Berkley residents put history of city in print

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published May 1, 2013

 In the early 1950s, Berkley public safety officials welcome a new fire truck to the Berkley Fire Department. Lt. Ben Weston sits in the truck while Fire Chief Robert Hannah perches on the side and Police Chief Frank Irons rests his arm on the truck.

In the early 1950s, Berkley public safety officials welcome a new fire truck to the Berkley Fire Department. Lt. Ben Weston sits in the truck while Fire Chief Robert Hannah perches on the side and Police Chief Frank Irons rests his arm on the truck.

Photo submitted by Arcadia Publishing


After the War of 1812, the city of Berkley was a mere swampland deemed uninhabitable by the United States government. The swamp water could not be drained and the land was so poor, it discouraged any new settlers.

However, in 1817, Territorial Gov. Lewis Cass came to what is now Berkley and decided to sell the land at $1.25 per acre. Slowly, settlers came to Michigan on the promise of cheap land, and by 1832, there was regular travel through Berkley.

Almost 200 years after Cass first went to Berkley, a trio of Berkley residents has put the history of the city on paper in the form of “Berkley,” a book that covers the first settlement to the modern-day city.

Over the past year, James Jeffrey Tong, Susan Richardson and Councilman Steve Baker rounded up more than 200 photos and described the growth of Berkley from an unused swamp to a close-knit community. The book, published by Arcadia Publishing, goes on sale to the public May 6.

“Knowing the way the city is now and seeing those old pictures, you don’t know how to describe the way things have changed, and it makes you realize how much things have changed,” Richardson, 66, said. “I feel blessed to have the two people I worked with, and we learned a lot about the city. I consider Berkley a second hometown and, personally, it was rewarding.”

Richardson has lived in Berkley since 1990 and is a chairwoman for the Berkley Historical Committee. Tong is a lifelong Berkley resident and a vice chairman for the committee, while Baker, a former committee secretary, is currently on the Berkley City Council and serves as a liaison for the committee.

Berkley didn’t become its own village until 1923, when two groups of people raced to the county courthouse in Pontiac with the group who wanted a small, working-class community camping out overnight to beat the other group. Nine years later, Berkley became a city, with Charles Williams becoming the first mayor.

Richardson said the story of two groups of people fighting over what to make Berkley was the most interesting part of the entire history of the city.

“Here are two factions that have different views and they race to the courthouse; it is so cool to think people were that invested in organizing a new entity,” she said. “They had (such) desires of getting their vision put forth that one group camped out over night to be the first to get there.

“There are stories of people camping out for big sales on Black Friday or for concert tickets, but here are people that cared that much about their community — it is inspiring.”

With a degree in history and having worked at the Detroit Public Library for 33 years, Tong considers himself a “history buff” and said he enjoyed visiting all the churches, schools and stores that have been around for years.

At the age of 70, and having lived in Berkley for all but four years when he was in the military, Tong still was able to find something that surprised him during the research for the book.

The Ku Klux Klan had a big presence in the metro Detroit area in the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1924, the Rev. Oren Van Loon, of Berkley Community Church, preached against cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan. On June 30, he was kidnapped by the Klan and found alive 11 days later in Battle Creek, branded with KKK on his back.

“I didn’t know about the KKK being centralized in Berkley,” Tong said. “It was interesting to see they had a presence here in a small town like Berkley. I also didn’t know that the front gate of Roseland Park Cemetery was modeled after (Benito) Mussolini’s palace.”

When Richardson was approached about putting together the book, she, Tong and Baker sat down to go over what they needed to include. Schools, churches and the cemetery were easy, but getting other information and more pictures would require some digging.

Thankfully, the group received a lot of help from the community, as Tong said he was never turned down when he asked for information or photos. Others, like Carol Ring, who is writing a more in-depth history of Berkley, were able to help with the research.

For Tong, going through all the photos and seeing the finished product was a special moment and one that brought up his own personal history.

“I look at photos from inside the Berkley Theatre and I remember going there as a kid and paying 14 cents for a Saturday matinee,” he said. “There are pictures of a soda fountain I went to with my friends and a picture of my doctor’s office where I was born in 1943.

“This is kind of like my present to Berkley.”

All profits from the book will be donated to the Berkley Historical Museum. The authors will be participating in a book signing during Berkley Days May 16-19 and also at the Berkley Art Bash June 8.