Saturday, June 26, 2010

Subdivision Stories: Sprague's Addition

Sprague's Addition to the village of Rochester was laid out in 1877, making it the third addition to the town's original 1826 plat. The property was owned by Dr. Rollin Sprague and his wife Adaline L. Cooper Sprague, who had made their home in the village after their marriage in 1839. The Spragues built and operated the "Old Stone Store" at the corner of Third and Main, the building we know today as the Home Bakery. They owned for a time a farm on South Hill that was more widely known in later years as the Butts Farm, and maintained a grand residence in the village, on a forty acre farm they owned on the north side of Fifth St. (now University Drive), just west of Main.

After Rollin Sprague died in 1872, his widow subdivided and sold most of her property on West Fifth St. The subdivision fronted Fifth St. and extended west from the family residence to Madison Ave., while Pine and Oak streets were extended northward through the new plat, ending at Sixth St. Lots in Sprague's Addition went on the market in May of 1878, and new houses were soon springing up on the former family farm.

Sprague's Addition celebrates its 133rd birthday this year.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Historical Society Launches Facebook Page

Rochester Avon Historical Society has just launched a Facebook page. If you are a Facebook user and you would like to be kept up-to-date about RAHS activities and upcoming events, click here to visit the Society's Facebook site and click the "Like" button. You'll automatically receive news, interesting links, and announcements about programs, walking tours, and other events. If you don't have a Facebook account, you can still read the page by clicking on the link above (you just won't see the automatic updates or have the opportunity to post Facebook comments). You will also find all the RAHS news on the Society's web site, located here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Main Street Stories: Rollin Sprague Stone Store

The Rollin Sprague Stone Store at 300 S. Main Street, built in 1849, is the oldest commercial building in the city of Rochester, and is one of our community's greatest historical treasures. Thanks to a recently rediscovered tin type image of the building, shown here courtesy of the Melanie and Janet Swords Family Archive and with their generous permission, we have wonderful photographic evidence of the building's use and appearance about 1878.

Dr. Rollin Sprague ran the business as a grocery and general store until his death in 1872, and then his widow, Adaline L. Cooper Sprague, continued to operate it on her own until at least 1875. An 1875 Michigan gazetteer lists Adaline Sprague as the proprietor of the store, but the 1877 directory lists the business as Barnes & Goodison, the name seen in this tin type image. According to an 1891 history of Oakland County, partners William H. Barnes and Samuel C. Goodison started out as grocers, but "in 1878 added a stock of clothing, and subsequently one of boots and shoes, hats, caps and gents' furnishing goods."

The exact date that the Barnes & Goodison partnership ended is unknown. Samuel Goodison died in 1897, and Anna Barnes Goodison, his widow, continued to operate the store on her own until at least 1904. Later occupants of the Rollin Sprague building included the Frantz Cafe in 1925, a Hudson-Essex automobile dealership in 1929, and the Oakland Dairy in the 1930s. By 1949, the building housed Mac's Bakery, and by 1953, it was known as the Home Bakery.

The Rollin Sprague Stone Store is noteworthy for its coursed cobblestone construction, a technique not well known in Michigan at the time. An article published in the Rochester Clarion on May 18, 1923 gave the history of the Sprague family in Rochester and had this to say about the construction of the store:
Another memorial [to the family] is the stone store at the corner of Main and Third streets. This was erected seventy years ago at least and was occupied by the doctor as a sort of general store, wherein drugs, groceries, dry goods, etc., were handled. The structure itself is a wonder in some particulars and especially in view of the fact that it has withstood the wear of all these years and is today intact so far as the walls are concerned. Of course, this was built before cement was thought of as a possibility in this section. Quick lime was used, the cobblestone selected from the farm on the South Hill and the walls laid by an Englishman by the name of Thomas Anskom. Accounting for its solidity at this time, builders are inclined to think he must have had some process now unknown in the use of lime.
In the summer and fall of 1899, the stone store was remodeled. A new plate glass window was installed in front, and an ornate cornice was added to crown the building. In 1995, the storefront was restored to its appearance at the time of the 1899 renovation, which is why the 1899 date appears on the front of the building today.

