Heller’s Has Been Keeping Time for Over Half a Century

The Heller family has been keeping time for Rochester residents for well over half a century in the same Main Street location. In 1961, Ernest and Violet Heller bought an existing jewelry business at 409 S. Main in Rochester, and today their son, George, is the proprietor of Heller’s Jewelry.

Ernest Heller was born in Vienna in 1921. When he was 16 years old, his father sent him to the United States to assist his uncle with a business in Detroit. When things didn’t work out as planned with his uncle, Heller took a job with a watchmaker and learned that trade. “My father was a master watchmaker,” said George Heller. “That was his skill.”

George Heller holds a photo of his father, Ernest - Photo by Deborah J. Larsen

George Heller holds a photo of his father, Ernest – Photo by Deborah J. Larsen

Drafted into the army in August 1942, Heller was assigned to an armored division at Fort Benning. When army officials became aware of his fluency in German and his ability to read and write German shorthand, he was transferred to a newly formed military intelligence training center near Washington, D.C. Eventually, he went overseas and was tasked with the interrogation of enemy prisoners. When the war ended, he served as part of the intelligence staff of a prisoner of war camp in which German general staff officers and high-ranking political leaders were housed. There Heller assisted with the interrogations that gathered evidence for prosecutions in the Nuremburg war crime trials. At one point, he personally interrogated former German Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering.

After the war, Heller returned to Michigan, where he married and made his living running a watch repair concession at Selfridge Field. In 1961, Heller and his wife, Violet, considered opening a retail store in either Romeo or Rochester. Violet swayed the decision in favor of Rochester. She was familiar with the town, having spent summers in the area during her youth. As a child in Detroit, she had often traveled out to Oakland County to visit her grandparents at their farm on Kern Road. Violet’s parents would put her on the interurban car in Detroit, and her grandparents would meet the car in Rochester and take her out to the farm.

Having selected Rochester as their preferred location, the Hellers bought out the Lamoreaux jewelry store in 1961. The store already had deep roots in Rochester. Before Lamoreaux, Pauline Palmer, the youngest child of one of Rochester’s most prominent 19th century merchants, Louis E. Palmer, had long operated the business.

George Heller grew up in his parents’ jewelry store. He remembers when Friday night was shopping night in downtown Rochester and all of the stores stayed open late. “My parents would be here until 9 o’clock,” he recalled. “So my brother and I would get sent across the street to the Hills Theatre, where we could watch a movie for 50 cents, instead of hanging around the store all night.”

Heller's Jewelry - Photo by Deborah J. Larsen

Heller’s Jewelry – Photo by Deborah J. Larsen

Following in his father’s footsteps, George Heller attended trade school and apprenticed under some master jewelers in Detroit before joining the family business in Rochester. Ernest Heller died in 1994 and his wife died in 2000, and George Heller now carries on the family business with his own son.

When asked what has changed the most over the past half century, George Heller notes that Rochester has grown tremendously and is not a “sleepy farm town” anymore. He also observes that the downtown retail mix is vastly different than it was when his parents came to Rochester. “There were only two jewelry stores in town in those days, ours and Lloyd Lake’s. Now we have at least eight or nine.”

Despite the growth and change, Heller’s Jewelry is a Main Street landmark that has endured – 55 years and counting.


About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

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