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.


  1. As a relative of Peniah, I found this very interesting. Thanks for writing it!

  2. City of Rochester – Don Jagoda 2013 Mayors’ Arts & Culture Award Recipient
    Mr. Jagoda has invested his time, financial resources, expertise and energy in repurposing and restoring part of the Lysander Woodward Estate
    147 North Lane, Rochester MI 4830 This is a must see place!!!