Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rochester's Oldest Business

Have you visited Rochester's oldest business lately? If you do, be sure to extend a "Happy Birthday" wish to the Rochester Elevator, celebrating the 130th anniversary of its founding this year. In the fall of 1880, brothers Charles K. and Albert G. Griggs opened their new grain elevator on the corner of Water St. and Fifth (now University Drive) and began shipping their first crops on the Detroit and Bay City Railroad line. The elevator has been in continuous operation at the same location ever since, making it the oldest business within the city limits of Rochester. Several owners have run the elevator during that span of time - although fewer than you would probably imagine - and the current owner has been at the helm for over half a century.

The Rochester Elevator is a downtown icon - one cannot help but notice the colorful advertising on the side of the building facing University Drive - and it has seen a lot of Rochester's history pass before it during the last century and a third. Think about it - Chester A. Arthur was President of the United States when the elevator first opened its doors! Happy Birthday, Rochester Elevator!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Train Wreck at Rochester

Do you remember when the trains rumbled through Rochester? Growing up just a couple of blocks from the tracks, I was often rocked to sleep at night by the hypnotic clickety-clack of the cars passing through the north side of town. Rochester's last line was abandoned in 1998, and now we have peaceful recreational trails running along the former railroad beds.

In earlier days, however, it wasn't so peaceful with up to forty trains a day running through the village on both lines. Rochester also had its fair share of railroad-related accidents, as this story from the Pontiac Daily Press of September 21, 1906 tells us:

Engine Turns Turtle In Lake at Rochester

Brakes Fail to Work at Right Time and Locomotive Jumps Track

Rochester, Sept. 21 -- An unusual accident occurred near the depot here on the Michigan Central railroad yesterday morning. A heavily loaded stock train, southbound, was switching and being made up on the side track leaving the main track clear for the northbound passenger, which was about due. The rails were in such a slippery condition, owing to the slight rainfall in the morning, that the engineer of the freight found it difficult to manage the heavy train on the sharp grade at that place, and whistled for the brakes to be applied. For some inexplainable reason the brakes did not have the desired effect, and the engine with reversed levers was forced down the grade by the weight of the loaded cars. Although the engine was one of the largest on this line, being built with three huge drive wheels on each side, it was impossible to check the speed acquired by the cars while descending. Near the bottom of the grade, however, the brakes must have suddenly taken hold, as the huge engine suddenly jumped the track and turned turtle, plunging down a three foot embankment and into Chapman Lake, where it lay hissing in about four feet of water.

A peculiar feature of the accident is that beside the engine and tender, none of the other cars were thrown from the track, and also that the main line was not in the least obstructed to traffic. Both the engineer and fireman had barely time to jump clear of the falling locomotive as it became uncoupled from the train proper and pitched from the rails, careening dangerously over the steep embankment, before turning over to the lake where it lies upside down, the short smoke stack dug into the mud.

Need Large Wreckers
A wrecking crew was at once rushed to the spot, but found that the heavy engine, which weighs in the neighborhood of 40,000, would require more than an ordinary wrecking train carries to be pulled from its present watery resting place. The accident occurred yesterday morning about 11 a.m. and up to this noon, the huge engine was still in Chapman Lake, where it probably will be until some sort of a contrivance can be rigged up to lift it from the lake. The engine, except for a few minor damages, can probably be easily repaired, as the soft bottom of the lake served to break the force of the plunge.

Quite a spectacle that must have made for the citizens of Rochester, 104 years ago this week!

This 1908 plat map of the east side of the village shows how close the railroad line ran to the edge of Chapman Lake.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Vanished Rochester: Woodward School

In the 1920s, the children of the village of Rochester were served by the school district known as Avon Township District #5. This school district operated two buildings along Wilcox St. between Fourth and Fifth (now University Drive), where all students from primary grades through high school were housed. But by the mid-1920s, however, enrollment pressure on the district was so great that plans were made to build another elementary school at the north end of the village. The site for the new school was on the street known as Sugar Avenue (which was renamed Woodward Street by the village council in 1927). Both the street and the school building thereon were named in honor of Rochester's pioneer farmer and politician, Lysander Woodward, whose farm had, in earlier days, encompassed the property where the new school was planned.

Ground was broken for Woodward School in April of 1926, with the firm of J.M. Olson of Pontiac doing the construction. The contract price for the two-room school was $21,345, not including plumbing, heating, and fixtures. The little school was ready to receive its first students by the end of that summer. Enrollment continued its upward trend, and Woodward School was expanded in 1928 to add two more rooms. Further additions were made in 1958 and 1967, but by then Woodward School was only one of several elementary schools in the now-consolidated (and much larger) Rochester Community School District.

