Rochester remembers its roots in bicentennial

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published August 15, 2017

 Travis Gauthier, of Waterford, owner and pilot of the “Candy Corn” hot air balloon, lights up his balloon for the Balloon Glow in Rochester Municipal Park Aug. 12 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of Rochester.

Travis Gauthier, of Waterford, owner and pilot of the “Candy Corn” hot air balloon, lights up his balloon for the Balloon Glow in Rochester Municipal Park Aug. 12 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of Rochester.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

ROCHESTER — Residents, business owners, elected officials and administrators in Rochester came together to unveil a 20-foot-tall sundial in celebration of the city’s bicentennial Aug. 12.

City Beautiful Commission Chair Lynn Marie Oates said former City Councilman Steve Sage, who previously served on the CBC, came up with the idea for the sundial about six years ago. His idea was put on the back burner for a number of years, until the City Council issued a request for proposals asking for ideas for a monument to commemorate the bicentennial.

“To see it done is beyond words,” Oates said the morning of the dedication. “It’s more than we could have expected. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Located at the entrance to Rochester Municipal Park, the centerpiece of the 3-D monument is a steel gnomon — the blade of the sundial —  designed by Michigan artist Russell Thayer and fabricated by Scott Berels.

“The (CBC) wanted something that was reminiscent of early Rochester, which was essentially industrial. So I thought it should be steel, with nuts and bolts, like the old factories. But we didn’t want it to look old-fashioned, and we didn’t want it to look too modern. What the balance point is is different for everyone,” said Thayer, a sculpture artist from Franklin. “I’ve gotten pretty much all compliments on it so far.” 

Thayer — who has created sculptures for Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, Delta College, the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, and a host other institutions and green spaces — said the gnomon is the largest of his creations to date.

“I wanted something that would be strong enough to support the wind, so I just did a triangle, which is typical of a sundial. Then I put two legs on both sides to keep it from blowing over. Then I put the four little corner pieces in … the design is very simple,” he explained. “It should be a good play place for the kids.”

The gnomon is surrounded by historic bricks — which served as Main Street’s first paved surface in 1916 — 20 historic decade stones and 20 plaques depicting key moments in Rochester’s history. The design also features seven benches and over 100 engraved brick pavers, which are still available for sponsorship.

Underneath the sundial is a 12-by-12-inch weatherproof time capsule filled with copies of the past three months of the Rochester Post newspaper, photos of the current Rochester City Council and City Beautiful Commission, several books by Rochester Historical Commission members, a couple of bicentennial pins, a special coin made for the 100-year anniversary of the city, a photo of the current streetscape on Main Street, a map of the city, and a flash drive with additional information — to be opened 100 years from now.

The 20-foot-tall monument was unveiled during Rochester’s Bicentennial Homecoming event.

“Time is not measured by a clock but by moments. Our history is our story. The series of our past events and people connected in continuous motion are all important to our past, our present and our future,” Rochester City Council Mayor Pro Tem Kim Russell said before sharing some of Rochester’s history with the crowd.

“In 1812, Congress gave 2 million acres of land that is called the Territory of Michigan to veterans of the war in 1812 as bountyland. After the land was explored, it was deemed to be unfit for cultivation. A few years later, however, pioneers investigated and found that a few miles beyond the swamp land of Detroit, there was good farmland. After roads were established, it took two days with a team of oxen to get from Detroit to Rochester.”

On March 17, 1817, James Graham, his son Alexander, his son-in-law Christopher Hartsough, and their wives stopped at a spot in the wilderness — near where the Rochester Farmers Market stands today on East Third Street — that would become the city of Rochester, the first settlement in Oakland County.

“Oakland County was named because of the number of oak trees,” Russell explained. “Rochester was named for Rochester, New York, because many of the settlers had come from Rochester, New York.”

The Graham family put up a rough log cabin, the county’s first log cabin, and sent for the rest of the family later that year. They did not purchase their land at once, but instead “squatted” on it for five years before committing themselves, according to records from the Rochester Avon Historical Society.

The first industry in the new settlement was a saw mill — erected in 1819 — followed by a general store in 1826 and the Rochester Post Office in 1829.

“In 1826, the original plat of Rochester was laid out, but it was not incorporated to a village until 1869,” Russell explained. “Between 1826 and 1835, our town really started to develop. We had a drug store, a hotel, a sawmill, a flour grist mill, a distillery, and other enterprises started businesses. Two industries came into town — a sugar beet factory on Sugar Avenue (now Woodward) and the Western Knitting Mills (now the Rochester Mills). The advent of the railroad in 1827 was a turning point in our life here in Rochester.”  

Mayor Cathy Daldin thanked the CBC for its hard work and dedication over the past three years to get the project done. Despite budget woes — mainly due to the discovery of unstable, uncompacted ground on which the heavy monument would sit — she said the CBC and others who have worked on the project have gone above and beyond, raising over $100,000 to help offset the cost.

“I think it’s safe to say this is an absolutely beautiful monument,” Daldin said. “It tells a story. It is something that is going to be here for the next 200-plus years. I am just so happy with the way it turned out, and I hope all of you are too.”

Rochester City Councilman Jeffrey Cuthbertson, whose family sponsored one of the historic decade plaques, was also thrilled with the final product.

“In anticipation of our bicentennial, I thought it was important that we have some form of a monument — something that plants a flag in the ground that says we are celebrating this and that it matters, so people in the future will look and see that something that important was a priority for the community,” he said. “What it turned into, however, was better than my wildest dreams in that it also tells our history at the same time. Tens of thousands of people come to the park every year, so a piece of our history is going to be given to anybody who takes even the most casual glance, and there is something really valuable in that for our city and future. I’m real proud to be associated with making that happen.”

Rochester Police Chief Steve Schettenhelm said he saw the monument take shape over the past few months from his office in the adjacent Police Department.

“I think it came together quite nicely,” he said. “The nice thing that I enjoyed was, last Saturday, there was a family that was out there, and the kids were having fun seeing how it worked and the parents were explaining it. I think that’s what it is all about. In years to come, people are going to bring their kids out here to enjoy it and learn the history of the city. It will be great.”