Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ora Foster's Fifteen Minutes

Once upon a time, there was a young man from the Rochester-Pontiac area named Ora Archie Foster. When he was 21 years old, he left his work as a welder and enlisted in the U.S. Army just a couple of weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ora advanced quickly from private to corporal, and was sent to England, where he would serve as a member of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

On a September day in 1942, Ora Foster found himself traveling on foot through the countryside in Gloucestershire, England, when he decided to hitch a ride from a passing automobile. Apparently he did not consider, as any of us would today, that such an act might get him into considerable trouble or danger. Instead, he accepted a ride from two pleasant ladies in a large automobile and spent about forty-five minutes in their company, entertaining them with a constant stream of chatter, and commenting about his host country that "there's no place like home, but this is a nice place for a vacation." When he reached the end of his journey and thanked his hostess for the ride, she said to him,"You don't know who I am, do you?"

Cpl. Foster recalled that he could have been "knocked over with a feather" when his traveling companion identified herself as the Queen Mother, Mary, widow of the late King George V and mother of the reigning monarch, King George VI. Ora Foster's story made international news a few days later. His encounter was reported in the New York Times under the headline "The Private and the Queen," and he rated a mention in the "People" column of Time Magazine in the September 14, 1942 issue.

The New York Times account claimed that Foster was from Rochester, Michigan, but other accounts identified his home as Pontiac. I don't know which is accurate, but Ora Foster lived in Lake Orion after the war and was employed by Fisher Body for 30 years. He died in 1998 and is buried in Ottawa Park Cemetery in Waterford Township. His obituary mentioned his military service in World War II but omits any mention of his friendly chat with the Queen Mother.

A photo of Ora Foster is included in this news story from the St. Petersburg Times.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Subdivision Stories: North Hill Gardens

Lying east of Rochester Road and south of Tienken, the North Hill Gardens subdivision was opened in 1941 in part to answer the community's desperate need for additional housing for defense workers. During the summer of 1941, National Twist Drill & Tool Company was expanding its factory on the northeast corner of Tienken & Rochester in order to take on more defense contracts to fill the nation's Lend-Lease orders. McAleer Manufacturing had just moved to Rochester from Detroit in June of 1941, and was readying its factory at Fourth and Water to fill military requisitions for polishes and abrasives. Both companies were hiring more workers, and the Rochester area didn't have enough housing to accommodate their needs.

Three Rochester businessmen joined in partnership to develop the North Hill Gardens subdivision and provide affordable housing for factory workers. They were Ford dealer Larry Jerome, clothier Roy J. McCornac, and lumber dealer Russell Nowels. When the opening of the subdivision was announced in October 1941, the Rochester Clarion made these remarks, which give us a clue to the reason for subdivision's name:
The choice of this site on Tienken road southeast of the new National Twist Drill and Tool Co. plant is especially fortunate. It offers all the conveniences of the village with the low cost of land and beauty of country life. The gracious plots of ground in North Hills subdivision make it possible to have large gardens. Families should have an abundance of fresh vegetables - making it healthful and an economical place to live.
The story went on to comment about the affordability of the housing:
The lots will sell for from $235 to $495. Houses will be built as quickly as needed, the interior roughed in to be finished by the owner.
The street running through North Hill Gardens was named Orchard - a fitting label since the property in the area was an orchard, but the Township of Avon renamed it Red Oak in August 1950, when dozens of street names were changed at the recommendation of the county road commission.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

William Clark Chapman

Most of us who live in Rochester admire the stately Chapman House as we travel down Walnut Street, and the Chapman name is visible elsewhere in our community - in the names of subdivisions, the name of a former lake, and even in the name of a recently-opened restaurant. So who was William C. Chapman, whose home still stands at 311 Walnut?

