Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bygone Business: Bill's Barn

Sixty-four years ago, the newspapers carried the announcement of the grand opening of a new entertainment venue in the Rochester area, and the place was known as "Bill's Barn." Strictly speaking, Bill's Barn is in Shelby Township, since it is located on the east side of Dequindre Road, just north of Auburn, but I'm including its story in this blog because it is right across the township line and was frequently by many Rochester people in its heyday.

The proprietor and manager of Bill's Barn was William Schroeder, who opened the dance hall on July 26, 1946, with Rochester's own Hollis Hinkel and his orchestra providing the music. The inaugural dance was a benefit for the Brooklands Fire Association, and regular public dances began the following night. The hall became a popular spot for square dance enthusiasts and teens following contemporary dance as well.

One year after the grand opening, the Brooklands Exchange Club announced that it would sponsor a youth center at Bill's Barn, serving teens from Shelby and Avon Townships, and the building became a focal point of teen social events throughout the following decade.

By the time I was a teen, Bill's Barn had been converted to its current use, the home of the local Disabled American Veterans chapter and the location of a weekly flea market. I imagine that there are plenty of "Bill's Barn" stories out there from its dance hall days - how about it, readers?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

At Home in Rochester: The Burton McCafferty Residence

Not long after the interurban line came to Rochester at the turn of the twentieth century, so did a Macomb County man named Burton "Bert" McCafferty. McCafferty had been born nearby in Bruce Township in 1867, and was in business in Marine City before he relocated to Rochester to operate a saloon and cigar stand on Main Street.

Business must have been good, because in the summer of 1906, the Pontiac Press Gazette reported that Bert McCafferty was building a new house in Rochester. On October 23, 1906, the Press Gazette said, "Bert McCafferty and family are moving into their fine new residence on West Fourth Street." Although it was not mentioned in the newspaper account, local tradition says that like the C.G. Griffey house, the McCafferty house is one of several buildings in the area constructed with brick reclaimed from the demolition of the Detroit Sugar Company mill, which happened during 1906.

The McCafferty family stayed only a few years in their new house on West Fourth. By 1920, Bert McCafferty had moved his business interests to Wayne County. The Dobat family lived in the house after the McCaffertys, and by 1930, it was the residence of local businessman and owner of the Rochester Elevator, Lewis Cass Crissman.

Today, the McCafferty house is a beautifully restored private residence, and it celebrates its 104th birthday this year.

This photo, from a 1907 publication promoting Rochester, shows the McCafferty residence as it looked just after it was built.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vanished Rochester: Danish Old People's Home

The stately old home that stood atop the bluff at the corner of Walton and Brewster roads was known as the Danish Old People's Home from 1949 to 1973. The property on which the house stood was owned for the last half of the 19th century by Oliver Hazard Perry Griggs and his wife Lovina Kelly Griggs, who migrated to Avon Township from Wyoming County, New York in 1865. Griggs farmed the land and reared his children there, but moved to the village of Rochester in his later years. The farm then passed into the hands of his son, Charles K. Griggs, owner and operator of the Rochester Elevator. C.K. Griggs continued to operate the farm but did not reside there - he had a handsome home in the village of Rochester as well.

In January 1915, C.K. Griggs sold the farm at Walton and Brewster, consisting at that time of 210 acres, to Pontiac farmer Arthur M. Butler for the sum of $21,000. Butler lived on the farm until the death of his wife, then sold it in October 1939 to Herbert M. Bray, an executive with the Ajax Steel & Forge Company of Detroit. Herbert Bray died in 1945 and in May 1948, his widow, Violet, sold the estate which the Brays had called "Diane Acres" to the Detroit Lodge of the Danish Brotherhood in America for use as a retirement home for Danish Americans. Extensive additions and renovations were planned to the house to make it suitable for its new purpose.

In February 1949 the Danish Brotherhood celebrated the dedication of the Danish Old People's Home in Avon Township. In 1962, a memorial garden and fountain were added to the property in honor of all Danish immigrants to America who had located in the Detroit area. The fountain was the work of renowned sculptor Marshall Fredericks, featured a bronze swan in flight, and was entitled "Nordic Swan and Ugly Duckling." Count Knuth-Winterfeldt, at the time the Royal Danish Ambassador to the United States, visited the Danish Old People's Home to formally dedicate the garden and fountain.

