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"The Land of Healthful Delight"

Highlights from the Rod and Susan Wilson collection of Rochester History

This exhibit highlights selected items from the Rod and Susan Wilson collection of Rochester History, which the Wilsons donated to Oakland University in 2019. The collection documents the history of Rochester and Avon Township through thousands of photographs, letters, postcards, publications, and artifacts.

Panorama of the country surrounding Rochester

Excerpt from a publication of the Rochester Board of Commerce, ca. 1900

About the Rod and Susan Wilson collection

Rod and Susan Wilson are active collectors of Rochester history memorabilia and members of numerous local and state historical organizations such as the Rochester-Avon Historical Society (RAHS).

They were among leaders of the RAHS group credited with historical preservation projects such as the restoration of the World War II memorial and a Federal Art Project painting entitled “Industrial Environment of Rochester High School” by Marvin Beerbohm.

Their families have deep roots in the Rochester Avon area.

  • Rod’s maternal side of the family has been in the area since 1822, when Stephen Reeves purchased property along Galloway Lake (in today’s Auburn Hills). Reeves became the first probate Judge elected in Oakland County.
  • In 1837, Susan’s fourth great-grandfather, Jacob Miller, purchased 360 acres at the corner of today’s Adam’s Road and Avon Road – later giving his name to the lake there. Rod and Susan are both 7th generation inhabitants of this area.

The Rod and Susan Wilson collection is a labor of love. For decades, Rod and Sue have tirelessly sought out books, photos, manuscripts, posters, objects, and other items documenting the history of the greater Rochester area. Many local residents, hearing about their dedication, donated personal heirlooms. In 2019, the Wilsons generously donated their collection to Oakland University.

Below are highlights from the collection. Together they tell the story of Rochester’s growth from a small village surrounded by farmland to a city in suburban Oakland County.

Check back often! Items will be added on an ongoing basis to this website.

Early Days

color map of Oakland County

Excerpt from W. Hinsdale’s Archaeological Atlas of Michigan (1931) showing Indian trails, villages, mounds, and burying grounds

For thousands of years Native Americans (of many different tribes, including Ojibwa, Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi) traveled and lived in what has become Oakland County. After the US acquired this territory as part of the Louisiana purchase in 1803, it was not long before white settlers traveled to the area.

Early official descriptions as barren and swampy lands gave way to more positive accounts that attracted farmers. James Graham settled on a farm on the banks of the Clinton River in 1817, followed by John Hersey and many others.

After the opening of the Erie canal in 1825, whites flooded the Oakland County area. In 1835 the territorial legislature created Avon Township, which included today’s Rochester and Rochester Hills.

One of the reasons for the attractiveness of the Rochester area was the convergence of the Clinton River, Stony Creek, and Paint Creek. Before steam engines became the norm, stream-powered mills provided much-needed energy to grind grain, card wool, or cut lumber to serve the growing local population.

In 1819 the first sawmill and gristmill were erected by John Hersey on the banks of Paint Creek. In 1825, he built another sawmill, near the burgeoning settlement of Stony Creek, northeast of Rochester.

photo of winkler mill

Winkler Mill (formerly Hersey’s mill) in Stony Creek

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Travelling to and from Rochester

In 1838, the new state of Michigan encouraged an ambitious project -- the Clinton Kalamazoo Canal -- to connect Lake St Clair to Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, the financial panic of 1837-1841 and the competition of the railway led to the quick demise of the project, with only the portion from Mount Clemens to Rochester being completed.

clinton bank 2 dollar note
clinton bank 5 dollar note

Two bank notes issued by the Clinton Canal Bank of Pontiac, 1837.
The bank was chartered to help finance the project.

In 1869 the village of Rochester was incorporated. The arrival of the railroad in the 1870s and 1880s connected it to Detroit and other neighboring population centers, quickly turning it into a transportation hub and providing efficient passenger and freight service that allowed it to grow rapidly.

photograph of a man on a steam inspection car

Ed Barnes, station agent at Rochester Junction, on the small steam inspection car he built

color postcard

On September 27, 1899 the first electric interurban railway car operated by the Detroit, Rochester, Romeo, and Lake Orion Railway reached Rochester.

In 1901, the DRRLOR and 11 other lines were purchased and absorbed into the Detroit United Railway (D.U.R.). Until 1931, the DUR allowed people from the area quick access to Rochester employers.

By then, the automobile had proven to be a more convenient and faster mode of transportation. Before the 1920s, local roads had been impassable in poor weather.

By the 1920s the road infrastructure improved significantly thanks to the construction of cement and concrete roads.

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Rochester’s main street has always been lined with small businesses.

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Soon the farmland and beautiful scenery of the Avon Township area attracted developers catering to Detroiters who wanted to escape the crowded and polluted city.

From the Oakland County Board of County Road Commissioners to private developers, all praised the “quiet retreat far from the noise and heat of the city”, the pure air and water, and the proximity “to civilization and nature”.

Farms were progressively turned into subdivisions and the Rochester area experienced dramatic population growth.

One of several such ventures,the Nowels Lumber Yard in Rochester operated a successful lumber and coal business that took advantage of the “do it yourself” home ownership movement during the New Deal.

By the 1970s, Oakland University’s student newspaper saw Rochester as a “developing city with modern roadways, subdivisions, and shopping malls” that “still retains the quaint, small-town atmosphere of the early 1900s.”

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John James Snook, Rochester’s poet laureate

John James Snook Portrait

Portrait of John J. Snook from New Poems and Glad Outings, 1907

John James (J. J.) Snook was born in 1842, the first child of James H. Snook and Sarah Axtell. The Snook family had come to Michigan in 1836 and purchased 400 acres of farmland. During the Civil War J. J. served in the Twenty-second Michigan Volunteer Infantry.

After his discharge in 1865 he became a farmer, later acquiring some 170 acres of land in Rochester, which he named Overlook Farm, overlooking the Clinton River (at the southwest corner of Rochester Road and Avon Road). There he grew berries and fruit, developing modern truck farming methods.

view of farm field with sheep

Panoramic View of Overlook Farm, ca. 1905

book cover and cover page for New Poes and Glad Outings

J. J. Snook was also a prolific poet and published a book of poetry under the title New Poems and glad Outings. Most of his poems were inspired by his farm and the Rochester area, as well as his travels and Civil War experience.

He died in 1923 and his tombstone bears the words: "Thinker, Teacher, Soldier, Farmer, Poet, Author."

photograph of barn and tractor

Cover and title page of J. J. Snook’s privately printed book of poetry, 1907

The Rod and Susan Wilson collection contains the personal papers of J. J. Snook, including many manuscripts and publications.

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Map of Historical Places

The map below highlights the locations of many of the places mentioned in this exhibit.


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Created by Name / Updated on April 28, 2020 by Name

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