Research: About Rochester

Nearly a century and a half ago the region now known as Rochester was romantically described by an unknown local historian as "generally undulating and along the streams the land rises to elevations worthy to be designated as hills well grown with sturdy oaks."

The region has not always been described in such glowing terms. Shortly after the War of 1812 Congress voted "bounty land" for veterans. Early reports stated that the area north of Detroit was all worthless swampland. Several years elapsed before curious settlers visited the lands to verify this and discovered instead some excellent farmland.

The first settlers to arrive in Rochester were James Graham, his son Alexander, his son-in-law Christopher Hartsough and their wives. They came from Mt. Clemens to a sport just east of today's Detroit Edison office (on East Third Street). They arrived on March 17, 1817. They did not purchase their land at once but instead "squatted" on it for five years before committing themselves.

Although the Graham group was the first to settle they were not the first to buy land. In 1818, John Hershey spent $1.25 per acre for land. The terms of purchase were one quarter at the time of purchase and the remainder in yearly clearance and crop raising.

The year 1818 was also the year that the first white settler's child was born. The Alexander Graham family was increased by a son.

Rochester was named in honor of Rochester, New York, as most of the settlers came from there. Rochester, New York, in turn, had been named after Rochester in Kent County, England.

The community's first industry was a water powered sawmill which was erected in 1819 ~ just a year after the first land sale. The industrial climate in Rochester was favorable and soon several other businesses appeared. By 1826 a general store was opened to accompany the industry and commerce had begun. Mail service followed shortly. The first post office was three miles south of town and manned by Cyrus Chipman as the first postmaster. It was replaced in either 1829 or 1829 by a Rochester post office. At that time letter mail was brought to the Rochester office three times a week.

The settlers had scarcely provided for their personal needs when they turned their attention to the need for a school in their new community. As was typical of the period the first school building was a log structure and was located on the James Graham farm. It is interesting to note that the school was built in 1821 but the Graham family did not purchase land until the following year. The development of schools was rapid after that. In 1823 Mr. Harrington taught reading at the Alexander Graham house. Two years later the children in Stony Creek started school in a plank house. In 1848 the Avon Township electors voted to raise 50 cents per child for the support of the schools. Each child between 4 and 18 years of age was counted to determine the sum to be raised.

In 1824 the first highway was authorized. The Pontiac and Paint Creek Turnpike Company constructed a road from Detroit to Pontiac with a spur to connect Rochester and Royal Oak. Today these two roads are called Woodward Avenue and Rochester Road. The early roadway was quite different from the highways of today. They were constructed of logs laid side-by-side across the path. This style of construction was appropriately called a "corduroy road". It did not permit high speed but it did make easier the passage of wagons laden with farm produce or farm supplies. The trip from Rochester to Detroit took two days over the corduroy road. In 1873 the road was further improved and became a gravel roadway from Rochester to Auburn.

Rochester was the first settlement in the present Oakland County. Prior to April 12, 1869 Rochester was a part of Avon Township. At that time the residents voted to incorporate as a village. Later the village shifted to City status and, in 1969, the incorporated City of Rochester celebrated the centennial of its attainment of corporate status.

In the earliest days the village of Stony Creek eclipsed Rochester. It had a woolen mill, two saw mills and two cider mills in 1876 plus a blacksmith shop and a dry goods store.

The advent of the railroad enhanced the growth of commercial and industrial activity in Rochester. The Detroit and Bay City Railroad opened in 1872. Later it became a part of the Michigan Central and New York Central System. In 1895 the Grand Trunk Railroad initiated service from Port Huron to Pontiac and western cities. The appearance of rail connections at Rochester enabled it to bypass the neighboring villages of Stony Creek and Mt. Vernon which early had outpaced Rochester in economic development. The tracks between Utica and Rochester were placed along the 30 year old canal banks. The line passed through the Clinton River Valley and up a steep grade into the north part of town. It followed Paint Creek to lake Orion, continued via Lapeer and Saginaw to Bay City. The first passenger train arrived in Rochester in October of 1872. Volume grew rapidly, in seven months of 1877 the town shipped 7.2 million pounds of freight and received 4.2 million pounds. In 1881 the line was acquired by the Michigan Central Railroad. Traffic increased steadily and in 1907 there were eight passenger trains a day scheduled to stop at Rochester and as many as twenty-five freight trains.

