Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rochester's Role in WWII

The Rochester Avon Historical Society will present the story of the area's participation in World War II at a public program on Thursday, April 1 at 7:00 p.m. Local historians Rod Wilson and Pat McKay will tell the stories of the work that was done at National Twist Drill and McAleer Manufacturing Company, and remember the service of the more than 1,100 men and women from the community who wore the nation's uniform during the war. Among the special guests for the evening will be several World War II veterans who will share their personal stories.

The free program will be held at the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne Road. Everyone is invited to attend.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pioneer Farmsteads: Abner C. Parker Farm

In Rochester Hills, we have only a handful of nineteenth-century farmhouses remaining to bear testimony to the agricultural heritage of the former Township of Avon. The best-known and best-preserved example is probably the Taylor-Van Hoosen farm in Stoney Creek, but if you look closely as you travel through Rochester Hills, you will spot some others. This occasional series will look at our remaining pioneer farmsteads.

The subject of this post is the Abner C. Parker farmstead, which was located on the east side of Crooks Road, north of Hamlin and south of the Christian Hills subdivision. A mid-nineteenth century farmhouse still stands on this property (currently in distressed condition), and is an example of the "upright and a wing" design that was a fairly common house style in its day.

Abner C. Parker was born in Wayne County, New York in 1814 and migrated, with his wife Eleanor, to Oakland County, Michigan about 1840. He purchased several tracts of land in Avon and in other places, but chose to make his home in Avon Township. On February 10, 1857, Parker purchased most of the southeast quarter of section 20, as well as a portion of section 21. This property included a sawmill along the Clinton River, according to the 1872 plat of Avon shown here. Abner Parker was also listed a the proprietor of a sawmill in Avon in the 1863-64 Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory.

Eleanor Parker died in 1864, and was buried in Mt. Avon Cemetery in Rochester. Abner Parker then married Rebecca DeMun, who died in 1880 and was also buried in the Parker plot in Mt. Avon. Abner's third wife, Nancy Smith, whom he married in 1881, survived him, as did several children of his first two marriages. Abner Parker died on July 24, 1884, at the age of seventy, and was buried in Mt. Avon near his first two wives. His children sold the property on Crooks Road to his widow, Nancy Smith Parker, for 900 dollars in September 1884.

As architectural historians date the house on Crooks Road to the mid-nineteenth century, and given that Abner C. Parker lived on the property from 1857 to 1884, it is likely that Parker built the house and that he may have sawed the timbers for its construction on site in the sawmill that he operated along the Clinton River. The next time you pass by this location, take note of this valuable remnant of Rochester Hills' agricultural past.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Subdivision Stories: Tienken Manor Estates

In 1961, the plat for the first Tienken Manor Estates subdivision was approved by the Avon Township board, and streets and houses began appearing on the former dairy farm of John Tienken. The son of German immigrants and Avon pioneers Henry and Meta Tienken, John Tienken was born on his parents' Avon Township farm in 1864. He raised Holsteins on a farm in the northwest quarter of section 9, south of Tienken Road and west of Livernois, from which he supplied milk to the leading dairies of Detroit. Another of his agricultural ventures was the Rochester Creamery Company, a dairymens' cooperative of which he served as a director. For twenty-five years, John Tienken was also a member of the school board of the Ross School, which was located just north and west of his farm on the northeast corner of Tienken and Brewster Roads (the school building, now a private residence, still stands).

John Tienken died in 1944, and his heirs, including daughters Clarabell Kitchen and Etta Curran, eventually sold the farm for development. Tienken Manor Estates No.1 was the first of thirteen subdivisions to open, and the last was Tienken Manor Estates No.13, which was approved in 1974.

The builder of the homes in Tienken Manor was R & C - Robertson Builders of Birmingham, and the company advertised that the subdivision was the perfect mix of natural beauty and modern amenities. Streets curved to accommodate the natural rolling terrain, utilities were placed underground, and a private park was provided for the recreational benefit of the residents. Introductory models were priced at $21,900, including the lot. Today, there are 263 lots in the thirteen Tienken Manor subdivisions.

This photo from the collection of the Rochester Hills Public Library shows the John Tienken dairy farm, looking west along Tienken Road.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Halbach Field

With spring training well underway and shouts of "play ball!" just around the corner, it seems like an appropriate time to look back on the history of Rochester's own baseball ground, Halbach Field.

