Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bygone Business: Michigan Motor Car Manufacturing

On February 25, 1910, the citizens of Rochester saw this large advertisement in the Rochester Era, informing them that their little village would soon join the ranks of Detroit and Pontiac as home to an automobile factory. The Michigan Motor Car Manufacturing Company, with offices in Detroit, announced that it would establish a factory here and build its 6-cylinder roadster, dubbed the "Michigan Six," in Rochester. The ad described the Michigan Six this way:
The Michigan Six is a light, smooth running car, six cylinders ("continuous power"), powerful, long wheel base, 123 inches; large wheels, tires 10x4 inches front and rear; multiple disc clutch, selective transmission running in oil; three point suspension of unit power plant; magneto; advanced system of carbaretion [sic], exclusive. For material and workmanship it is the best.
Residents of Rochester, according to the ad, would be given the agent's discount when purchasing a "built in Rochester" Michigan Six.
There was just one little problem. According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942 (Krause Publications, 1996), this is what happened:
[the company] showed its first car at the Detroit Automobile Show in January 1910. It was a 30 hp six-cylinder roadster on a 123-inch wheelbase, with a $1,550 price tag. In February the company announced that it would relocate in a new factory in Rochester -- the former Ayres gasoline engine works -- and production for 1910 would be 500 cars. All this was window dressing. In March Motor World revealed that the factory in Rochester was a small shed, and the Michigan Motor Car Manufacturing Company, Ltd., was a stock-selling scheme. This one was found out more quickly than most others. The first Michigan Six was also the last.
Michigan Motor Car was just one of scores of auto manufacturing companies that came and went quickly during the infancy of the auto industry. In the first seven months of 1910, there were no less than 49 new motor car manufacturing concerns registered in the state of Michigan.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Vanished Rochester: Pavilion Hotel

Rochester's first hotel was built by Elnathan Wilcox about 1839 - less that fifteen years after the village was platted - on the southwest corner of Third and Main Streets, and was originally known as the Pavilion Hotel. A two-story frame building and barn that sheltered the weary traveler and his horse, the Pavilion passed through several owners during its existence and had its name changed several times. In 1856, Harvey Bennett was the proprietor, and by 1877 Wilson Fenner was running the hotel as the Fenner House. A couple of years later, Oscar Comstock took over, and the hotel was known as the Comstock House.

On April 15, 1880, Rochester suffered a devastating fire that completely destroyed the Pavilion Hotel, then known as the Comstock House, and the Universalist Church. The Rochester Era described the chaotic scene:
At about twenty minutes before 12 last (Thursday) night fire was discovered bursting thru the roof of the Comstock House in this village, and before a general alarm could be sounded the entire roof of the building was enveloped in flames and all hope of saving the house was out of the question. Barnes' paper-mill whistle was sounded loud and long and the church bells rung out arousing the sleepers who rushed to the scene of the conflagration, unable, however, to render any assistance other than help remove some of the household effects.
The wind at the time was blowing briskly from the northeast filling the air with fire and cinders, which were wafted towards the Universalist Church and other buildings in that direction. Soon came the cry that the church was on fire which proved too true and notwithstanding people were on the roof with pails of water the upper portion was soon all ablaze and past saving.
The Comstock House and the church were total losses. The Universalist Society began almost immediately to rebuild, erecting a brick building that still stands today on Walnut St. The Comstock House was not rebuilt, and the lot sat vacant, to the chagrin of the townspeople, for nearly nine years before a new brick house, named the Sidney House, was opened in 1889. The name of the Sidney House was eventually changed to the Detroit Hotel, and on February 22, 1927, that building met the same fate as had it predecessor.

Friday, October 15, 2010

At Home in Rochester: Congregational Parsonage

The beautiful Gothic revival residence on the northwest corner of Pine and Third streets was built in the summer of 1878 by the First Congregational Church of Rochester, for use as its parsonage. Church officials had been working to acquire a parsonage site for several years, but were unable to raise the necessary funds to secure property. They finally made progress when Lysander Woodward volunteered to buy and hold the desired lots while the congregation raised the balance of funds needed.

