The History of Brooklands

The “Brooklands” have a Long History with Big Changes Coming

The Brooklands area in southeastern Rochester Hills is undergoing a makeover project this summer. The Auburn Corridor Plan seeks to attract new investment in Brooklands by improving traffic flow, parking, pedestrian and bicycle paths, landscaping, neighborhood amenities and curb appeal of commercial structures. While much discussion time has recently been devoted to the future of Brooklands, far less attention has been given to its history.

A few businesses along Auburn Road

Auburn Road in Brooklands

The Brooklands subdivisions – known collectively as “Brooklands Sub” or simply “Brooklands” – lie along both sides of Auburn Road between John R and Dequindre. The very first Brooklands plat, however, was west of John R and south of Auburn Road. It was laid out in 1916 on the former farm of August and Caroline Dobat. The subdivision was designed around the brand new Brooklands Golf and Country Club, and likely drew its name from the brook that ran through the middle of the golf course, providing 14 different water hazards for players.

The course at Brooklands Golf and Country Club opened in 1917 and attracted star professional players, including Walter Hagen and Jock Hutchison, for special tournaments and events. The club was successful from the start and grew to a membership of 300 by 1925. It was also a playground for Detroit’s social elite, and was mentioned often in the society columns of Detroit newspapers.

A large earth moving vehicle sits next to a pile of dirt

Auburn Road Construction

Streets in the original Brooklands plat were named for the most prominent amateur golfers of the day: Tom Bendelow, Harry Vardon, Jerome Travers, Chick Evans, and Ted Ray. Only a few of these street names survived after the entire plat was vacated and redrawn in 1920.

The golf course was renamed Rochester Golf and Country Club in 1956, when a consortium including 1955 National Open champion Jack Fleck purchased it. Fleck served as the club pro and operated Rochester Golf and Country Club until 1958, when he sold it to George Sadowski. The golf course closed in 2003 after the land was sold for redevelopment. Construction of the 266-home Country Club Village subdivision began in 2004, but the golf club’s Tudor-style clubhouse, built in 1928, still stands. So, also, does the Brooklands name that the club brought to the area in 1916.

Front view of an one-story brick building

Former clubhouse for Brooklands Golf and Country Club, built in 1928

Starting in 1928, Avon Township created several supervisor’s plats adjoining the original Brooklands plat to the east. Named Brooklands Park, these plats featured a grid of streets with small city lots appropriate for modest bungalows. The lots attracted wage-earning autoworkers who wanted to own their own homes. In Brooklands, factory workers from Pontiac and Detroit found affordable family housing in a country setting.

Growth in the subdivision was slow at first, while the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. When P. T. Smith opened the first grocery store in Brooklands in 1935, the only other business located there was a gas station. As empty lots became home sites, churches established themselves in Brooklands. Two of the earliest were Gethsemane Lutheran Church, established in the mid-1930s; and Auburn Road Mission (now the home of Bible Truth Apostolic Church), founded in 1940.

Old 1950s style drive-in restuarant

Brookland Drive-In on the corner of Auburn and Hessel, ca.1958 – Photo Courtesy of Harold L. Mowat

The post-WWII era saw a boom for Brooklands. As more families located there, the area began to evolve as a community. With Auburn Road serving as the “main street,” a commercial hub developed, and soon Brooklands was a de facto village unto itself. Auburn Road through Brooklands now boasted a school, a couple of churches, a grocery store, a hardware store, drive-in restaurants, bars, and other small businesses. All the necessities of daily life could be found there without traveling to Rochester or Utica.

Old firetruck drives in a parade in downtown Rochester

Brooklands fire truck in the Rochester Christmas Parade – Photo Courtesy of the Whitbey Family

One necessity was missing – fire protection. Brooklands residents used well water, and the absence of city water service meant that the subdivision had no fire hydrants. A fire response from either Rochester or Utica – five miles away – was a distance that sometimes contributed to tragedy. The independent-minded Brooklands residents decided to form their own fire department, and organized the Brooklands Fire Association in 1945. When Bill Schroeder opened his new dance hall, Bill’s Barn, on Dequindre Road in July 1946, the Brooklands Fire Association served as host for the inaugural dance there. The association held dances and suppers, and other fundraisers to purchase a fire truck; and staffed the department with resident volunteers. When Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) consolidated its fire districts in the mid-1970s, the Brooklands Fire Department became Avon Fire Station #2.

Avon Fire Station #2 Sign

Avon Fire Station #2

As Avon Township developed in the 1960s and ‘70s, Brooklands appeared to have been left behind. The lots in the subdivision were small, and could not accommodate the “suburban estate” style dwellings that were being built in the rest of the township. Residents were reluctant to accept assessments for water and sewer service or street paving. Accordingly, Brooklands attracted fewer commercial investment dollars. The subdivision also acquired the reputation – whether deserved or not – of being a “rough” neighborhood.

In 1981, after bringing sanitary sewers and water service to the subdivision, the Avon Township Board of Trustees established a Commercial Improvement District in Brooklands. A key feature of the plan was the offer of 12-year tax abatements to commercial property owners along Auburn Road who upgraded or renovated their buildings. Only one Brooklands business participated in the program, and it was judged a failure. The township board revisited the plan in 1985, and made an attempt to revive interest by eliminating site-plan filing requirements for some categories of work, and easing setbacks for the subdivision’s typically small lots.

Even after elimination of some municipal red tape, little substantial change happened in Brooklands. Residents strongly disapproved of a 1999 plan to create an “urban village” in Brooklands, and it, too, went nowhere. The current Auburn Road Corridor Plan, adopted in 2017 and now underway, is at least the fourth attempt by local government to revitalize the Brooklands district.

