Saturday, April 24, 2010

Everything New is Old Again

This past week the restored front of the business block at 415-417 S. Main was unveiled, after having been covered by scaffold for several months. Originally built by Louis E. Palmer in 1896-97 to house his jewelry business, the building was later the home of the House of Custom Color for about three decades. Fifty years ago, the building was remodeled and a faux-Colonial front replaced the original. In more recent years, the front sported plain siding, which completely covered the six windows and architectural details that once adorned it.

The new "old" storefront that we see here is the design of John Dziurman Architects, Ltd., and is only the latest in a series of facade improvements on Main Street that are returning downtown to its architectural roots. This building looks great, and I think Louis Palmer would be proud.

If you would like to know more about the historic buildings of downtown Rochester, join the Rochester Avon Historical Society for the first downtown walking tour of the season on Thursday, April 29 at 7:00 p.m. The tour will meet outside the Rochester Mills Brewery at Fourth and Water Streets (look for the man with the top hat). Wear your walking shoes, and plan to spend about two hours visiting sites, hearing stories and looking at historic photos. Cost is $5 per person, $3 for students and seniors (children under 12 free). The walking tours are a great way to get some exercise, meet your neighbors, and learn about the community's rich history.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Main Street Stories: Edward S. Barnes Building

The building at 309 S. Main began its life as a jewelry shop. Edward S. Barnes broke ground for his new store in the fall of 1903, and according to the Rochester Era, opened his doors to customers in time for Christmas:
E.S. Barnes has his neat new store nearly ready for business and will open next week with a fine new line of jewelry and be ready for the holiday trade.
Barnes was born in New Jersey in 1857, the son of Samuel and Ann Moore Barnes. He came with his parents to Avon Township and was employed for a number of years at the Barnes Paper Mill. He also learned telegraphy and worked as a telegraph operator and agent for the Michigan Central Railroad. In 1903, he decided to leave his former occupation and go into the jewelry business, and continued in that line until 1925.

In that year, Edward S. Barnes sold out to Frank M. Deschaine, who briefly continued the jewelry store. In 1926, Deschaine sold to A.D. Brown, who ran a paint and wallpaper store in the location. In 1929, Lloyd E. Hanna opened his barbershop at 309 and conducted it there for many years. By 1950, the building was home to Cameron's Barber Shop and the Clara-Ann Beauty Salon, and in 1953 it once again housed a jewelry store when Lloyd Lake opened his business there. Lake Jewelers was a fixture at 309 S. Main until the mid-1980s, and had the longest tenure in the building of any business to date, including Barnes himself. After Lloyd Lake's retirement, the building housed a number of businesses including Charlotte's Boutique and the current occupant, Legends Of Time Native American Gallery.

The Edward S. Barnes building celebrates its 107th birthday this year.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Subdivision Stories: North Hill

One of the biggest post-war housing developments in the then-village of Rochester was the North Hill Subdivision, approved in 1955. Located west of Rochester Road and south of Tienken, the subdivision lay partially in the village and partially in the Township of Avon. At the time, there was a huge demand for affordable housing for veterans seeking to relocate from the city to the suburbs, and in particular, housing north of the village was in demand because of its desirable proximity to National Twist Drill, the community's leading employer during the post-war era.

North Hill was planned as a $7 million dollar development which included 220 affordable ranch homes and a 160,000 square foot shopping center to be anchored by a Wrigley supermarket. The project was developed by Sam Frankel, executive vice-president of Wrigley's Stores, Inc., and Richard Reitman of the Beverly Construction Company. The homes were marketed by the Rose Hill Realty Company of Detroit.

The Rochester Clarion described the plans for the layout of the subdivision in May of 1955:
Taking advantage of the natural rolling countryside, the builder is erecting the homes on curvilinear paved streets, with each street elevated about the other to give the hillside community the striking appearance of an outdoor stadium.
Buyers were given their choice of ten possible exterior designs. Descriptions of the interior features and finishes give a glimpse of what was attractive to homeowners at the time:
In the spacious kitchen, knotty pine paneling forms a backdrop for the dining area. The large-sized cabinets are also finished in knotty pine with hammered copper hardware.
Buyers are given a choice of formica or tile counter tops and a choice of color in the floor linoleum which also covers the grade landing and basement stairs.
A shadow box above the basement staircase provides and unusual decorative effect, and a farm door at the grade landing prevents children from falling down the basement stairs.
A folding door separates the kitchen from the large living-dining room. A shadow box heightens the attractiveness of the vestibule entrance to the living room.
Apparently, these amenities were more than enough to bring in the buyers. The new homes in North Hill were priced from $15,690, and the terms were $790 down for veterans, $2190 for civilians. On the first weekend that the models were open in May of 1955, over 4,600 people visited the development and over half a million dollars of business was transacted in two days' time.

The North Hill subdivision celebrates its 55th birthday this year.

