Saturday, November 30, 2013

Christmas Shopping in Rochester

This week's Black Friday-backed-up-into-Thanksgiving Day retail frenzy has given me pause to reflect upon the Christmas shopping habits of my family during my youth in Rochester. In our family, Christmas gifts were far from extravagant - a modest toy for a child, a useful object or item of clothing for an adult. That's not to say there weren't plenty of gifts under the tree in my family home - there definitely were. It's just that my parents, and the parents of others I knew, didn't go into hock for the rest of the year to underwrite their holiday largesse. Purchases weren't funded with credit cards; most families in my circle of acquaintance probably didn't even possess such a thing, except perhaps for a Kresge's revolving charge card. Instead they planned ahead and set money aside; sometimes with Christmas Club bank accounts, or with layaway plans that allowed them to make payments for merchandise over several weeks.

Downtown Rochester's holiday season kicked off with Window Night and the outdoor decorations consisted of candy canes mounted on the light poles and swags of colored lights festooning the street. A set of three large red bells hung suspended over each intersection and the lights inside the bells moved from left to center to right and back again. We thought those lights were pretty spectacular but they paled in comparison to the Big Bright Light Show that we see today.

Going to a shopping center in those days was rare treat. Most of our family's shopping was done on Main Street, Rochester, or in the stores in the North Hill Shopping Center. My parents most frequently visited Kresge's and Cunningham's on North Hill, along with D & C and Case's Hardware on Main (Case's had a great toyland that I remember fondly). When it was necessary to search further afield than Rochester for gifts, we usually took a family trip to Pontiac to visit the Sears store there. Being accustomed to the small shops of my hometown, I was overwhelmed by the seemingly enormous department store. Today, I am overwhelmed by the numbers of people who camp out in parking lots for days in order to be first in line to  to purchase the latest and greatest electronic gadget that will be hopelessly outdated before the next holiday season rolls around. Such spectacles make me positively nostalgic for simpler days.

Do you have Christmas shopping memories of Rochester?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Subdivision Stories: Blackett's Floral Gardens

This tiny subdivision of only nine lots is located on the west side of John R Road between Avon and Hamlin. Known as Blackett's Floral Gardens, it was platted in 1942 by Russell and Beryl Blackett, owners of the land in Section 23 of Avon Township upon which the development was laid out.  The Blacketts were married in 1929 and settled on the property along John R soon afterward. They operated a greenhouse business called Blackett's Floral Gardens, and trucked their product to Eastern Market in Detroit and to a farm market in Pontiac.  They also operated a retail florist shop in downtown Birmingham for a time.

When this subdivision was platted in 1942, it was appropriately named Blackett's Floral Gardens in recognition of the family business that was located there. The only street in the subdivision is Beryl Court,  named in honor of Beryl Blackett. Russell Blackett's son, Larry, remembers that his father personally built four or five of the houses in the small development.

In 1943, the Blackett family left Avon Township for Marlette, Michigan, where they continued their greenhouse and floral business. In 1952, they moved to Clarkston and operated a lumber yard near the intersection of Dixie Highway and today's I-75.  Today, the children and grandchildren of Russell and Beryl Blackett continue to work in the building industry as Blackett Builders.

My thanks to Larry Blackett for sharing the details of his family's business history with me.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bygone Business: Deaton's Marathon Station

Deaton's Marathon, looking south toward Univerity, 1977
When I was growing up in Rochester, there were more gas stations along Main Street that there are today. One of those stations, now long gone, was Deaton's Marathon, located on the west side of North Main just south of what was then the Dillman & Upton lumber yard. Today, this location would be part of the Rochester Medical Center development.

Deaton's Marathon was one of several local businesses operated by W. "Joe" Deaton, a 1951 graduate of Rochester High School.  Joe Deaton was well known in the community and served as a member of the volunteer fire department, the Shriners, and the American Legion Homer Wing Post. He died in 2002.

I remember visiting Deaton's Marathon as a child, and I particularly recall going there to collect the promotional glassware that Marathon gave away to commemorate the Apollo space missions during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Does anybody else still have a full set of this fine drinkware in the back of the cupboard somewhere? There are probably many
thousands of examples out there, but all of mine came from Deaton's Marathon on Main Street in Rochester, Michigan.  Those were the days!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

At Home in Rochester: Albert C. Steadman House

The house at 133 S. Walnut was built in 1891 as the family home of Albert C. Steadman and his wife, Alice Woodworth Steadman. The Steadmans purchased the lot on Walnut from Eliza Newberry in June 1891, when they retired from farming and decided to move into the village. They broke ground for their new house in August 1891.