William Clark Chapman was born in Proctorsville, Vermont on March 1, 1866. He was the third of four children and the youngest son of Clark Howard Chapman and Ellen M. Sherwin. William Chapman's father was a prominent man in Windsor County, Vermont; he was an attorney, delegate to a state constitutional convention, and Register of the Probate Court. The family variously lived in Ludlow, Cavendish, and Proctorsville, Vermont, all neighboring towns within Windsor County, until 1882, when Clark H. Chapman decided to move his family to Detroit.

Young William was sixteen years old when his family came to Michigan. His older brother and only living sibling, Charles Sherwin Chapman, was eighteen. William attended a business college and then took a position as bookkeeper for Detroit lumber and real estate magnate William C. Yawkey. He also spent three years learning the lumber business in Wisconsin before returning to Detroit. In 1891, Yawkey and William's brother, Charles S. Chapman, organized the Western Knitting Mills in Detroit and brought William on board as secretary-treasurer of the company. WKM moved to Rochester in 1896, building a state-of-the-art factory on Water Street at the foot of Fourth, and establishing itself as the community's primary employer for a generation. Both Charles and William Chapman built impressive homes in the village of Rochester.

Chapman married Ada Josephine Barney in his old home of Ludlow, Vermont in 1890, and the couple had one son, Carroll Barney Chapman. Though William and Ada Chapman made their home in Rochester for almost all of their married life together, they remained in close touch with their family and friends in Vermont and made frequent visits to their childhood home.

Charles Chapman died in 1912, but William continued with Western Knitting Mills until the company closed about 1927. He also owned and developed many parcels of real estate in Rochester, and was involved in a variety of community organizations. When William Clark Chapman died, at the age of 80, on May 20, 1946, his remains were sent back to Ludlow, Vermont for burial with other members of the Chapman and Barney families.

This portrait of William Clark Chapman is from the collection of Rod and Susan Wilson.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Do They Have in Common - Answers

Here are the answers to the "What Do They Have in Common?" quiz:

1. Keith Crissman, Larry Jerome, Dick Davis? - automobile dealers
2. Hale's, Stapp's, Zimmerman's, Burr's? - shoe stores
3. Deaton's, Byers', Potere's? - gas stations
4. Milton Weaver, Maurice Watson, Nina Martin? - real estate offices
5. Alward, Johnson, Plassey, Young? - groceries
6. Oberg's, Avon Theater, National Bank of Rochester, Varsity Shoppe? - all were located, at various times, at 435 S. Main
7. Lucille's, Carpenter's, Buzzell's? - clothing stores
8. Brooks, Reading, Terry? - dentists

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What Do They Have in Common?

Here's another little quiz for those of you who remember Rochester of the 1950s and 1960s. For each numbered item, decide what all the named elements have in common with one another. Answers will be posted here on Wednesday, February 9.

What do these have in common?

1. Keith Crissman, Larry Jerome, Dick Davis?
2. Hale's, Stapp's, Zimmerman's, Burr's?
3. Deaton's, Byers', Potere's?
4. Milton Weaver, Maurice Watson, Nina Martin?
5. Alward, Johnson, Plassey, Young?
6. Oberg's, Avon Theater, National Bank of Rochester, Varsity Shoppe?
7. Lucille's, Carpenter's, Buzzell's?
8. Brooks, Reading, Terry?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

This Month in Rochester History

Fifty years ago this month, in February of 1961, Rochester residents were saying goodbye to a familiar business on Main Street. Verne Sutton, who had operated Sutton's Market on the southwest corner of Third and Main (where Mind, Body & Spirits is today), announced his retirement in the February 23, 1961 edition of the Rochester Clarion.

Sutton told the Clarion that some of his original customers who had started out with him when he opened the market in 1934 were still with him after 27 years, and he would miss them. The day of the small grocery store was fading fast, however, as more chain supermarkets came on the scene, and Sutton's was one of the last to leave the downtown business district. Verne Sutton sold the building and liquidated his grocery inventory, and soon after a gift shop called The Dants opened in the former Sutton's location.

This view of Sutton's Market is from the collection of Marjorie and the late Walter Dernier.