How Wilcox Street Was Named

Do you know the story behind the name of Rochester’s Wilcox Street?

elliot r willcox portrait

Elliot R. Willcox

Early Avon Township settler Lyman J. Willcox and his son Elliot R. Willcox owned part of the land through which Wilcox Street now runs. According to an 1883 account in the Pontiac Gazette, Lyman Willcox left New York City with nothing but a rifle and a pack on his back and walked westward, traversing Ontario, and finally coming to Michigan. He stopped first in Troy Township and then settled in Avon Township in 1824, where he remained for the rest of his life. He ran a gristmill and distillery on Paint Creek, and later operated a wagon shop in the village of Rochester.  

Willcox’s son, Elliot R. Willcox, was born in Rochester in 1838. After attending the University of Michigan, he became a schoolteacher in Rochester and Almont. Meanwhile, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1869. Elliot Willcox became a successful businessperson and attorney, and with Lysander Woodward, he helped to organize and capitalize the Detroit & Bay City Railroad, the first railroad line to reach Rochester. Willcox was also a large landowner in Avon Township, and farmed the area that we know today as Great Oaks. 

1896 Map Showing Wilcox Mill Site

1896 Map Showing Wilcox Mill Site

In 1873, Elliot Willcox built a two-story brick paper mill on Paint Creek in Rochester, near the northern end of today’s Wilcox Street. The mill wasn’t much of a business success, so Willcox sold it. The building housed several other enterprises before fire destroyed it in 1901. Although the paper mill disappeared from the local landscape more than a century ago, traces of the old millrace can still be seen today near the Rochester Community House and the parking area for Rochester Municipal Park. 

Elliot Willcox was also active in politics. Elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1868, he introduced the first resolution to permit the admission of women to the University of Michigan. He advanced to the Michigan Senate in 1876, but lost a bid for U.S. Congress in 1894. 

Wilcox Plat in 1908 Atlas Illustration

Wilcox Plat in 1908 Atlas

Around 1880, Elliott Willcox platted some of the family property lying between his paper mill and the north line of Fifth Street (now West University Drive). He sold off the land as residential lots but didn’t file the plan with county officials, so the plat was never official. Although the plat never made it into local government records, it appears on some old maps and area residents referred to it as the “Wilcox Addition” for years afterward. The street bisecting the addition was named Wilcox in honor of the family. In 1949, Avon Township created a Supervisor’s Plat over the area known as the Wilcox Addition, thus obliterating it from any future maps, with the exception of the street name. 

Is it one “L” or two? The surname Willcox appears to have been spelled both ways – sometimes with one “L” and sometimes with two. Elliott R. Willcox’s signature usually appears with a double “L,” and the same spelling is carved in stone on the family monument at Mount Avon Cemetery. However, when the plat was laid out on the family land north of Fifth Street, only one “L” was used, bequeathing us the spelling of the street name that we use today.

Wilcox and Seventh Steet Sign

Wilcox Street Sign

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. Molly (Peterson) Dando says:

    Thank you for this information. My family (John H. Peterson) lived at 603 W. University (corner of Wilcox and W. University)in early 1960s in what was known as the Stern (spelling?)house. I believe they had owned the movie theatre in downtown Rochester.
    I never knew the history of the street’s name. It’s nice to know these things. My sister and I spent many hours as children skating at the ice rink and enjoying cocoa in the warming house in front of the roaring fire.
    You are doing a great job and an important service.

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