Finally, on April 17, 1878, ground was broken on the long-awaited parsonage. Lysander Woodward's son-in-law, noted architect John Scott of Detroit, designed the home, and Miles King of Rochester was the builder. The contracted amount for the construction was $1,100.00, plus $54.00 for a cistern and fence.

The Rochester Era described the new residence this way:
This parsonage is without exception the finest and most complete model of architectural beauty and elegance to be found in the township of Avon, and reflects abundant credit upon not only its architect, Mr. John Scott of Detroit, a son-in-law of Lysander Woodward, but also upon its builder, Mr. Miles King of this village, who of course was assisted by several first class workmen among whom were Mr. Hammond and Mr. Fenner, resident mechanics. The style of architecture is properly Gothic, although there may be perhaps some deviations from the strict letter of the original in a few of the details. The exterior of the structure is finely ornamental, and in a manner that exhibits much architectural taste and refinement, everything being in strict keeping with the rules governing the style. Some of the designs in the ornamentation are really unique and so skillfully executed as to excite our admiration. The bay-window, for instance, which beautifies the east front of the main structure is a model of its kind, being very elaborately finished and trimmed - not in an 'overdone' manner - but with exquisite taste and neatness, the workmanship harmonizing, as before intimated, with every tracery of the designs.
The new parsonage welcomed the pastor, the Rev. Mr. Brown, in January of 1879, and was used by the church until 1917, when the congregation decided that the house was too large for its purpose and voted to build a new parsonage immediately behind the church. The 1878 parsonage was authorized to be sold into private hands and has remained a private residence ever since.

Today, the 132-year-old house has been lovingly restored, and the Gothic Revival elements so that the Era editor found so endearing may still be admired. It is significant in our local history not only for its relationship to the oldest Congregational church in Michigan, but also because it is the work of John Scott, the architect of the 1902 Wayne County Building and the 84 East Ferry house, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Next time you pass the corner of Third and Pine, take a moment to admire this local historical treasure.

This postcard photo shows the Congregational church parsonage as it appeared about 1915.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bygone Business: Purdy's Drug Store

Those who lived in Rochester from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s will remember Purdy's Drug Store, located at 321 S. Main St., where the Janet Varner shop is today. Henry L. Purdy and his wife Elizabeth, who were originally from Columbiaville, Michigan, first owned a drug store in Clawson for nine years before buying the Rochester store from druggist W.E. Ford in the summer of 1944. Henry Purdy was very active in community affairs here during the eighteen years that he was a Main St. merchant; he served on the Board of Education and participated in Avon Players, Kiwanis Club and the Chamber of Commerce.

The Purdys sold the store to druggist Tom Hunter, who took over in January 1963. Coincidentally, back when Henry Purdy was in business in Clawson, a competing drug store across the street there was operated by Tom Hunter's father.

Henry and Elizabeth Purdy retired to their home near Columbiaville, in St. Clair County.

This advertisement for Purdy's Drug Store appeared in a 1947 issue of Lens Magazine, and is provided courtesy of Rod and Susan Wilson. The castor oil bottle is also from the Wilsons' collection.

Friday, October 1, 2010

This Month in Rochester History

This month marks the 77th anniversary of the death of one of Rochester's most prominent early twentieth-century businessmen, James Wilson Smith. J.W. Smith was the proprietor of the Hotel St. James, located on the southwest corner of Main and University Drive (formerly Fifth St.), where the Bean and Leaf cafe is situated today.

Smith was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1847, and as a child immigrated with his family to Ontario. As a young man he ventured on to Michigan, where he worked as a wagon driver for a hotel in Pontiac. He worked in the hotel business for a couple of decades before deciding to try his hand at farming in Avon Township. His farm was a failure, and when the old Lambertson House in Rochester became available in 1890, James W. Smith bought it, refurbished it, and ran a highly successful hotel business there until his death on October 2, 1933.

The Hotel St. James was a hub of downtown activity for decades, and "Jim" Smith was an unabashed Rochester booster. He served as a member of the village council for six years and was always active in village affairs.

Local newspapers frequently noted that James W. Smith bore a striking resemblence to President William Howard Taft, and made a special point of being present to greet President Taft on each of his visits to Michigan.

James W. Smith died in his private apartment in the Hotel St. James at the age of 86 and was buried in Mount Avon Cemetery.