The village of Rochester acquired the property on which Halbach Field stands, along Woodward St. near Paint Creek, after the Detroit Sugar Company demolished its factory at that location in 1906. Around 1923, local residents started using the vacant land unofficially as a ball park. In the spring of 1925, the village took steps to improve the field by grading, filling and seeding the property. In announcing that the new athletic field was almost ready for use, the Rochester Clarion championed the cause of organized baseball in the village:
Rochester has needed just such a field these many years, and now that same has been secured, it is to be hoped a good ball team may be formulated and maintained as in other years, thereby bringing to our city many visitors from neighboring villages of the county, as it is bound to do.
With the possibility of our business places all closing on Wednesday afternoons during the months of June, July and August, as is now planned, why not organize a first class ball team and hold games each Wednesday for the entertainment of those who now can get away to see a game and at the same time have a tendency to keep our people at home upon these half holidays, in which, as time rolls on our city is sure to benefit therefrom.
The field opened in June 1925, when the Rochester Independents defeated a team from Armada by a score of 4 to 2. In 1936, local civic leader and Detroit Edison supervisor Fred Halbach led a campaign to light the field and and install a grandstand so that evening softball games could be played. Despite the fact that the nation was still struggling through the Great Depression, townspeople contributed nearly $1,000 under Halbach's encouragement to make the improvements to the ball park. The dedication ceremonies were held on June 24, 1936, and in a surprise move during the festivities, the village fathers announced that the facility would be named Halbach Field in honor of Fred Halbach and all of his efforts to improve the field. Unfortunately, Halbach had very little time to enjoy the fruits of his labors, as he died unexpectedly just six months later.

This photo from the collection of the Rochester Hills Public Library shows the dedication ceremonies underway at Halbach Field on June 24, 1936.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Main Street Stories: Charles H. Allen Building

The building at 329 S. Main Street has housed a variety of businesses in its history, but it started out as a saloon. Charles H. Allen, of Pontiac, broke ground for his building in August 1899, and it took shape quickly. The Rochester Era reported on September 15th of that year that "brick has arrived and the laying of the same has commenced on the new Allen block."

Allen then applied to the village council for a liquor license, but was turned down until his bond was guaranteed, two weeks later, by David W. Butts and Philip Lomason. With the legalities satisfied and the building finished, the saloon opened in November 1899 and Allen moved his family from Pontiac to the upstairs rooms in his new business block.

Charles Henry Allen died in 1907 and his building next housed the drug store of Luel H. Smith. The Rochester Variety Store followed Smith's pharmacy, and was purchased in March 1922 by Leslie Aris. When Aris moved his dime store down the block around 1937, a Western Auto Store opened at 329 S. Main. Western Auto relocated to the Tienken Building in the early 1940s, and the Village China Shop replaced it for a time, followed by the Jan Nan Shop. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the building housed Joe's Barber Shop and a succession of beauty parlors. Today, the former Allen saloon at 329 S. Main is the home of the Sole Sisters shoe and accessory boutique.

The Charles H. Allen block celebrates its 111th birthday this summer.

This view of the Charles H. Allen block from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier shows how the building looked about 1961, when it housed a barber and beauty shop.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Vanished Rochester: The Haven

In the summer of 1926, industrialist Fred Marvin Shinnick began construction of a large country estate in Avon Township (now Rochester Hills), just west of the village of Rochester. Shinnick, who was born in Detroit in 1877, was secretary-treasurer of the Briggs Manufacturing Company, which during the period between the world wars was the nation's largest independent producer of automobile bodies. He also owned and operated the Rochester Dairy during the twenties.

Shinnick and his wife, the former Lillian Graham, located their new home on the former Manwaring farm on the north side of Walton Boulevard near Old Perch Road, and named it “The Haven.” The Rochester Era described the property for its readers in 1928:
The very handsome home completed a year a half ago stands back a full quarter of a mile from the road and is reached by a winding driveway. Built of red brick in old English style, it stands in spacious grounds containing 70 acres in all. At the back of the house is a lovely rock-garden and the ground slopes down to a fine natural pool with delightful woods and a ravine yet farther on. In front of the landscaping is still incomplete, although most attractive even in its present stage. Mr. and Mrs. Shinnick and their children lately returned from their respective schools, are all at home at present to enjoy their lovely surroundings.
The Clarion called The Haven “palatial,” and estimated that the cost of its construction exceeded $250,000. The home was lavishly appointed and even featured a two-manual Skinner pipe organ specifically designed for the space. (Pipe organ fans can click here to read the specs for the Shinnick instrument, Skinner op.599).

In 1932, according to Fred Shinnick's obituary, he and his wife Lillian decided to convert their home into a private psychiatric hospital. Their reasons were not stated, but the economic realities of the Great Depression were more than likely a major factor. Large estates were costly to operate and many passed out of private hands or were converted to other uses during the difficult Depression years.

Shinnick operated The Haven Sanitarium until his retirement in 1938, at which time his son, Graham, took over as hospital administrator. The Haven was known for treating well-to-do patients whose identities and privacy were carefully guarded. Rumors swirled that some of Hollywood's famous stars were numbered among its patients over the years.