In early 1973, the Danish Brotherhood announced the closing of the Danish Old People's Home because the society did not have the funds to complete an expensive array of necessary repairs and upgrades to the property. The 20 residents at the home were moved to other facilities and the home closed on April 30 of that year. Soon thereafter, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan began plans for a modern senior living community at the location, and the old house was razed when construction of the new facility began.

Danish Village was opened to residents in 1980. The memorial garden and fountain with the Marshall Fredericks sculpture were retained and are still a prominent feature of the property today.

This postcard view of the Danish Old People's Home is from the collection of Rod and Susan Wilson.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Subdivision Stories: Spring Hill

The Spring Hill subdivisions near the southeast corner of Walton and Adams roads stand on land that was owned by the Ross family for most of the nineteenth century. The property was originally purchased from the federal government in 1825 by Needham Hemingway, a settler who came to Oakland County from Monroe County, New York and built a grist mill in Oakland Township around which the settlement of Goodison would eventually form. By 1857, John Ross, a local builder who had migrated to Michigan from Northampton County, Pennsylvania, owned the land. It later passed to John Ross's sons, George S. Ross and David H. Ross.

We have some information about the inhabitants of the area before Needham Hemingway bought the land, however. This item published in the Rochester Era on November 3, 1899, tells us:

D.H. Ross of Southwest Avon brought to The Era office last Friday a rare collection of Indian arrowheads which he picked up on his farm. In early days an Indian trail ran through the farm and the redmen were in the habit of camping near by on Renshaw's lake [the lake referred to here was on the Jacob Miller farm just to the south of the Ross property and is also known as Miller's Lake on most maps]. Mr. Ross says that he has gathered more than a bushel of arrowheads and other Indian relics, but had given the most of them away. The arrowheads are made of a flinty stone, which looks very much like that which abounds in the Lake Superior region.

The Ross land was eventually purchased by Pontiac real estate investor Edward M. Stout, and in the spring of 1955, his widow, Grace, platted the first Spring Hill subdivision on it. Subsequent Spring Hill subdivisions were platted later in 1955, in 1957 and 1959, and were developed by the Howard T. Keating real estate firm, which offered new houses in the $25-30,000 range. Today there are 323 lots in the combined Spring Hill subdivisions. The original Spring Hill subdivision celebrates its 55th birthday in 2010.

Monday, November 1, 2010

This Month in Rochester History

One hundred and twenty years ago this month, Rochester residents were invited to the grand opening of a brand new entertainment venue - the Rochester Opera House. Located on the second floor of Charles A. Burr's new building on the southeast corner of Fourth and Main streets, the Opera House became the "in" location for all sorts of public gatherings. At the time, Rochester did not yet have a movie theater, and the school building had no auditorium. The churches were large enough to seat an audience for certain kinds of events, but they weren't exactly appropriate venues for boxing matches, minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, and the like. With the opening of the Opera House, Rochester had an opportunity to house traveling acts of all kinds.

The Opera House held its grand opening on Friday, November 7, 1890. The event was a dinner at the Sidney House (later Detroit Hotel) at Third & Main, followed by a dance in the Opera House featuring music by Finney's Orchestra from Detroit. (At the time, Finney's Orchestra, led by violinist Theodore Finney, was considered to be one of the premiere society musical ensembles in the area, and later went on to make quite a name for itself when ragtime became popular.)

Over the years, the Rochester Opera House played host to a wide variety of events, including amateur and touring theatricals, boxing matches, concerts, dances, lectures, civic meetings and high school commencement ceremonies, but I have never seen an advertisement for an actual opera at that location.

In 1909, hotel operator James W. Smith began offering motion picture exhibitions in one of his buildings, and in 1914, the Idle Hour Theater opened to the public. The new high school building added a state-of-the-art auditorium a few years after that, and these new venues dwarfed the capacity of the Opera House, causing it to gradually fall out of favor as a gathering place by the early 1920s.

The newspaper ad shown here promoted a 1914 event at the Rochester Opera House. A couple of the contestants in these matches were local men. Do you recognize any names?