Who Was Red Knapp?

Red Knapp is something of a household name in the Rochester area. After all, local residents have been enjoying hamburgers at Red Knapp’s Dairy Bar on Main Street for the past 66 years. But who exactly was the man whose name blazes in neon over the front door of Rochester’s iconic burger spot?

Long-time restaurateur Lyle “Red” Knapp was born on a Sanilac County farm in 1910. He came to Rochester to find work in 1926 and landed a job pouring concrete for the foundations of Meadow Brook Hall, then under construction. Knapp had dropped out of school but was determined to earn a diploma, so he enrolled at Rochester High School while working in a local garage to pay his way.

Lyle “Red” Knapp, his wife, Cecelia (far right) and the staff of Red Knapp’s Dairy Bar pose behind the counter with Claire Elias, the reigning “Mrs. Michigan” of 1953, during her goodwill tour of local businesses – Photo Courtesy of Roger Knapp

Lyle “Red” Knapp, his wife, Cecelia (far right) and the staff of Red Knapp’s Dairy Bar pose behind the counter with Claire Elias, the reigning “Mrs. Michigan” of 1953, during her goodwill tour of local businesses – Photo Courtesy of Roger Knapp

During his senior year at Rochester High, Red Knapp was expelled from school after intervening in a fistfight between Principal David Millard and another student. Controversy erupted, but after his attempt to defend the other student became known, more than three hundred local residents signed a petition demanding that the school board reinstate Red Knapp. The board reversed its earlier decision and Knapp returned to class.

After high school and a brief sojourn to California, Red Knapp went into business operating a gas station on Main Street near the South Hill Bridge. He slept at the station and operated it around the clock, seven days a week, mostly by himself. He wanted to open a roadhouse in connection with the service station, but state regulation at the time forced him to choose one business or the other. He decided to go into the restaurant trade in 1936 and bought a building on the west side of Main Street, where Kruse & Muer is today.

In the same year he opened his bar and restaurant, Red Knapp also joined the volunteer fire department. As a firefighter, he met his fellow citizens at some of the lowest points of their lives; and he was deeply affected by the need he saw around him. He maintained a regular clothing drive to aid fire victims and distributed food baskets to those whose family budgets wouldn’t stretch to cover holiday meals. Eventually, the Inter-Church Women, who established The Clothes Closet to aid low-income families, adopted Red Knapp’s work. Today, the Clothes Closet is part of the Rochester Area Neighborhood House, but it all started with one firefighter who wanted to make a difference in his community.

Although his restaurant and bar business was successful, Red Knapp was never comfortable selling liquor. “He was a lifelong non-smoker and non-drinker,” his son, Roger Knapp, told Rochester Media. “He said that the people he was selling liquor to in the bar were the same ones he was delivering food baskets to during the holidays.” So Knapp decided to make a change; he sold the restaurant and bar to his brother, then he and his wife, Cecelia, built Red Knapp’s Dairy Bar at 304 S. Main. The new restaurant opened in July 1950, and its signature hamburger has been a local favorite ever since.

Red Knapp's Today - photo taken during the Big, Bright Light Show

Red Knapp’s Today – photo taken during the Big, Bright Light Show – courtesy of the Red Knapp’s Facebook Page

Red Knapp died in 1992, but his name is still prominent on Rochester’s Main Street. His grandchildren run the dairy bar now, which looks much as it did when it opened six and a half decades ago. The faces have changed and the upholstery on the stools has been replaced a few times, but the important things remain the same. Locals don’t need to consult a menu to know exactly what they’ll get when they order “one deluxe with cheese and seasoned fries.” It’s Red Knapp’s, after all.

And yes – in case you were wondering – his hair was red.

 

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen is the assistant director and local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She is active in the Macomb County and Rochester-Avon historical societies, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Pat Botkin says:

    Thank you for writing this article and highlighting Red Knapp and his contribution to the community. I’d enjoy seeing more human interest stories like this.

    • Deborah Larsen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Rochester has a rich history and there are plenty of stories waiting to be written. Stay tuned!

  2. Alota peeps says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing. This brought up questions about the Rochester Community House and its origins.

  3. Kathleen Deesen says:

    And a malt! You forgot to mention the malt!
    I dare say if Knapp Dairy Bar were ever to close ~ Rochester just wouldn’t be Rochester.
    I hope that Knapps has a permanent place on Main Street, forever & ever, Amen!
    { I’m still not over D&C closing, nor Hills Theater…& I’ll bet I’m not alone!}

    • Patte Ward Evans says:

      You’re not alone at all. I remember walking down Main Street as a child and everybody knew everybody. What a great town we lived in. Red Knapp was an awesome man and his sons, Roger and Butch were great too.

    • Debra K. Carlton Pauloski says:

      You are not alone.
      Two of my sister’s use to work at the dairy bar during their high school years. My mother worked at the restaurant. My dad ran the old movie projectors at Hills Theatre. Yes mam, we even gave Santa our wish lists. He dropped off about 5/6 pairs of ice skates one year. Grew up on the skating pond down behind the cop shop.

    • Debra K. Carlton Pauloski says:

      Oh lordy be, can’t forget the malts!

  4. Paula Hipsher says:

    The best hamburger and malt.. I live in Macomb Township but love the downtown walk of Rochester. . Keep Rochester exactly the way it is.. nothing like a downtown to shop and walk….. love this town.. so many of small town America is disappearing and replaced by malls.. sure hope this doesn’t happen to Rochester..

  5. Kay Smith says:

    At our house it was believed that the chocolate milk shake had medicinal value. Whenever my sister Mary Jo or myself were sick, Dad made a run down to Knapp’s to get the “magic elixir”. We also walked downtown to Knapp’s for something fun to do … Roger and I still enjoy a hamburger, fries and shake! The Rochester of our youth is still alive and well at Knapp’s.

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      Must be true! When I was growing up, my mother seemed to think that any ailment could be cured with a chocolate malt or a glass of Vernor’s.

  6. Linda Evans Schmidt says:

    I grew up in Rochester and lived there half my life. I now have lived the second half of my life in Colorado but whenever I get back to Rochester I ALWAYS go to Knapp’s! Still the best burger and homemade buns ever! I enjoyed reading the history. I knew Roger and Butch but not their dad.

  7. Ilene Hyder says:

    Very interesting, Debbie. Knapp’s Dairy Bar was a place to go in my teen years. We didn’t have many choices of places to get burgers and malts back at that time. I am glad it is still there. Thanks for writing the article.

  8. Donna Demuyt Labbe' says:

    I moved from Rochester in 1984 after I graduated high school. I lived on Red Oak and Mr. Knapp kept horses in a barn down the street for his grandkids. I spent many days learning to ride there and have great memories of riding the ponies in the Christmas parade. I worked at Holland’s florist in high school & Mr Holland passed away while I was working there. Both of these men were great influences in my life, especially after I had lost my dad. I did not know a lot about his life, thank you for writing the article!

  9. Deb Raschella says:

    Thanks to Roger for keeping his parents dream alive! My brothers picture still hangs in one of the booths in the back. (Tom Teague). My sister Barb and I never miss having a burger when we travel back to Rochester from Wisconsin to visit.

  10. JoAnne (Stevens) Hoag. says:

    Sure enjoyed the article about Red Knapp. He was my first employer and job. I am now back in Rochester and feel like I am home.

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