There was an air of mystery surrounding The Haven, and children were spooked by it. Occasional news stories, such as this one from the Rochester Era in March, 1938, only served to increase the interest:
On Sunday, Sam Howlett was called to The Haven, west of Rochester on the Pontiac road, to participate in a hunt for a lunatic, who had escaped and fled across the fields fifteen minutes previously. Shortly after the call, police found the broken bonds which the prisoner had apparently cut with a hedge clipper in a garage back of the sanitorium and had vanished. While Chief Howlett was searching the section a report was phoned in to Deputy Ted Gunn that the fugitive was entering Rochester in the vicinity of Woodward street. Gunn immediately rushed to that street and seized him. Officials of The Haven conducted the patient to Receiving Hospital, Detroit, believing him too dangerous to keep at the sanitorium.
Notice the vocabulary that was used in those days: the individual is referred to as a “lunatic,” a “prisoner” and a “fugitive,” but not until the end of the article is he called a “patient.” No wonder the local kids were spooked by The Haven!

Not all of The Haven's publicity was negative, however. In 1949, Rochester made the magazine section of newspapers throughout the country when a feature appeared describing the “Rochester Plan,” a partnership between the school district and The Haven to provide mental health services to local students. The article by Robert Goldman, entitled “Rochester Counsels Its Children,” reported in its lead paragraph that the claim to fame for the quiet little village of Rochester, Michigan was that “it is the smallest town in the United States boasting a full-fledged psychological counseling program.”

The Haven operated as a psychiatric hospital for thirty-six years, but closed in 1968 due to declining occupancy and rising operating costs. The once grand Shinnick home sat vacant thereafter, and owing to its location so far off the main road, became a magnet for squatters, vandals and teens looking for a place to party. The caretaker and the Oakland County Sheriff's Department fought an ongoing battle to run the intruders off the property, but despite their efforts the old house was torn apart piece by piece.

Late in the evening of November 2, 1973, the Rochester Fire Department was called to a fire at The Haven. They found numerous problems in fighting the blaze and sounded two more alarms, answered by the Brooklands and Avondale departments. Fire department historian William A. Cahill recorded that the nearest hydrant was on the south side of Walton, so fire fighters had to lay 1,200 feet of hose to reach the house, and cars on Walton hampered their efforts by running over the hose line. Further, the heavy slate roof on the Tudor-revival house created an oven effect in the building. A large crowd of gawkers and onlookers added to the difficulties.

The end of The Haven came when the fire chewed away the roof supports and sent the heavy slate crashing down. Near dawn on November 3, after 40,000 gallons of water had been poured onto the blaze, the house was nothing but a smoldering ruin.

A few years after the fire, the property was redeveloped and became the Grosse Pines subdivision, but one reminder of The Haven still stands in testimony to the property's former use. The ledge rock wall and gates that adorned the Walton Boulevard frontage of The Haven property are yet visible among the tall pines at the entrance to the subdivision.

This postcard view of The Haven shows the ledge rock wall that is still visible today along Walton Boulevard.

Monday, March 1, 2010

This Month in Rochester History

One of the Detroit area newspapers once ran a photo feature about Rochester's Walnut Boulevard, calling it an "avenue of churches," and noting that the Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Nazarene meeting places were located within a two-block section of the street. The typical "small town" portrait that the newspaper painted had been true for decades, but as the population of post-war Rochester grew and brought more people into the pews, the Walnut Boulevard churches strained to accommodate them. Sixty-two years ago this month, on March 28, 1948, the first of those congregations began the process of moving away from Walnut Boulevard to a more spacious location.

The members of St. John Lutheran Church, who had been meeting in a converted residence on the corner of Second and Walnut since 1935, had outgrown their quarters and voted to build a new church and school facility. Three years earlier, the congregation had purchased the former Oscar Brewster property at the corner of Helen and Fifth (later University Drive), including a residence and barn. A new building was planned for this site which included a sanctuary, two classrooms, a fellowship hall, kitchen and office spaces, at a total cost of $130,000. The former Brewster residence was used as a parsonage.

Although excavation of the basement and laying of water and sewer pipes had already begun, the congregation chose to conduct a ceremonial groundbreaking on Easter Sunday, March 28, 1948. Two years later, construction was complete and the facility was dedicated. The building that was started in 1948 is still a part of the St. John campus today, although it is now "surrounded" by additions made in 1958, 1967, 1986 and 2001 and looks much different that it did in the accompanying photograph.

St. John was the first to outgrow Walnut Boulevard, but not the last. St. Philip's moved in 1951, St. Paul's in 1959, First Congregational in 1960, First Church of the Nazarene in 1965, St. Andrew's in 1969, and First Baptist in 1973.