The Rollin Sprague Stone Store was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, and celebrates its 161st birthday this year.

This image is provided courtesy of the Melanie and Janet Swords Family Archive and is used here with their permission.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Vanished Rochester: Smart's Auction

In the days before eBay, live auction sales were the usual method of disposing of goods and property, and sale barns were the place to seek an afternoon's entertainment, even if you weren't buying or selling. In the Rochester area, we had Smart's Auction, located on the north side of Tienken Road, just west of Rochester Road. Langley and Mildred Smart bought the 27 acre parcel, which included a farmhouse and five barns, in 1939. The previous owner, L.E. Pain, had been in the livestock auction business in the Rochester area for a number of years, and after selling to the Smarts, he agreed to stay on and run the livestock auction for them.

After World War II ended, farms in Avon Township were being subdivided to provide housing, and the livestock auction business was declining, so the Smarts transitioned their business to estate liquidation and antiques. As they became more and more interested in taking buying trips to acquire antiques and import items, they leased out their auction barn. Finally, Smart's Sale Barn closed in 1978 and the property was sold for development.

My mother has fond memories from her childhood of attending sales at Smart's with her own mother. She remembers the fun of sorting through a miscellaneous box lot, purchased for a dollar or less, to look for buried treasures. Did you visit Smart's auction? What was the most interesting item you ever bought there?

This photo of a sign from Smart's Auction is from the collection of Rod and Susan Wilson.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pioneer Farmsteads: Lysander Woodward Residence

Have you ever driven up North Main Street and wondered about the stately Greek Revival home standing among the pines on the west side of the street at the city limits? This building, at 1385 North Main, is the former Lysander Woodward residence, and it is significant for its historic association with one of Rochester's most notable citizens, and with events that put Rochester “on the map” and shaped its economic history.

Lysander Woodward came to Michigan from the state of New York in 1838. He married Peninah Axford Simpson in Rochester in 1843, and the couple settled in the small village. Woodward purchased eighty acres in section 10 of the Township of Avon in 1844; the property lay west of Main and south of today's Tienken Road. This land was the beginning of a farm that would eventually grow to more than 300 acres, and was also the location of the Woodward family home.

The Woodward residence was likely built between 1845 and 1847, making it among the oldest – and possibly, the oldest – building within the city limits of Rochester. It even predates the Home Bakery building, our oldest commercial structure, which was built in 1849. Lysander and Peninah Woodward lived in the house for the rest of their lives and there reared their five children - including the renowned scientist and mathematician, Dr. Robert Simpson Woodward.

Lysander Woodward was a strong advocate of modern farming methods, and made his own farm and home a showplace to promote them. He was active in the Oakland County Agricultural Society and served for a time as its president. In 1867, his farm was one of three “model farms” awarded monetary prizes by the society, and a lengthy description of the Woodward operation, including the house, was published in the report of the secretary of the state board of agriculture in that year. Interestingly, the judges of the contest agreed that the farm was modern and prosperous and they also liked the house, but they felt that the yard was too small for such a grand mansion and recommended that it be expanded.

Local politics attracted Lysander Woodward in 1856 when he was elected Supervisor of Avon Township. He would go on to hold a number of public offices in his career, including justice of the peace, Oakland County Treasurer, member of the Michigan House of Representatives, and chairman of the Michigan constitutional convention of 1873. He also made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor of Michigan on the Greenback ticket in 1878.

His greatest legacy for Rochester, however, was Lysander Woodward's role in bringing the first railroad line through the village. He worked tirelessly to secure local funding and right-of-way for the Detroit & Bay City Railroad, which laid its track through Rochester in 1872. The railroad brought rapid transportation and communication to a sleepy village, and with it the economic prosperity that arose from a reliable connection to the outside world. Soon after the rails arrived, Rochester had a successful newspaper, a grain elevator, ready access to Detroit markets, and booming business. Lysander Woodward was named the first president of the Detroit & Bay City Railroad, which soon became part of the larger Michigan Central Railroad system.