Rapid subdivision development in Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) during the 1970s and early 1980s caused school district officials to re-evaluate the placement of the elementary schools, and they determined that Woodward School was no longer needed and ordered the building closed. The last day for students at Woodward was June 17, 1983, as the fifty-sixth class poured out of the doors for the final time. The following year, the Older Persons Commission (OPC) was located in the school, and occupied the building until October 2003, when a new OPC facility was opened. A few months later, Woodward School passed into the pages of Vanished Rochester as it fell to the wrecking ball to make room for a housing development.

The photos in this post are from the collection of Rod and Susan Wilson. They show the school as it looked just prior to and during demolition.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

At Home in Rochester: The Clinton G. Griffey Residence

The stately home at 444 West University Drive (formerly Fifth St.) was built in 1906 by newspaper publisher and politician Clinton George Griffey.

Griffey was not a native of Rochester, nor did he spend most of his productive working life here. He was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1841, the grandson of a Welshman who was one of the earliest settlers of Erie County. The Griffeys were prominent citizens of the township of Conneaut, and on modern maps of that area landmarks such as Griffey Road and Griffey Cemetery can still be identified.

At age nineteen, C.G. Griffey was publisher of the Girard Union newspaper when the Civil War broke out. In 1862, he served fifteen days under arms in defense of Pennsylvania as a member of the 15th infantry regiment of Pennsylvania militia. As Robert E. Lee's forces were entering Maryland in the fall of 1862, Pennsylvanians feared for their state, and the governor called up all able-bodied men to join the militia in defense of the capital at Harrisburg. Griffey enlisted on September 12, 1862, and was discharged from service on September 27, 1862, after Confederate forces were defeated at Antietam and had retreated across the Potomac.

Griffey sold the Girard Union in 1864 and was involved with several other small newspapers before settling in Negaunee, Michigan in 1873, where he founded and published the Negaunee Iron Herald. During his years in Negaunee he entered politics, serving at the local level as postmaster and supervisor. He also served in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1880, and in the Michigan Senate in 1890.

Griffey paid a visit to Rochester in 1903 and liked the town so much that he decided to sell his newspaper in Negaunee and relocate here. He built three houses in town before erecting his fine residence at 444 W. Fifth (now University Drive) in 1906. The Griffey residence is one of several buildings in Rochester said to have been constructed with brick reclaimed from the demolition of the Detroit Sugar Company factory on Woodward St., which was razed in the same year that the Griffey house was built.

C.G. Griffey lived in the house at 444 W. Fifth until his death in June 1937. He was buried at Mount Avon Cemetery in his adopted home of Rochester.

The front of the building looks somewhat different today than it did in Griffey's time. The porch and front dormer were removed in 1962 and replaced with a two-story columned portico. The decorative ironwork on the roof was also removed, but still exists today on the carriage house at the rear of the building. Law offices currently occupy the building.

The Clinton G. Griffey residence is 104 years old this year.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

This Month in Rochester History

This month we observe the anniversary of a milestone event in the history of the Rochester Community Schools. On September 8, 1970, a second high school serving Rochester students became a reality when Rochester Adams High School opened its doors.

Rochester High School, which had opened its building at Walton & Livernois in 1956, was already bursting at the seams by the mid-1960s. Burgeoning enrollment was a product of the tremendous population growth in Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) as forty new subdivisions opened up in the period between 1956 and 1965. With the need for a second high school apparent, officials began the process of planning the new facility and forming its first classes. The 1969-70 school year was a difficult one for everybody, because the high school population was divided into two groups, with Rochester High students and faculty using the RHS building for one half of the day, and Rochester Adams students and faculty using the RHS building for the other half of the day.

Finally, Rochester Adams High School was ready for students, and 1,200 of them started the 1970-71 school year in their new building under the principalship of Ralph L. Hawes. The official dedication ceremonies were held on November 8, 1970, when representatives of the architectural firm of O'Dell, Hewlett and Luckenbach presented the $4.3 million dollar building to the community.

Rochester Adams High School celebrates its fortieth school year this month.

Note: Those readers who live in the Rochester area and are interested in the history of our schools are invited to attend the next meeting of the Rochester Avon Historical Society on Thursday, September 2 at 7:00 p.m. in the auditorium of the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Old Towne Rd. Rod Wilson will present "From Eight to One," the story of the rural school districts that were consolidated to form the Rochester school district.