Looking Back: Tracking down John O’Connell’s Grocery Store

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published June 4, 2019

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BIRMINGHAM — The Birmingham Museum is often called upon to dig into Birmingham history, sometimes with unexpected results.

Recently, a photo album was donated to the museum, and a bit of a mystery was inside. The album contained a photo of John O’Connell’s Grocery Store, a business located somewhere in Birmingham in the 1910s, but of which there is no record.

After reading newspaper clippings in the album and checking other sources, museum staff learned that O’Connell lived at 412 Willits St. — now known as the historical Stickney House — and his store was, surprisingly, located in a barn in the backyard.

The O’Connell family moved into the home around 1901. O’Connell was a cabinetmaker by trade and built the barn himself — even cutting the timbers and siding by hand. After he retired, O’Connell turned his barn into the grocery store he had always wanted to operate. He sold a variety of items at the store, but he was best known as “the place” to buy school supplies and candy for the students at Hill School.

After O’Connell passed away in 1930, the barn fell vacant. Local kids used it as a place to play, even going so far as to stretch a length of cable from the barn to a large tree across the Rouge River ravine and riding an attached hay bale as a “cable car” to cross the divide.

Around 1948, the barn was sold and moved to 1570 Pierce St. The barn was no doubt quite a spectacle as it traveled down Old Woodward Avenue to its new location. It was remodeled into a private home that remains today.

The Birmingham Museum’s new exhibit, “Birmingham: Before and After,” shows examples of other historical past-to-present comparisons in the community.

— Donna Casaceli, museum assistant for the Birmingham Museum

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