This advertisement for the North Hill subdivision ran in the Rochester Clarion in May of 1955.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The River Gang

When I was growing up, my family lived in the Albertson Addition and my playground was the Rochester Municipal Park. During our pre-teen years, we neighborhood kids would enter the park from the foot of Griggs St. with considerable trepidation. We had been told stories about a mysterious group of older youths who styled themselves the "River Gang." Their hideout, local wisdom warned, was on the north bank of Paint Creek, and we dared not trespass on their "territory" for fear of being beaten up - or worse.

We saw evidence of someone's presence along the river, in the form of graffiti and discarded beer cans, but we never came into personal contact with anyone who claimed to be a member of the much-feared River Gang. I began to wonder whether they were just the product of our collective imaginations, or perhaps an urban - make that suburban - legend. Then came a front-page story in the Rochester Clarion on September 28, 1972, in which city officials not only named the notorious River Gang as a serious problem in the park, but gave the group its fifteen minutes of fame:
Boys and girls who call themselves the River Gang have been joined by older teens and young adults from here, and from Royal Oak, Warren and Utica and elsewhere. They hide in the dark brush covered park "natural area" for all night parties in disregard of the park closing hour.
The thick brush easily within view of the Municipal Building hides a rotten, abused clearing and jungle stretch of Paint Creek bank that is said to be unsafe for women and children even in many bright daylight hours, and worse in the evenings and pre-dawn! Well worn paths lead in and out, making capture of the park closing hour violators next to impossible.
From 30 feet away, the nighttime miscreants cannot be seen, but nearby residents testify that loud obscenities and foul language are heard at distances of a half block from the spot.
The hidden place is littered with items of clothing, moldy blankets, beer empties and broken glass. There is evidence that park furniture and picnic tables have been dragged away and smashed to bits for firewood.
The article went on to say that city officials planned to evict the River Gang from its hangout by removing the undergrowth that screened its hiding place, and by turning the river bank into a recreation area that could be used by all. This was done, and the River Gang faded into oblivion. I took this photo a few days ago in the park and there is little resemblance to the bank as it appeared in the River Gang's outlaw days.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bygone Business: Behm's Dairy

On May 23, 1936, Mrs. Edwin J. Behm held the grand opening of Behm's Dairy and Ice Cream Parlor at 311 S. Main St. The Behms had located their dairy business in Rochester in 1924, when they began operating a creamery in a small block building on N. Pine St., between Griggs and Albertson. When they expanded to Main St. in 1936, their retail store quickly became a popular place for teens and was a mainstay of the downtown for twenty-five years.

By 1961, Behm's Dairy was forced to leave 311 S. Main because the building had been sold and partially condemned. The new owners planned to demolish the rear portion of the building (which had been a furniture warehouse back in the days when the structure house a furniture and undertaking business), install a new front facade, and locate a gift store there.

The Behms decided to move their business to Port Austin, but they left Rochester with heavy hearts. In an interview with the Rochester Clarion in March of 1961, Mrs. Behm expressed her regret at saying farewell to the estimated 250 children per day that she served in her store, after telling them that the store would close on or about April 15 in that year.
'You never saw such bawling as when we told them about it,' Mrs. Behm said. 'They all sat here and cried.'
Did you hang out at Behm's Dairy? If you did, what was your favorite item on the menu?

This bottle cap from a Behm's Dairy product container is from the collection of Rod and Susan Wilson.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This Month in Rochester History

April is the month in which we mark the anniversary of the passing of a mass transit system that served Rochester for more than a generation - the Detroit United Railway.
The D.U.R. was organized in 1900 from a collection of smaller street railway lines operating in the city of Detroit. In 1901, the D.U.R. acquired a number of suburban lines, including the Detroit, Rochester, Romeo & Lake Orion Railway, or D.R.R. & L.O, which had laid track into Rochester in 1899. The D.R.R. & L.O. had been responsible for the first bridge from South Hill to the foot of Main Street, in the form of a wooden trestle built to carry the streetcars into town.

The D.R.R. & L.O. had also established a car barn and powerhouse in Rochester and was one of the principal employers in the village. When the D.U.R. took over, the company extended its line to Flint and beyond, and the Rochester powerhouse produced electricity for the entire Flint Division.

The D.U.R. was well-used and provided cheap and convenient mass transportation, but it fell victim to the rise of the automobile within a generation. As more people began to enjoy the freedom of driving their own cars, ridership on the interurban line decreased accordingly. At the same time, trucks were beginning to offer more flexible, cheaper freight service. The D.U.R. also had considerable legal trouble with its franchises within the city of Detroit, and by the mid-1920s, all of these factors had converged to bring the line to its knees financially. The stock market crash and resulting Great Depression dealt the final blow.

As far as Rochester was concerned, the end of the streetcar line came on April 25, 1931, the last day on which regular scheduled service was offered. Soon thereafter, the remaining rolling stock on the line clattered its way out of town. The trestle was dismantled and salvaged, the tall chimney at the former powerhouse was dynamited, and the streetcar era in Rochester closed for good, 79 years ago this month.