Alice Steadman died in 1913 and Albert remarried and moved to Bloomfield Township. After the Steadmans, the house was occupied in 1920 by Delos R. Harrington and his wife, Louise. Harrington, a foreman at the Western Knitting Mills, built a new house at 118 S. Walnut in 1929 and the couple moved across the street at that time. In 1930, the Louis C. Harris family lived in the former Steadman home.

Probably the best-known of the residents of 133 S. Walnut was Dr. Ormond Daniel Geib. Dr. Geib studied at the University of Michigan before receiving his medical degree from the Detroit College of Medicine in 1924. He came to Rochester to establish his medical practice in 1932. He and his wife, Jessie, occupied this house for many years.

The Steadman house is 122 years old in 2013.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Dr. Mille E. Wilson and the Wilson Medical Dynasty

At the turn of the twentieth century, women physicians were fairly uncommon outside of  the country's largest cities, but the small villages of Stoney Creek and Rochester, Michigan could lay claim to two of them. The story of a daughter of Stoney Creek, Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, is well remembered here, but Rochester's woman physician, Dr. Mille E. Wilson, is little known these days.

Amelia Elvira Wilson, known as Mille, was born in Avon Township in 1876, the daughter of Dr. Jesse E. Wilson and his wife, Susan Richardson Mack. Her father, Jesse, along with his twin brother, Jeremiah "Jerry" Wilson, had practiced medicine together in Rochester since before the Civil War. The twin brothers had grown up in Ontario, the sons of American parents, and had studied medicine at the University of Michigan and Bellevue Hospital Medical College before earning medical degrees from Castleton Medical College in Vermont. Together, they came to Rochester and established a joint medical practice which lasted for half a century, until the death of Jeremiah Wilson in 1906.

Mille Wilson first attended college in St. Thomas, Ontario, were her father and uncle had once lived, and then went on to study at Lombard University in Galesburg, Illinois before earning her medical degree from the Michigan College of Medicine and Surgery in Detroit in 1903. She first served as a house physician at the Detroit Emergency Hospital, but when her uncle Jerry Wilson died in 1906 she resigned her post and returned home to Rochester to assist her father in his practice.

A year later, she was appointed assistant physician at the Michigan Home for the Feeble-Minded and Epilepetic at Lapeer (later known as the Lapeer State Home and Training School). She would hold that position for the next 41 years, until her retirement in 1948.

Dr. Mille Wilson was known as something of a pioneer. Not only was she a women in a male-dominated profession, but she was believed to be the first woman automobile driver in Lapeer County. Furthermore, at the age of 70 she took pilot lessons at a Flint airport.

Following her retirement in 1948, Mille Wilson moved to Plainwell, Michigan, to live with a friend. Although she died in Lapeer in 1957, she was buried in Plainwell near her friend rather than in Lapeer or Rochester.

An obituary of Mille's father, Dr. Jesse Wilson, which was published in The Canada Lancet at the time of his death in 1913, claimed that Jesse Wilson was descended from family that boasted several eminent physicians, although their names were not specifically noted. In addition to those in her father's lineage, however, Mille also had at least one physician ancestor in the lineage of her mother, Susan Richardson Mack. According to Mille's membership record in the Daughters of the American Revolution, she was the great-great-granddaughter of American patriot Stephen Powers, who served as a soldier and surgeon attending the wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Thanks to Rod Wilson for the newspaper feature about Mille Wilson which included the photograph show here.

Friday, November 1, 2013

This Month in Rochester History

November 1963 is remembered in Rochester history in much the same way that it is by people across the nation. Fifty years ago this month, Rochester residents were stunned and saddened by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Under a banner headline that read "Rochester Bows Head in Sorrow for Fallen President," the Rochester Clarion reported in part:
Suddenly, the streets were empty. It was an overcast, partially rainy early afternoon in Rochester when word was flashed by radio and television that President John F. Kennedy had been struck down by an assassin's bullet while riding down a Dallas street.
. . .
In the National Bank of Detroit office here, a radio was turned on. The customers and personnel froze as the death was announced and the National Anthem was played. Businesses suddenly found their stores almost empty.

The article went on to say that a variety of local events were cancelled or postponed over the weekend that followed the president's death. A turkey drawing by downtown merchants, a hootenanny at the high school, and the Illinois-Michigan State football game at East Lansing were among the activities that did not take place.  What did take place were special local church services on the day of the funeral.  The Clarion continued with its description of local observances:
Schools were closed Monday. There was no mail delivery and all federal and local governmental offices closed their doors. A black drape hung over the front entrance of the Municipal Building. Monday night was the regular meeting of the Village Council. A proclamation by Council President was read and the meeting was quietly adjourned until Tuesday night.
. . .
It was a remarkable and most tragic weekend.