When Lysander Woodward died in January 1880, his funeral was probably unlike any that had been seen in Rochester to that point – or possibly since. The Rochester Era reported:
The house was not only crowded, but many who could not get in gathered upon the outside, all anxious to pay their last respects to the honored dead. A beautiful casket with plate glass sides and top, and lined with white satin, contained all that remained of our respected townsman.
. . .
The cortege following the remains to the grave was nearly half-a-mile in length and every manifestation of sorrow was expressed upon all sides as it slowly moved towards our beautiful Cemetery, where all that was mortal of Lysander Woodward was tenderly laid to rest.
This funeral took place in the dead of winter – mid-January – and the cortege comprised horse-drawn carriages and people on foot, traveling the distance from the house on North Main near Tienken to Mount Avon Cemetery. That Lysander Woodward was held in high esteem by the citizens of Rochester is evident from this description.

The house at 1385 North Main remained in the control of the Woodward family until 1933, when the last of the Woodward children, Eva Woodward Parker, died and left her estate in trust for the support of her faithful employee, Mary Welters. Welters, an African-American woman, had been employed as a housekeeper by Eva Parker for twenty-eight years, and was affectionately known as “Aunt Mary” by people in the village. Parker's will stipulated that the income from her trust be used to support Welters for the rest of her life, after which a cash bequest would be paid to her nephew, and then the residue of her estate would be used to fund the construction of a new public library building for the community. Welters died in 1947, and in 1949, construction of the new library building was begun.

In the years since the death of Eva Woodward Parker, the Lysander Woodward house has been converted from a single-family dwelling into an apartment house, and some additions have been made to the rear of the building to furnish additional apartment suites. The original house structure is now approximately 163 years old and has watched the passing scene from its perch on North Main since James K. Polk was president of the United States. It has watched as Rochester evolved from a tiny hamlet into a thriving community and has seen traffic on the street before it change from horse and wagon to interurban streetcar to automobile. Next time you pass by on North Main Street, be sure to take time to admire the Lysander Woodward house.

This postcard view of the Lysander Woodward house was taken about 1915, during the time when Woodward's daughter, Emma Woodward Scott, and her husband were living there.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

This Month in Rochester History

The Township of Avon (now Rochester Hills) established its first public park during the Great Depression, when federal funding to accomplish the work was available through New Deal programs. A fourteen-acre portion of the old John C. Day farm, lying along Paint Creek in the northwest section of the village of Rochester, was acquired for recreation purposes and opened to the public in the summer of 1935 as Avon Park (today's Rochester Municipal Park, off Ludlow St.).

The following summer, in June 1936, Rochester's Boy Scout Troop 39 undertook a project to beautify the new park and honor the twelve young men from the community who had earned the rank of Eagle Scout since 1927, the year in which Allen Wilson had become Rochester's first Eagle. During a Camporee program at the park on June 12, 1936, the boys of Troop 39, led by Luther Green, planted a pine grove with twelve young saplings - one pine tree in honor of each of the following Rochester Eagle Scouts:
  • Allen R. Wilson (1927)
  • Cecil O'Dell (1928)
  • Ralph Easterle (1929)
  • Marvin Terry (1930)
  • Floyd Cross (1930)
  • Maynard Aris (1930)
  • Kenneth Fraser (1930)
  • Donald B. Davidson (1932)
  • William Aris (1932)
  • Martin Marzolf (1932)
  • Morley Russell (1935)
  • Howard Lamphier (1936)
The pine grove still stands, east of the Community House, along the bank of Paint Creek. The little saplings that were planted 74 years ago this month are huge, tall trees now, and there are few people left who remember the ceremony with which they were placed. The story about the Eagle Scout pine grove faded into the pages of history until the summer of 2007, when the Rochester Avon Historical Society marked the trees with the names of the twelve original Eagle Scouts. The next time you visit the Rochester Municipal Park and walk among these pines, be sure to look up and take notice of the name plaque on each tree.