of lounge seating and renovated the stage to better accommodate live nude entertainment, in essence converting the theater to an adult nightclub.

City officials denied the permits for the work, and the two sides headed to court once again. The Northcrest owners filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn the city's zoning ordinance, but the city prevailed. After spending nearly ten years in an adversarial relationship with city government, the sheriff's department, and neighbors in the area, the owners gave up and closed the Northcrest Cinema for good in late September 1989. In reporting the news of the theater's demise on its front page, the Rochester Eccentric quoted Rochester Hills mayor Billie Ireland:
I'm delighted -- I would even be happy to send them a bon voyage card. It's been a long fight over the last 10 years to encourage them to leave. I'm extremely delighted they are leaving after so many years. That makes my day.
The following year, the former Northcrest Cinema space was renovated and converted to a child care facility, closing the book on the area's x-rated episode.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vanished Rochester: Detroit Sugar Company

In 1899, the Detroit Sugar Company accepted the proposal of a citizens' committee from Rochester to locate a beet sugar processing plant in the village. Detroit Sugar Company was controlled by Julius Stroh of the Stroh brewing family, and Franklin Walker of the Hiram Walker distillery family, both of whom recognized an opportunity when changes were made to state law that benefited the industry. Beet sugar plants were popping up all over lower Michigan in 1899 – eight of them, in fact – due to the incentive provided by P.A. 48 of 1897, which authorized the state to pay a penny per pound “bounty” to Michigan manufacturers who produced sugar from Michigan grown beets. Coupled with a high tariff that made Cuban sugar more expensive, the sugar bounty offered a highly favorable economic climate for producing beet sugar in Michigan.

The Rochester plant was announced in the Detroit Free Press on January 18, 1899 with a headline that screamed “Rochester Gets It.” Additional news articles quoted Pontiac officials who were lamenting the fact that the county seat had lost out on the factory to sleepy little Rochester, but the Free Press pointed out that Rochester's leaders had “hustled” where Pontiac's had not, and therefore Rochester was reaping the rewards.

The Detroit architecture firm of Spier and Rohns was contracted to built the sugar factory on a site along Paint Creek in the northwest corner of the village, conveniently adjacent to the Michigan Central railroad tracks. A new street, appropriately named Sugar Avenue, was opened between North Main and Ludlow streets to serve the plant, and the interurban line ran a spur from the main track to the plant site. Very quickly, a large and imposing factory was rising against the village skyline.

The Free Press described the plans drawn by the architects in March:
The main building will be 341 by 139 feet in size and of first-class fire-proof construction, the only wood used in the building being in the window frames. The materials to be used are stone, brick, iron and terra cotta. All the floors are to be of Michigan Portland cement and the roof of cement with a covering of asphalt. A gallery will be provided from which visitors will be enabled to see the methods of manufacturing and refining. In addition to the main building there will be an office building, a laboratory 50 by 150 feet in size, and three beet sheds, each 400 feet long, from which the beets will be floated into the factory. The cost of the entire plant will be $500,000.

Sugar beets were harvested and processed in the fall of each year, and the processing season, which typically ran from October to December, was called a “campaign.” Detroit Sugar's 1899 campaign at Rochester was a small one, having gotten a late start because the factory was not quite ready for operation on October 1 as originally planned. The campaign of 1900 was stronger, but after that, a perfect storm of economic factors converged to write a swift death sentence for the new plant.

The rapid demise of Detroit Sugar Company's Rochester factory cannot be assigned to a single cause. Several developments in a short period of time acted in concert to bring the company down. For one, local farmers who had signed on enthusiastically to place their beet fields under contract to Detroit Sugar when the factory was planned began to lose interest fairly quickly. Many had not realized how labor-intensive the cultivation of sugar beets would be, and when they discovered that it required far more effort than putting seed into the ground, they began to drop out of the program. Further, the hilly terrain of Oakland County was less suited to sugar beet cultivation that the the rich, flat, open land of Michigan's Thumb region, which was producing far more product per acre than the Rochester area could. Faced with declining deliveries from local farmers, Detroit Sugar had to cast a wider net for sugar beets, thereby forcing the company to pay higher freight charges and lowering its profit margin. At the same time that the freight expenses were kicking in, another blow was dealt in 1900 when the state's sugar bounty was declared unconstitutional. For smaller plants, such as Rochester's, whose success was predicated fairly heavily upon the revenue from these subsidy payments, the blow was a serious one. The knock-out punch came in 1902, when the federal government significantly reduced the Cuban sugar tariff, allowing the imported sugar product to compete more favorably with domestic sugar.