In 1894 the community's voters passed a bond issue for a water system. The sum raised ~ $15,000 ~ was large for the period, although it would scarcely pay for a repair job today. The money was used to acquire an acre of land on Livernois, two and one quarter miles northwest of town. At this site there were a series of springs one hundred feet higher than the homes of Rochester. Several wells were drilled, connected to 12 inch mains and six miles of pipes were laid. Initially the pressure was 60 pounds. Unfortunately the new water supply soon proved to be inadequate. Lawn sprinkling was limited to two hours in the morning and one in the evening. Violators of the sprinkling law were fined one dollar or could have their water turned off.

To increase the water supply the village purchased twenty-three acres adjoining the first wells. The new land cost $1,200. A second reservoir was constructed of reinforced concrete. It was 225 feet by 100 feet and was 22 feet deep. It was fed by springs and held 2,000,000 gallons. by 1907 there were 375 homes and businesses using the village water. The annual cost of the water service was $1,850 or slightly less than $5 per customer.

The lack of a public water supply had made fire prevention an important consideration in early Rochester. In 1880 any resident wanting to erect an addition to a wooden building was required to get permission from the village council first. The ordinance number 47 provided for a fire warden whose duties were to inspect four times each year all buildings using lights or fires, to order chimneys cleaned and repaired, to act as custodian of fire buckets and ladders and to pass on the applications for expansion of existing buildings.

The 1880 ordinance allotted $150 for equipment; it purchased: ten ladders, fifty rubber buckets, eight pike poles and two self-grappling hooks with ropes. The fire department was not formally organized until 1895. At that time it consisted of a chief engineer, two volunteer hose companies and twenty men in all. None of the men were paid.

As the century changed the first telephone service came to Rochester. Bert Norton installed the exchange in the rear of his drug store and served about 50 customers. In 1924, the Michigan Bell Telephone Company purchased the Rochester telephone company. By 1970 the number of telephone subscribers had grown to 10,000. This makes Rochester a well-telephoned city with approximately 1 1/3 phones for each resident.

It was 1924 when the first police department was organized in Rochester. The start was small ~ one man. The policeman enforced both local and state laws. The local law enforcement first became motorized in 1937 ~ some 13 years after the department was created. Today the police force consists of a chief, sergeant, a detective, eight patrolmen, four dispatchers and three automobiles.

The city and village of Rochester provided many club activities for its residents. Among those are the following: The Melissa Hive No. 115 of the Fraternal Order of the Maccabees which was founded in 1891. The Rebekah Lodge was organized in 1903. The Rochester Business Women's Club was an offshoot of the Rochester Women's Club. Also for women are the Avon Business and Professional Women's Club, the Junior Woman's Club and the Order of the Eastern Star. The community also enjoys the Heart of the Hills Senior Citizens Club for Men, Senior Citizens, Child Study Club, Rochester Round Table, League of Women Voters, YMCA, and a number of theatrical groups.

The community has had a band since 1844. The Cornet Band was organized in 1865 and the Silver Cornet Band first appeared in 1876. In the 1890's the Rochester band was recognized as the best in the state. Rochester had a brass band until into the 1930's. More recently, the Tuesday Musicale has presented serious music to the community. The Band Booster Club has helped raise funds for the school bands. The Rochester Community Orchestra presents several concerts each year. Perhaps the best known musical group is the Meadow Brook Music Festival which brings great names to the community as part of the summer season.

The Meadow Brook Music Festival is held in the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred G. Wilson. They donated their home to the Michigan State University. Later the land was used as the site of the new Oakland University as well as the music festival.

The community excells not only in the area of clubs and organizations to meet the many needs and desires of its residents but also has extensive recreation and park lands. The first large public recreation area in Rochester was Halbach Field, built in the early 1920's. the high school teams played there. In 1936 lights were installed for night games and a grandstand was built.

Avon Township started a park on Ludlow in 1933. Paint Creek was dammed in 1939 and a pavilion was erected in 1940, providing a clean and beautiful outdoor recreation area for the public. Unfortunately the pollution problem has made it necessary to ban swimming in Paint Creek for the last several years.

Rochester has turned much of the land where the municipal building stands into a park. The city has provided the skating pond and the Lions provided a skating pavilion. The Kiwanis built the new pavilion on the north side of Paint Creek, which has been the center of the Arts 'n Apples Festivals.

Source: Oakland County Book of History, The Sesqui-Centennial Publication 1820-1970, Arthur A. Hagman, Editor, pp. 258-62.

Compiling a comprehensive history about the following communities:
state of michigan