Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Horvitz Connection

Horvitz building renovation (David Gifford)
Recently, as the Horvitz building at 301 S. Main has been stripped of its faux front, interest in the structure's history has been renewed.  We know that a dry goods merchant named Burnett A. Horvitz built the store in late 1888, but this week I decided to find out what I could about Mr. Horvitz and his personal story. An 1891 biography reveals that B. A. Horvitz was born in Russia in 1859 and that he and his family fled to America in 1869 to escape the persecution of Jews that was occurring at the time. Burnett "Barney" Horvitz then became a traveling salesman, and during a stop in Rochester in 1880 he decided to make his home here. He built his new store on Main Street in 1888 and in 1893 he married Gertrude C. Straus of Detroit.  The couple had two children, both born in Rochester: a son, Gerald Joseph Horvitz, and a daughter, Florence M. Horvitz.  The Horvitz children were reared in Rochester until about 1907, at which time B. A. Horvitz moved his family to Detroit.

Gerald Horvitz went on to attend the University of Michigan and was graduated with the class of 1916. He moved to New York and became a scientist and researcher of some note, specializing in chemistry and metallurgical engineering. Horvitz served as president of the New York Testing Laboratories and was engaged in highly classified research during the early 1940s.  His daughter, Betty Slegman, herself a U of M graduate and one of the first women journalists to work for United Press,  recalled that her father would never talk about his work, but expressed irritation at the number of security people who were hanging around his laboratory.  It was only after the surrender of Japan ended World War II that Betty found out that her father had been one of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, and that his specific role had been to develop a key component of the trigger mechanism of the atomic bomb.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Rochester's History Comes Alive at Cemetery Walk

Rochester Avon Historical Society offers a first-person, interactive way to learn more about our community's history in the upcoming Mount Avon cemetery walk entitled Stories in the Stones.  Historical re-enactors, wearing period costume, will greet tour guests and present first-person narratives of their lives and experiences in Rochester. Among the characters that tour guests will meet are pioneers, shopkeepers, a justice of the peace, and someone involved in Rochester's most notorious nineteenth-century scandal. The tour is a family-friendly event suitable for all ages, and combines local history with community theater in an educational and entertaining way.

The cemetery walk will be held on Saturday, September 29, with timed tours departing at intervals between 1 and 5 p.m. from the municipal parking lot located at Walnut and Third streets. Tour participants will be transported to the cemetery by shuttle van at their appointed tour time and will be returned to the municipal parking lot at the conclusion of the tour.  The tour will be held rain or shine and will be canceled only in the event of severe weather.

Stories in the Stones is a fund-raising event to support the local history education and historic preservation initiatives of the Rochester Avon Historical Society. The event is generously sponsored by Rochester Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge, Pixley Funeral Home, and Potere-Modetz Funeral Home.  Tickets are $15 each and are non-refundable.  Tickets may be purchased during the week at the Rochester Regional Chamber of Commerce office, 71 Walnut St. This weekend only, September 22-23, tickets will be available at temporary sales booths  at Yates Cider Mill from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. or behind the Rochester Municipal Building, 400 Sixth St.,  from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Any unsold tickets will be sold on a first-come, first-served walk-up basis on the day of the event from the tour departure point at Third and Walnut streets.

For more information about the cemetery walk, contact Rochester Avon Historical Society at, or phone 248-266-5440.  To view a video trailer about the cemetery walk, click here.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Main Street Stories: 327 S. Main

Around 1900, Rochester jeweler Theodor Dahlmann built a store to house his business at 327 S. Main. This property remained in the Dahlman family until 1936, when Theo Dahlmann's heirs sold it to Lyle "Red" Knapp. Knapp opened a restaurant and bar there, known simply as "Knapp's" (and not to be confused with Knapp's Dairy Bar, another of his businesses which opened on the opposite side of the street in 1950). Knapp's restaurant and bar was a Main Street landmark until 1976, when the property was sold to Clarence Kavan of Grosse Pointe.  Kavan, having an entirely different restaurant in mind, had the existing building razed completely, and planned a brand-new building to be constructed atop the old foundation.

