Rochester Municipal Park Has Been the Place to Play for 85 Years

Old photo of a walking bridge with people standing on it looking down at the river it goes over.
The Avon Park dam formed a popular swimming hole. The dam and bridge were dismantled in the 1980s. (From the Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm)

Eighty-five years ago this summer, Rochester residents dedicated a new recreation spot on Paint Creek. Built on the site of a bankrupt dairy farm and a long-abandoned millrace, Avon Park—now Rochester Municipal Park—quickly became a favorite place for area residents to swim, picnic, and play.

The property on which Rochester Municipal Park now stands was a part of the Elliott R. Wilcox farm for much of the nineteenth century. Wilcox, who was an attorney, state legislator, and prosperous farmer, built a water-powered paper mill in 1873, at what is now the edge of the park near the northern dead-end of Wilcox Street. The mill was never very prosperous, and it went through a succession of proprietors—sometimes standing idle for periods of time—until it burned down in 1901. Although the mill building was erased from the landscape more than a century ago, remnants of the mill’s headrace are still clearly visible near the Ludlow entrance to the park. Part of the headrace was filled years ago when the parking lot in front of the Rochester Community House was created, but traces of it emerge further to the north, where a shallow depression in the ground runs along the edge of the park’s parking area. A small concrete footbridge crosses this former millrace.

Old map image showing the creek and rail track lines, as well as the placement of where the Community House would be on the map today.
This 1896 map shows the location of the old Wilcox Paper Mill, and the mill race. The red box shows the location of today’s Community House.

Around 1901, the old Wilcox farm was sold to John C. Day of Detroit, who ran it as a dairy operation. In 1920, Day sold his farm to Detroit businessman and philanthropist David A. Brown, who continued the dairy operation but lost his fortune and went into debt during the Great Depression. Brown defaulted on his taxes, and Avon Township voted in December 1933 to buy 11 acres of the foreclosed Brown farm lying along Paint Creek in the village of Rochester for the sum of $174. The remaining acreage of the Day-Brown farm was sold in 1939 to Howard L. McGregor and became the Great Oaks Stock Farm.

The township’s newly acquired property hadn’t been under cultivation, but local children, who called it “the hardpan,” had used it as an unofficial playground. With a $7,000 grant from the federal Public Works Administration (PWA), the township began a project in the spring of 1934 to transform the spot into a family recreation area. Unemployed men were offered jobs clearing brush, trimming trees, grading and filling the property, damming Paint Creek to form a swimming pool, and building a pedestrian bridge. The work continued on through the summer of 1934, and visitors began to use the developing park, although it would not be officially opened until 1935.

Concrete footbridge connecting walkways.
A small concrete footbridge crosses the remnant of the Wilcox Paper Mill’s headrace in Rochester Municipal Park.

In June 1935, Rochester area residents held a Double Jubilee celebration, commemorating the dual centennials of Avon Township’s founding and Michigan’s path to statehood. As a part of the Double Jubilee festivities, a formal dedication ceremony was held for what was now christened “Avon Park.” Another PWA grant had furnished more amenities in the park, including a 26-stall bathhouse near the swimming pool, toilet facilities, a drinking water well, picnic tables, and camp stoves. The Rochester Clarion remarked that the new swimming pond had fast become the most popular spot in town for youngsters.

The summer after the dedication, a Rochester Boy Scout troop contributed to park improvements by planting a grove of 12 pine trees in honor of the 12 Rochester boys who had achieved the rank of Eagle Scout at that time. These trees still stand east-northeast of the Community House. A few years later, students from Rochester High School planted 1,000 blue spruce seedlings throughout the park.

Avon Township applied for one last PWA grant in 1940 to build a log pavilion near the Ludlow entrance to the park. The building’s dimensions were 30 x 60 feet, and it featured a fieldstone fireplace at the north end. Stones for the fireplace were harvested locally from the Homer Hodges farm on Brewster Road. Rochester Girl Scouts and the Rochester Woman’s Club participated in the project by outfitting a small kitchen in the new building. In 1975, the park pavilion was repurposed as the Rochester Community House. Since that date, the building has undergone numerous improvements, additions, and renovations, but its origins as a rustic picnic pavilion are still visible in the Lewis Room, where the fieldstone fireplace still dominates the space.

Old photo of a one-story log cabin building with a stone chimney.
The Avon Park Pavilion (now Community House) as it looked about 1940. (From the Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm)

In 1959, the Lions Club of Rochester built a warming shelter for ice-skaters on the adjacent Rochester Municipal Building campus, when that area was briefly known as Slone Park. Eventually, the municipal building campus was married to the main park by two footbridges across Paint Creek.

