Tag Archives: Underground Railroad

The Burbs: Natural History…

17 Jun

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Sometimes you just want to be out in nature; fortunately the metro area has plenty of options. Today we’ll enjoy the beauty of nature and explore some amazing local history in the Shelby Twp, Rochester area. Our journey begins at River Bends Park, covering nearly 800 acres the park offers ball fields, soccer fields, trails for walking, hiking and biking, an archery range and rental pavilions. Let’s start at the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center. Just outside the building we find a beautiful garden, I can’t resist gardens. A sign tells us this section is filled with deer-resistant plants, I find that a hopeful statement… Barberry shrubs are vibrant colors, several stunning varieties of Iris are in bloom, the purple Columbine are so pretty. Inside a gated area we find an attractive combination of annuals and perennials, I’ve never seen a smoke flower before, poppies are ready to burst open, white anemone, pink hardy geraniums bloom on this late spring day.

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Inside the nature center a large stone fireplace, picture windows overlooking the woods and knotty pine make us feel like we’re up north. Aquariums hold lizards, snakes, a leopard frog (I think he’s awesome) and other amphibians. I get a kick out of watching turtles swim, two are stacked on top of each other in a roomy tank by the wall. Displays identify different species of turtles, birds and rodents. Maps mounted to a wall show us the parks of the 1920’s-30’s; have you heard of Swiss Valley, Green Glen or Broadway? Look at the way the river twists and turns. It seems the Clinton River was the top recreation spot for people living in Detroit back in the day. In the next room photos and descriptions lay out the history of the area, pretty fascinating stuff. From 1850-1864 part of the land was Spring Hill Farm. Landowners Sarah and Peter Lerich were known for their strong views on anti-slavery. Peter dug a spring for the farm and enlarged the spring house to form a cavity that could hide several people, a large Cedar tree atop the spring house was known as the Beacon Tree, marking it as a station on the Underground Railroad.

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In 1939 Joe Louis purchased Spring Hill which was then a well-known riding establishment; he was an avid horseback rider. Mr Louis made many changes to the farm; he added a track at the bottom of the hill for horse shows along with bleachers and box seats. The house was renovated and made into a restaurant and nightclub (really!) I saw a photo of an old postcard featuring the house with a map of the location, it reads: Joe Louis’ Spring Hill Farm “A Good Place To Eat And Drink”. I’ll bet it was something to see! He used the farm as a training camp to prepare for fights. He lost the property due to financial difficulties, the Michigan Conservation Department purchased the property in 1944.

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In another section of the park the first large Public Works project in Michigan was getting underway in 1838; the Clinton and Kalamazoo Canal. The canal would have made it possible to cross Michigan by boat from Lake St. Clair to Lake Michigan. Lack of finances ended the project in 1843 after only 12 miles of the canal were completed. Evidence of the canal can be found in several places. Walking from photo to photo one in particular grabs my attention. In 1957 the farm became one of four Nike Missile Bases in the Detroit area. It was manned by members of Battery B-516th AAA Missile Battalion until 1964. In 1974 the Michigan DNR regained control of the land and added it to the Rochester/Utica state recreation area. 

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Time to get out in the fresh air. We follow the back stairway down the steep hill to the Boardwalk Trail, the sky has cleared, we are surrounded by tranquility. Mushrooms sprout from fallen trees, everything around us is green and lush, woodland flowers are in bloom, it looks as if the boardwalk will be enveloped by plants soon. The trail leads us through the Tamarack Swamp, deer travel the ridge trail above us, sweet honeysuckle scents the air. The trail ends at the river, the water level is high, we turn around, going back the way we came. Extending our time outdoors we head east following the old forgotten trail along the ridge. The terrain changes from grassy to sandy to forest. Birds sing, deer are busy eating but take off as we approach. Remnants of the past are found in piles of railroad ties, concrete pads, partial structures of things that fell down or burned down over the years. The land has come full circle and is wild again.

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It’s Tuesday, if we time it right we can get over to Bloomer Park in Rochester Hills and watch the cyclists practice at the International Velodrome. The IVBP is an outdoor, 1/8 mile/200m oval with banking from 13-44 degrees. Paid for with private donations and built by volunteers from the cycling community, it was given to the city of Rochester Hills. A lone bicyclist is taking laps on the track. We get right up to the railing and have a good look, the bank looks steep to me but the rider handles it effortlessly. Kris notices a tunnel that leads to the center of the track, we traipse down the hill, find an asphalt path and enter the interior of the track. Wow, this is cool. More riders have arrived, they’re putting on their equipment as we wander over to them. One strikes up conversation with us, he lets me lift his bike, at less than 15 lbs I’m shocked at how light it is. All three riders are out on the oval now, they stay in pack form as we watch, each lap takes them a little higher. There are races here every Friday night throughout the summer, we’ll have to come back and catch one.

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Exploring the park further we find ourselves at the stone shelter, to me it looks like an old ski lodge. Built during the depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it’s made up of big stones, wood-shingle roof, wood ceiling, the far wall is a fireplace; so charming. We walk around inside then out the back to the balcony overlooking the park; you can follow the nearly 200 steps to the bottom of the hill. Did you know there was a ski jump right around here in the 1920’s? The story goes like this, ski jumping was very popular during the roaring 20’s, 6 brothers from Ishpeming MI formed the Detroit Ski Club in 1925, purchased 11 acres of land from the Newberry Farm on Bloomer Rd then spent $40,000 to build a competition-grade ski jump standing 112 feet atop Newberry Hill’s 230 ft elevation. More than 10,000 people attended its inaugural competition. The jump was destroyed by high winds in 1934 and rebuilt, it was destroyed again by winds in the 40’s, it was never replaced. 

