Water-Powered Mills of the Rochester Area

Mill Town Heritage of Rochester and Avon Township

The real estate professional’s mantra that “location is everything” was as true in Rochester’s pioneer days as it is today. Long before the James Graham party led white settlers to today’s Oakland County, its hospitable lakes and streams and the excellent fishing they offered drew native people to the area. Water also attracted the Grahams and those who followed them. It was an essential element to sustain life, and it would power the new community’s first economic engine – the mill. 

Old photo of the Price/Winkler Mill in Stoney Creek showing a two-story wood building

Price/Winkler Mill in Stoney Creek – Courtesy of Deborah Larsen

Rochester’s pioneers brought only essential supplies with them to a wilderness area accessible only by river or foot trails. To survive, the Grahams and their neighbors had to produce their own food and goods, and to do so they needed mills. The 907 square miles of land embraced in what would become Oakland County served as a watershed for the Clinton, Huron, Rouge and Shiawassee rivers. Forests of oak, maple, hickory and pine surrounded the nearly 400 lakes and ponds in the county, offering prime timber for building. At the site that they named Rochester, three fast-moving streams converged: the waterway known today as the Clinton River, and two of its tributaries, Paint Creek and Stoney Creek.  

Old photo of a four-story wood building with a stone first-level foundation

Barkham Mill – Courtesy of the Rochester Hills Public
Library

The elevation of the Clinton River drops 465 feet from its headwaters in Springfield Township to its mouth at Lake St. Clair, making it a fast-moving stream that was ideal to power mills. The settlers needed sawmills to turn harvested timber into lumber for building. They needed gristmills to grind wheat and corn into flour and meal. They needed woolen and carding mills to process wool and provide textile materials for clothing and furnishings. Their early years in Oakland were isolated ones, and the first generation of pioneers needed to produce such items for themselves. 

According to one historian’s estimate, over 50 water-powered sites were scattered along the river systems of Oakland County during the 1840s. At least a dozen of them were in Rochester and Avon Township. John Hersey and William Russell built the first mill in the summer of 1819 – a sawmill on Paint Creek, not far from the site of today’s Rochester municipal building. In 1823, Col. Stephen Mack, one of the founders of Pontiac, built a flouring mill south of the village of Rochester where Paint Creek joins the Clinton River. In the nearby village of Stoney Creek, settlers built a sawmill, a gristmill and a carding mill. 

Outside of Rochester and Stoney Creek, the Clinton River supported at least three sawmills elsewhere in Avon Township. Milo Newberry operated one near his farm just southeast of the village of Rochester. Calvin Greene operated another near what we know today as the intersection of Avon and Livernois roads, and Abner Parker operated a third mill on his farm near the intersection of Hamlin and Crooks roads. William Yates built a gristmill on the Clinton River in the southeast corner of Avon Township about 1863, and converted it to a cider mill in 1876. 

Neely Newspaper Ad with the headline Vigilant Flour

Neely Newspaper Ad – Courtesy of Deborah Larsen

Following the Civil War, wheat was the leading cash crop in the Midwest, and the farmers of Oakland County were among the top producers. During 1878, Oakland led the entire state of Michigan by harvesting 1.55 million bushels of wheat. As a result, business boomed for the gristmills, including two in the village of Rochester. The Johnson Niles mill – built at the foot of Main Street in 1837, and later owned by James Curtis and Steven Barkham – operated for 90 years until it burned in 1927. The Wilson brothers built a gristmill on Paint Creek in 1868, near the site of today’s Retro Fitness building. Subsequent owner Thomas Neely operated this mill from 1896 until he dismantled it in 1909. 

Rochester’s next generation of mills included some manufacturing facilities. Just before the Civil War, new proprietors converted the former Mack flouring mill to papermaking. William Barnes bought the paper mill in 1864 and it operated under various names and owners until in April 2002, when it closed permanently. The building was razed in 2005. 

Unusual for a small town, Rochester briefly supported a second paper mill. Elliott Wilcox built his paper mill on Paint Creek in 1873, near the site of today’s Rochester Community House. Much smaller than the Barnes paper mill, the Wilcox mill was not very successful. Fire destroyed it in 1901, but remnants of its millrace can still be seen near the Community House in Rochester Municipal Park. 

Early Rochester entrepreneur Hosea Richardson built a woolen mill in 1844 at Fourth and Water streets. This mill went through three owners and two fires before William Yawkey and his partners Charles and William Chapman bought it. The new owners built a state-of-the-art plant and operated it as the Western Knitting Mills. A dam on Paint Creek created an 18-acre pond that generated power for the mill. Western Knitting Mills closed in 1927 and the building was sold. Today it houses the Rochester Mills Brewing Company. 

Detroit Sugar Company built the last mill in Rochester. In 1899, the company opened a beet sugar-processing mill on Paint Creek at the end of Woodward Street (then known as Sugar Avenue). Poor local beet crops and a change in U.S. tariff policy that affected the price of sugar combined to doom the mill after only five processing seasons. The building was demolished in 1906. 

Yates Cider Mill is large red barn-like wood structure with a water-wheel at the corner near the lower entrance door. The ground level is red brick.

Yates Cider Mill – photo by Michael Dwyer

In 2018, the Yates Cider Mill at Avon and Dequindre roads is the only remaining operational mill within Rochester and Rochester Hills. The cider mill is Rochester Hills’ oldest business and a reminder of the community’s “mill town” heritage.

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. Thank you for taking the time to write this stuff! I love that town, grew up there and was always interested in it’s history!

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