Auburn Road Project Artist Rendering

Auburn Road Project

Christopher Noble, a long-time resident of Brooklands who grew up in the area, says one thing that has never changed over the years is the sense of community in the subdivision. “I’ve always loved the area, and I’ve never really wanted to move since I got my house here,” he told Rochester Media in a recent interview. Noble is, however, on board with the current Auburn Road Corridor improvement plan, as long as it makes positive contributions. “Change is always hard to accept,” he said, “but in a way, it is inevitable. I dread the construction, but I’m fine with the change.” When asked what one thing he would like to see brought into the Brooklands community, Noble was quick to respond. “Everybody misses Hollywood Market (the Auburn & Dequindre location) since it closed,” he said. “I would like to see a neighborhood grocery store open up again.”

Neighborhood has always been the bottom line for Brooklands residents. They have a very strong sense of identity, even though it is common for long-time residents to distinguish themselves geographically. They may tell you that they are from the north side or south side of the subdivision, or that they are from east – or west – of John R Road. Nevertheless, in the end, as their nearly 1,500-member Facebook Group boasts, they’ll tell you they are “Proud to be From Brookland Sub.”

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. Donald Worrell says:

    Thank you for yet another brilliant and illuminating historical essay by Ms . Larsen!

  2. Maggie McCloskey says:

    This is fascinating. Thank you so much for researching this and reporting on it. My dad’s family lived right near Brooklands school on the south side of Auburn for a long time until Meijer bought the property. My grandma, Marie Dunbar Dayton, taught 3rd grade at Brooklands from about 1942 or ’43 until about ’58.
    I am saving this article to reread. Well done! 🙂
    Best regards,
    Maggie McCloskey
    tgermantrans2@gmail.com

    • John Cheek says:

      My Grandfather was a janitor at brooklands elementary around 1962-64.
      John Cheek
      Jwcheek12@comcast.com

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Maggie. By the way, I still miss your dad! He was a wonderful family physician.

    • Denise. MEnefee Davis says:

      I remember Mrs. Dayton, she was my 3rd grade teacher in 1959-1960. My baby sister came along in April, I remember asking Mrs. Dayton if I could bring her in a laundry basket to baby sit during the day otherwise I migt need to quit school if my parents couldn’t find a sitter. She was one of my favorite teachers.

    • Donna Harned says:

      I had your Grandmother as my 3rd grade teacher. She was one of my favorite teachers. I guess that tells you how old I am.

  3. Sharon Potere says:

    Debbie, you are always so informative. Thanks so much. Miss your history of Rochester site that closed in April 2017!!!

  4. What made this area charming was the regular businesses there, some of which were now forced out. Putting in another Starbucks and a boutique or two will not change much.
    The plan to reduce speed limits on Auburn between Dequindre and Culver is nothing more than making a traffic choke point. Evening rush traffic is bad now, that will only make it worse. We don’t need another vacant downtown like Auburn Hills.

  5. Susan Bowyer says:

    Thank you so much for telling the history of Brooklands. I am excited to see the next chapter in this strong vibrant part of Rochester Hills.

  6. Ellen Witz says:

    Debbie, great article and picture of Ruth!!

  7. Great read!! Lots of Family grew up and lived in Brooklands! Including my Father Tom Drewes!!

  8. Pat Wagner says:

    My mom, Betty McGowan taught at Brooklands Elementary School for a while. In the 1950’s, my parents rented and resided in a chicken coop on the property of close friends in Brooklands after World War 2. I have good friends who live in Brooklands today. Thanks for the history lesson.

  9. rebecca says:

    there is a 95 year old woman that lives next door to ruther that has lived here all of her life her family owened the land where ruther and spencer sits on boy does she have stories about the area and loves to tell them maybe interview her sometime

  10. Sandi Miller says:

    Great story about Brooklands, I went to school at Brooklands, lived off of Auburn Rd as a kid, brings back so many great memories. The area has changed so much since I moved north, nice to see improvements, will take special notice when I get down state to see family. Sandi Spring Miller

  11. Maegan (Wilson Henderson) Crosby says:

    Thank you for the informative piece on Brooklands. I am the third generation raising the fourth generation in the same house on the south side. I am one of many of my generation that has bought their parents’ house so that we could stay in the neighborhood. Since the 1990s many residents have updated their homes, so it is nice to see the updates along Auburn.

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      Hi Maegan,
      That kind of community identity is priceless. It’s wonderful that you are keeping it the family for the fourth generation!

  12. Roger and Janet Guetzkow says:

    Well done, Debbie!

  13. Denise Menefee Davis says:

    Deborah, I truly enjoy reading the history of the Sub as we called when I lived there. Thank you so much for your research

  14. Ruth Dayton Burr. says:

    Wow! It’s great to read all these responses. We moved out here in 1941 and my brother Dick and I both went to Brookland school. Me from 4-8th grade. We lived 2 houses east of the school. Sometime in the early ‘40s my mom (Marie Dayton) was outside hanging clothes on the line. The principal from the school came and introduced himself. He said he understood that she was a teacher. She said yes she was and he said one of his teachers was sick and would mom, please come and take over the room for the day. At the end of the day, he asked If she would please finish out the week, as the teacher was still sick, then the year, and then came a contract for the following year. I don’t know how long it was, but she taught 3rd grade there for many years.

  15. Ronn Jamieson says:

    Great article, Deborah. I was a “west sider” … our family rented a small house on Bendelow, across from the golf course from 1964 to 1969 then built a house on John R. Had many friends from Brooklands Sub…rode the bus to West and RHS with them. Hopefully the construction will be done soon and the change will benefit the area. Can appreciate the loss of Hollywood Market. My mom did her grocery shopping there. Keep up the good work.

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