The Story of Rochester’s Noon Whistle

Nobody who lives or works in the vicinity of downtown Rochester needs a watch to know when it’s lunchtime. Six days a week, at high noon, the blast of the fire department’s siren marks the midday hour. However, the daily sounding of the noon whistle has nothing to do with signaling a meal break and everything to do with a devastating fire that nearly destroyed an iconic Main Street business.

A few men on a work site of building rubble.
This photo shows clean-up work in progress two days after the Phillips & Jerome fire.

Back in 1926, Rochester boasted a brand-new, state-of-the-art Ford dealership. Partners C. Lawrence “Larry” Jerome and Oliver N. Phillips had opened their modern showroom and service garage at 215 South Main in February of that year with a well-attended community dance party. The Phillips & Jerome building was part of a wave of new investment that was exciting Rochester at the time. The state had announced in 1925 that it was planning to build an 810-foot-long, concrete highway bridge to connect South Hill with the foot of Main Street, and business was booming in anticipation of the coming construction.

A catastrophe struck, however, only nine months after the gala opening of the Ford dealership. On October 20, 1926, an acetylene torch being used in the service garage ignited gasoline in a tractor tank. The resulting fire spread rapidly, and the building was soon ablaze. Larry Jerome and his employees acted quickly to save the automobiles by pushing them out into the street through the showroom.

Meanwhile, an attempt to summon the members of the village’s volunteer fire department was made. The siren atop the village hall on East Fourth Street failed to sound when activated, forcing news of the fire to be spread only by word of mouth or smell of smoke. Rochester’s lack of a pumper truck further compounded the effort to fight the fire. One was summoned from Pontiac and arrived within 13 minutes, but the fire was already too far advanced to salvage the Ford building. Instead, the pumper truck was used to safeguard the adjoining buildings. A fire department history written by William A. Cahill hypothesized that “had the Pontiac Fire Department been unable to respond, it is quite possible that the entire part of [the west side of] Main Street would have been destroyed.”

One story brick building with large windows on Main Street.
The rebuilt Larry Jerome Ford dealership as it looked in the mid-1940s. (From the Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm)

When the smoke cleared, the Phillips & Jerome building was a complete loss, reduced to nothing but a shell. Upon investigation, it was found that the fire siren had been silent due to lack of maintenance; local oral history says that it was clogged by a bird’s nest. Stung by the loss of Rochester’s newest business block, the village council took steps to improve the town’s fire readiness at its first meeting following the disaster. It purchased a long-discussed, 1,000-gallon pumper truck for the fire department, and it ordered that the fire siren be tested every week by sounding it at noon each Saturday. The council later amended its order to have the siren sounded daily at noon, except on Sundays.

The Rochester Clarion, while applauding the steps taken to upgrade Rochester’s fire response, also took the opportunity to scold the village fathers from its editorial page for their lack of preparedness: “Following a $75,000 fire, which might have been easily averted had our fire alarm system been properly looked after and kept in working order, our village council, at its first meeting thereafter order the purchase of a new fire engine and the try-out of our fire alarm system once a week hereafter—A case of padlocking the stable after the horse is stolen.”

Following the order of the village council, the first “noon whistle” was sounded in downtown Rochester on Saturday, October 30, 1926. Despite advances in communication that now summon firefighters to duty by electronic means, the tradition of the noon siren continues to this day, 94 years after the Phillips & Jerome fire.

Two-story modern building on Main Street.
The former Jerome Ford building as it looks today.

Phillips & Jerome bounced back quickly from the disaster. Local men pitched in with equipment to clear the site, and the partners immediately rebuilt their dealership on the existing foundation. The building was finished in time for the celebration of the opening of the South Hill Bridge the following year. Larry Jerome eventually became the sole proprietor of the dealership and continued its operation at 215 South Main until he sold the business to Jack Long in the mid-1960s. In 1968 the business became McKenzie Ford; Murray G. McKenzie moved the dealership out of the downtown area to South Hill in 1971, where it became Huntington Ford in 1981 and most recently, Serra Ford. Today, the former Ford dealership on South Main is the home of Main Street Billiards.

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. Jeff Whitbey says

    Nice story!!

  2. Susan Bowyer says

    Great story! I love the history you shared. The images are great to help get a real look at how the building looks then an now. Thank you for telling a great story about the Main Street Billard’s building in Rochester and the history of the Ford Dealerships. Sincerely Susan

  3. Jerry mowat says

    Great article

  4. Ray Henry Jr says

    Nice to read the history behind something we take for granted. I’ll bet that Larry Jerome was somehow related to Ben Jerome of Pontiac and proprietor of Jerome Motors Sales (Saginaw Street, Pontiac)?

  5. Janet (Mills) Dolan says

    This story gave me cause to many memories. The Jerome family house was across the street of my home on Glendale. And the fire siren was at the football field on Woodward. Every time it went off at night, I would say a prayer for the people who needed it. Thank you for your story.

  6. Clara Cresswell says

    I never knew the story of the noon whistle. And I never knew it was only on Saturdays, I thought it was every day. Thanks for the nice story

  7. Thanks for all the stories you write about Rochester. I loved growing up in that community. Your stories are just amazing. Well done!

  8. ELLEN WITZ says

    Great story on the whistle and fire, always appreciate your details and hard work on these stories.

  9. I grew up in the sub just up above the fire department (when it was by the grain elevator). I just assumed a noon whistle was a common thing. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized everyone didn’t have a noon whistle! Glad to hear they are still doing it. I would have thought someone upset with the ‘noise pollution’ would have ground a halt to that long ago!! I assume most of the 94 years it was done manually, how did they make sure they didn’t miss noon!??

  10. Vickie Kriewall says

    Yet another wonderful article about my hometown.

  11. Patrick McKay says

    Did Larry Jerome and Duck Duncan create the Jerome Duncan Dealership that ended up in Sterling Heights?

    • Deborah J. Larsen says

      Yes, Larry Jerome and Dick Duncan became partners in the Utica dealership in 1956. Duncan later moved the dealership to Sterling Heights.

  12. Rosemary Reid says

    Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed the historical content. I didn’t know that about the noon bell. Well done!

  13. Carol Van Sickle says

    Yes. It was located in Utica. Dick Duncan and Larry Jerome were perhaps partners and then Dick Duncan became sole ownwe and built out in Sterling. While still under the Duncan name, his daughter Gail took over the business.

  14. Beth williams Ambrose says

    I have lived on Ferndale Street all my life and that siren a big part of my life. If out and about I knew I better get home when the siren went off. We could even hear it in the now Dinosaur Hill area where we usually were with the siren being in Halbach Field. Love Rochester!

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