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I’m hungry. A few minutes later we’re standing in line at Lipuma’s Coney Island on Main Street in downtown Rochester. We’ve been coming here forever and are never disappointed. I order the food, Kris grabs a table, a moment later my tray is loaded with food. It’s beautiful out on the deck, we relax to the sound of the river flowing by and the chatter of ducks. It doesn’t take long for us to polish off our food; 2 tacos for me, a Chicago dog and a Mexican dog for Kris. This is good stuff. For dessert we head to Dino’s Cookie Dough Bar on University. With more than a dozen flavors it’s not an easy decision, thank goodness they give you samples to try; butterscotch it is. A sweet ending to a great day.

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The Octagon House

20 Jan

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In 1860, Macomb County farmer, engineer, Loren Andrus completed construction on his cupola-topped, Corinthian-columned, eight-sided home on Van Dyke just north of 26 mile Rd in Washington Michigan; 155 years later it’s still looks beautiful. Today the Friends of the Octagon House are having a holiday open house and we’re going. Before we start our tour, I’d like to tell you a little about this unique style of architecture. Some consider the octagon the first pure American housing style, it is completely different from the styles brought from Europe; Thomas Jefferson designed over 50 buildings with octagonal features. Eight-sided structures were less expensive to build, every inch could be used as living space, they were easier to heat in the Winter and stayed cooler in the Summer months due to the spiral staircase. It’s estimated thousands of octagonal homes were built in the US, mostly on the East Coast; today, less than 500 remain, two of them right here in Macomb County.

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We park in the lot next to the house, two of the original barns remain on the property, the orange brick home features 8-foot windows, white trim and pretty scrolled brackets reminding us it was built in the Victorian era. The front entrance is open, Christmas decorations fill the rooms, walls are pale yellow, wide trim pieces are painted satin white. I am astounded at how fancy the interior is; thick moldings hug wide arches that permit passage from one room to the next, ceilings are embellished with carved details, medallions act as anchors for chandeliers, and the spiral staircase……..wow!! All of the decorated trees and garlands are for sale, one of the many ways the “Friends” raise funds for restoration and maintenance, it’s beautiful. Rooms flow one to the next, period furniture fills the space, many items have been donated. In the dining room a cluster of  large plaster acanthus leaves cling to the ceiling forming an elegant medallion for the crystal chandelier, this one is original, there’s a lovely china cabinet and sideboard, light pours in through the large windows making the room bright.

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There are different rooms for entertaining on the first floor, the kitchen is complete with ice box and antique stove. The centerpiece is, of course, the 55 step, cantilevered, spiral staircase that leads from the first floor to the third-story cupola, it’s gorgeous! Today it’s embellished in ribbons, garlands and glass ornaments. Kris and I stand at the bottom and gaze up to the top, it’s a swirl of plaster, wood and holiday sparkle. Climbing the steps, we go all the way to the top, inside the cupola we are granted a panoramic view of our surroundings; on one side mature trees and old barns recall the days when this was a working farm, the other direction, a complete contrast, busy roads and modern businesses. Walking down one flight, we are on the second story where the family bedrooms are located. Again we have that flow from room to room; doorways are wide, floors are broad planks, beds are antique, quilts are draped on racks; Christmas trees and Poinsettia adorn the spaces. A sitting area is finished off with thick books filling cases, a phonograph and other old-fashioned items scattered throughout.

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We descend the dramatic staircase to the first floor, then continue on to the basement, here we find old photographs and displays. There have been ‘digs’ on the property revealing old farming tools, bottles and wheels. A cellar is filled with cast iron skillets, rolling pins, baking pans, butter churn and storage bins for vegetables grown on the farm. Canning jars are filled with pickled and preserved items. In the laundry room there’s an old washing machine and a wringer to squeeze out the excess water before things were hung on the clothesline, reminds me of what a chore laundry used to be. Did you know the Octagon House was one of the stations on the Underground Railroad? 

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Like so many other important, historic sites and buildings, the Octagon House had been vacated, vandalized and condemned, it was rescued  just days before the wrecking ball was set to demolish the house. I remember coming here as a kid when it was the Apple Barrel Farm (1974-84) complete with animals. Today it is a State of Michigan Historic Site, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Macomb County Historic Landmark. It’s really a remarkable place, I encourage you to visit during one of their open houses or events, it can even be rented out for one of your own private events; check it out.

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Driving south on Van Dyke, we decide to stop off and grab a bite to eat at Tivoli’s Pizzeria in Utica. Nestled in a decades-old strip mall, the building recently suffered a fire, this is our first time back since they re-opened.  The inside is completely different, yet the same. The layout hasn’t changed; tables fill the front section, the open kitchen remains in the middle. The decor is a bit more rustic, chandeliers are mismatched, table tops resemble old wood planks. The long wall is exposed brick, Italian movie posters hang mid-way down, the left wall is covered in a custom painted mural, photographs and memorabilia belong to the family. We’re glad to see many of the old staff members have returned. 

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The menu has been revised; new things have been added, old favorites remain (whew!). Today we are having the Tivoli Special, a NY style round pizza with mozzarella, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, ham, bacon, Italian sausage, we add yellow pepper rings to the mix. We start with the Antipasto salad, a nice pile of crisp lettuce topped with all the usual suspects, dressed with the housemade vinegar and oil, delicious. Our pizza is served right from the wood-burning oven, the crust is puffed high in some spots, melted mozzarella stretches all the way from the pan to our plates, it’s delectable, as expected. They also make Sicilian square and Chicago stuffed pizza, oh and don’t forget about dessert, you can’t go wrong with their homemade Tiramisu or Cannoli.