As construction on the restaurant continued, Rochester residents were introduced in December 1976 to a new feature on Main Street.  The front of the new Kavan's Colony East restaurant was decorated with two large figures sculpted of wood, leaning on a table over the doorway that was the main entrance to the eatery.  The larger-than-life oak carving was familiar to Detroiters, as it had graced the front of the old Brass Rail bar on Grand Circus Park for many years. After the demise of the Brass Rail, the carving lay in storage until Clarence Kavan acquired it for his new restaurant in Rochester.

The carving is the design of Joseph Freedman, who was one of the partners in the Brass Rail bar. It was executed by the firm of noted Detroit sculptor Joachim Jungwirth, whose company of architectural modelers and wood carvers was very prominent in Detroit. Jungwirth was a talented Austrian wood carver and was the father of sculptor Leonard D. Jungwirth, who created the famous "Sparty" statue at Michigan State University, and also created a bas relief mural at Rochester High School (now hanging in the Harrison Room of the school administration building).  Joseph Freedman patented his design for the sculpture to adorn the bar's entrance in 1940.  The drawing filed with his patent application is shown here.

Kavan's Colony East opened its doors to Rochester patrons in February 1977, and lasted until about 1980, when the restaurant's name was briefly changed to Main Street bar and grille.  The Kruse and Muer organization bought it in 1989.  Names and owners may have changed in the 35 years since the carving was installed, but it has now become an immovable fixture and a noted Rochester landmark. The next time you visit Kruse and Muer on Main, note the initials "BR"  (for Brass Rail) carved in the boot heel of one of the men.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Vanished Rochester: Neely Roller Mill

The Neely mill on Paint Creek in 1907
The Neely Roller Mill stood on the banks of Paint Creek at the north end of Main Street, near the site of today's Rochester Athletic Club.  According to a Detroit Free Press account, the mill was built in the fall of 1868. Doctors Jesse and Jeremiah Wilson were the proprietors for the first eight years, during which the enterprise was known as the Eureka Mills.  The Wilsons then sold the mill, and it was acquired in 1896 by Thomas Edward Neely, who improved the machinery and produced the Vigilant brand of flour there.

Trouble erupted after the Detroit Sugar Company built a large sugar beet processing plant upstream on Paint Creek in 1899. In 1903, Neely sued Detroit Sugar for damages, claiming that the beet pulp discharged by the plant impeded the supply of water to his mill. The Free Press reported on May 17, 1903:
Neeley asks $15,000 alleging that the sugar company has thrown lime, dirt, sand, refuse, beets and beet tops into Paint Creek until his mill pond is diminished in size fully one-half and his race is filled from three to five feet deep.  Neeley sets up that his loss has been from $3,000 to $5,000 per year since the sugar factory was erected and says the value of the flour mill is $10,000.

Neely was awarded slightly more than $2,000 in damages, and Detroit Sugar soon thereafter closed its Rochester facility due to a perfect storm of economic woes.  A few years later, in 1908, there was more litigation revolving around water rights on Paint Creek. This time, Neely sued Western Knitting Mills, claiming that when WKM built its new dam, the water level in Neely's tail race had been raised, destroying his water power.  Neely was awarded $2,800 by the jury, but WKM appealed. In 1909, the appeals court required WKM to accept a lower award of $1,800 or opt for a new trial, but by that time Neely had already sold the property and moved to Armada in northern Macomb County. The mill building and equipment was sold to Lapeer men, who dismantled the mill in late 1908. Neely continued in the milling business in Armada and died there in 1931.

In 1997, when construction crews were working on the pedestrian walk along Paint Creek, they discovered remnants of the Neely mill, including some of the wood from the foundation of the water wheel.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

This Month in Rochester History

This month in 1962, the citizens of Rochester were marking the retirement of Fire Chief George J. Ross, Sr. Chief Ross had come to the close of a 39-year career with the department; the last 28 of those years were served as chief.  When Ross joined the RFD in 1923, it was an all-volunteer force, but in 1951, the Village Council made the fire chief a full-time employee of the village.  Upon Chief Ross's retirement, assistant chief Lyle O. Buchanan was named fire chief, and served in that capacity for the next 20 years.  Chief Ross told the Rochester Clarion that he planned to spend his retirement relaxing around the house, but didn't rule out the possibility that when he heard the siren blowing, he might just go out to "take a look" at the fire.