As a capstone to the entire debacle, Thomas E. Neely of Rochester filed a lawsuit against Detroit Sugar in the spring of 1903. Neely operated a flour mill on Paint Creek, downstream from the sugar factory (near the site of today's Rochester Athletic Club on North Main), and claimed that the sugar company was discharging lime, dirt, sand, refuse, beets and beet tops into the waterway, diminishing the size of his millpond by one half. At trial, Neely was awarded $2010.64 in damages, but Detroit Sugar appealed the case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The high court affirmed the lower court ruling in 1904 and Neely prevailed.

The fifth and final campaign at the Rochester factory closed at the end of 1903. The harvest delivered to the plant in 1904 was too small to make powering up the centrifuges worthwhile, so it was sold to the Mount Clemens Sugar Company for processing and the Rochester plant sat idle. A local organization of farmers made an attempt to guarantee an adequate harvest for 1905 if Detroit Sugar would re-open the plant, but their efforts failed and the factory remained dormant for the 1905 campaign as well. During its five campaigns, the Rochester plant had processed a grand total of 121,000 tons of beets and produced 25.8 million pounds of sugar.

In 1906, Detroit Sugar threw in the towel on the Rochester plant. The machinery was salvaged and sold to a company in Madison, Wisconsin, while the building, only seven years old, was demolished and the brick sold for other construction projects – some local, and others as far away as Flint. The property on which the sugar factory had stood was deeded back to the village of Rochester. Finally, in November 1927, the village fathers officially erased the last reminder of the Detroit Sugar Company when they voted to change the name of Sugar Avenue to Woodward Street, thereby consigning Detroit Sugar to the pages of Vanished Rochester.

This view of the Detroit Sugar Company factory, located on today's Woodward Street, was taken in 1899 and shows the plant still under construction.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bygone Business: The Book Stall

The Book Stall was a children's book store operated by Helen Beatrice Southgate Williams at 436 ½ Main Street from 1964 to 1974. Mrs. Williams, who had taught children's literature at the University of Chicago and Wayne State University, was known in area schools as “The Story Lady,” because she brought her storytelling skills into the classrooms of several local districts.

For fifteen years, Helen Williams operated a book shop called “The Old Red House” from the living room of her home on West Second Street. A monthly book discussion group that she hosted there, entitled “Conversations in Literature,” was so popular that she had to add a second session. In 1964, when the house and property on Second Street were sold for an apartment development, the family relocated and Williams moved her book business to Main Street. Throughout her adult life, Helen Williams shared her passion for literature with children and their parents and teachers, challenging youngsters to use their imaginations and seeking to instill in them a love of reading. The Book Stall closed in 1974 after the death of her husband, Edward, but Mrs. Williams continued to operate an educational consulting business from her home until she was well into her eighties. She also published a literary journal which she titled “The Incessant Trumpet,” from 1985 to 1993.

Helen Southgate Williams died on May 10, 2002 at the age of 97.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Subdivision Stories: Yawkey and Chapman's Addition

Yawkey and Chapman's Addition lies just south of the Rochester city limits, west of Rochester Road, along the Clinton River. The plat for the subdivision was approved by the village council of Rochester in May 1900, with the assumption that the subdivision would become an addition to the village. The boundaries of Rochester were not extended that far south, however, and so Yawkey and Chapman's Addition to the Village of Rochester lies today within the City of Rochester Hills.

The subdivision was developed by William C. Yawkey (1834-1903) with William Clark Chapman (1866-1946) and his wife, Ada Barney Chapman. Yawkey was a Detroit financier who had made his fortune in the lumber trade in the Saginaw Valley and had been one of the founders of the Western Knitting Mills in 1891. William C. Chapman and his brother Charles S. Chapman were partners with Yawkey in the Western Knitting Mills and also served as officers of the company.

Advertisements for lots in the Yawkey & Chapman Addition claimed that they were "the most sightly lots in Oakland County," featuring "good drainage, pure air and wide streets." The lures of easy financing and mass transit options were used to attract buyers:
Why pay rent when you can get a home so easily. Money furnished to parties owning lots on this subdivision who will build. Electric cars go to this addition. Examine the property and make your selection while you can get a good choice.
An interesting historical note about this subdivision is that none of the street names that were specified in the original plat of 1900 are in use today. In August 1950, when the Township of Avon was preparing to purchase street signs, the board of trustees adopted the recommendation of the Oakland County Road Commission to rename 96 roads and streets (or sections thereof) within the township, including all three streets in the Yawkey and Chapman Addition. Today, the street originally platted as Oakland Avenue is known as Cloverport, while the street first known as Crescent Avenue is now Childress Street, and Rose Street is known today as Enid.