Avon Park had always been owned and operated by Avon Township, which included the village of Rochester. However, when Rochester incorporated as a city in 1967, it became a separate municipality and was no longer part of the township. This change generated a number of legal headaches for the township and the new city because Avon Township had four important assets that were now suddenly located outside of its own borders: Avon Park, Mount Avon Cemetery, the Avon Township Hall, and the public library. Representatives of both municipalities spent months ironing out a settlement under which the cemetery and the park were transferred to the new City of Rochester. Avon Park was then officially renamed Rochester Municipal Park.

One story building with stone chimney in a park setting.
The north end of today’s Rochester Community House comprises the Avon Park Pavilion built in 1940.

During the early 1970s, the park made news for the presence of a locally notorious group of youth who styled themselves the “River Gang.” The teens used the section of Paint Creek running behind the Rochester Municipal Building, at the time shielded by somewhat dense underbrush, as a hangout. For a few years, the group’s presence was intimidating to some park visitors, until the teens involved “aged out” of such activity and the city removed the undergrowth along the banks of the creek.

Over the decades, numerous changes and additions have been made to the park. In the 1980s, the dam and footbridge that formed the swimming pond were demolished, and sanctioned swimming was removed from the list of recreational amenities. On the positive side of the equation, the Rochester Kiwanis Club erected an open picnic pavilion for community use in 1966. A second picnic pavilion with restrooms was opened in 2015, and a Tot Lot playscape was built nearby. The Bebout Municipal Park Band Shell, funded by a bequest from the late Barbara J. Bebout, was opened in 2014 and hosts live music performances throughout the summer months.

In addition to family gatherings, the park has hosted many well-loved community events over the years. The Art ‘n’ Apples Festival, the Floatable Boatable, the Greater Rochester Heritage Days, and the Music in the Park summer concert series are just some of the events that have made lasting memories for Rochester residents.

Do you have a special memory of Avon Park/Rochester Municipal Park? Please tell us about it in the comments.

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.

Comments

  1. Mary Howarth says

    As always from Deborah, a great bit of local history. I had heard bits and pieces of the story, but this is detailed and informative. Thank you for publishing it.

  2. Scott Struzik says

    Great information Ms. Larsen, thank you!

  3. Don Stover says

    I have many great memories of AvonPark. As a child in the 40’s and 50’s our family had many picnics there. I remeber an elderly gentleman at the gate as we arrived who would ask for our street name. Since we lived on the west end of Avon Township and about 5 or 6 miles away, I could never understand how he could remember all the street names in the township. It still amazes me.
    During the week we would ride a school bus especially arranged for the kids too far away to walk. There were many days of bad sunburn on my back from standing on the bridge to watch the big kids diving for whatever. I also recall a favorite place outside the park where we could buy bubble gum or a piece of candy. This was a home on Ludlow with a small store run by a sweet lady. All the kids visited her store to get a sweet fix.
    Oh so many memories.
    Thank you for sharing this great history of the park I knew as Avon Park. Sincerely,

    • Deborah Larsen says

      The little store on Ludlow was run by Mrs. Henry. Well-loved by all of the children who frequented the park!

    • Lorrie Stover McMillan says

      I too have wonderful memories of those days. The bus rides and swimming and packing a lunch as we would spend the whole day there and ride the bus back home. I remember the store my brother Don mentioned. We would buy a bottle of pop to have with our lunch. What a treat that was so many years ago. I so enjoyed this wonderful article, Deborah. Thank you so much for reviving those memories for us.

  4. Susan L Snow says

    When I saw this picture, I immediately knew what and where this place was. I really shouldn’t say “where” because the last time I was in Rochester, a couple years ago, I tried to find it, but couldn’t. I have many fond memories from my childhood of hot summer days and spending the afternoon swimming at Avon Park. I never knew the history about the developement of the park, so that was interesting reading. Rochester is so different now from when I lived there in the 1950’s & 60’s. Articles like this bring back a lot of fond memories!

  5. Peggy Eller says

    I have pictures ice skating on the pond from 1969-1972. I loved growing up in Rochester!

  6. James F. Ahearn says

    Great article! I moved to Rochester with my family in 1963 and missed out on the earlier days of the park, so I found this article very informative.

  7. Linnette Brandt says

    I remember the merry-go-round in the play area down by the river. A bunch of kids would run like crazy to get the thing going around as fast as they could make it go, jump on, and hang on for dear life. I believe those kind of merry-go-rounds were deemed unsafe, and it was taken out.

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