Yawkey and Chapman's Addition is 110 years old this spring.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Main Street Stories: Lyman L. Ball Building

The building at 308 S. Main, currently the home of Holland Floral & Gifts, was built during the summer of 1900 by a photographer and sketch artist named Lyman L. Ball. L.L. Ball was born in Milan, Michigan in 1879, the son of Moses and Evaline Wilbur Ball. He brought his photography business to Rochester just before the turn of the twentieth century and operated a studio on East Fourth Street. In 1900, he purchased part of lot 13 on Main Street from Frank Bitters and announced his intention to build. The Rochester Era reported the news thus on May 18th of that year:
L.L. Ball, the artist, is preparing to build a brick block adjoining the Bitters house on the south. It will be 20x60 ft., with his gallery on the second floor. Mr. Ball has a fine trade in his profession and his new gallery will give him much more room and opportunity to extend his business.
By mid-summer, things were taking shape. The Era reported on July 20th that the new building was "going up rapidly and the brick work will be finished in a few days." Two months later, the newspaper told the town that:
The plate glass of L.L. Ball's new brick block has been placed in position. Mr. Ball expects to remove his gallery to the new quarters soon.
The building opened with W.J. Kingsbury's Palace Bakery on the first floor and Ball's photography studio on the second floor. While Ball was establishing his business in Rochester, another man, Lafayette Mead, was doing the same, up the street. Lafe Mead was born in 1868 in Livingston County, Michigan, the son of Dyer W. and Sarah Smith Mead, and grew up in the Brighton area. He married in 1893 and relocated to Wayne County, Ohio, where he worked in a laundry in the village of Orrville. He came to Rochester just after the turn of the twentieth century and opened a laundry business here, with his quarters at first located near what later became the Hills Theatre.

After the bakery departed from Lyman Ball's new building and a short-lived confectionery store followed, Lafayette Mead's Rochester Steam Laundry moved into the first floor. Lyman Ball sold the building to Mead on June 11, 1904, and then moved his photography business to the Northville/Plymouth area, where he spent the rest of his working life and eventually died in 1947. Lafe Mead turned Ball's former studio on the second floor of the building into his personal apartments.

Mead operated the laundry at 308 S. Main until April 1942, when he retired at the age of 72 and sold the business to Detroit investors. In 1948, William L. Holland moved his floral business into the building, and Holland Floral and Gifts has been a landmark business on Main Street for the past sixty-two years. The building's front elevation has been lovingly maintained in its original style, and appears much as it did when Lyman Ball built it 110 years ago this summer.

This ca.1907 photograph of the Lyman Ball building shows it occupied by Lafe Mead's Rochester Steam Laundry.

Monday, February 1, 2010

This Month in Rochester History

This month, we observe the forty-third anniversary of the birth of the City of Rochester. At one minute past midnight on February 13, 1967, the village government of Rochester passed into history and the city government was born. Three weeks earlier, on January 24, 1967, Rochester citizens had voted to incorporate as a city by a margin of 689 to 166, thus ending 98 years of village governance.

The new city council composed of Roy Rewold, John Boeberitz, Thomas Case, Sam Howlett, James Hill, Burdette Lewis and Harold Milton convened on the evening of February 13 to go about the pressing business of setting up the new city government. One of their first tasks was the surgical separation of Avon Township assets from those of the new City of Rochester; specifically, the two municipalities needed to sort out the operation of Avon Park, Mt. Avon Cemetery, and Avon Township Public Library. Ownership and administration of the cemetery and Avon Park (now Rochester Municipal Park) were left with the City of Rochester, while the library remained a township asset, with the city of Rochester contracting for service. The Avon Township Hall, which housed township government offices, was still located at Fourth and Pine streets in Rochester in those days, so the township was in the unusual position of having its governmental offices physically located within another municipality. Similarly, to this day, the Rochester Hills Public Library (formerly Avon Township Public Library) is physically located in the City of Rochester.

Following the change from village to city, Rochester Clarion general manager Jim Sponseller opined in his weekly column that it might have been better to make the change on February 14 rather than February 13. Thirteen was considered an unlucky number by the superstitious, while February 14, Valentine's Day, was a celebration of love and marriage. Sponseller predicted that a "marriage" of Rochester and Avon Township would happen one day, and making the city's anniversary date coincide with Valentine's Day might have been a good omen, of sorts.

The "marriage" idea was floated a couple of times in the decades that followed, but consolidation didn't gain any ground with voters, and Rochester and Rochester Hills have since settled into (mostly) peaceful co-existence.