September 14, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
History Tour: Royal Oak
Last week I learned that General Lewis Cass gave Royal Oak its name when, surveying the land, he found an oak tree there that reminded him of the Royal Oak in England where King Charles took shelter from the Roundheads in 1666. Then I called Cass a dweeb. Then I learned that there’s a historical marker where the tree used to be.
Well, there was only one thing left to do: get on the bike and go see it.
I don’t know about you, but this is what generally comes to mind when I think about Royal Oak:
And like many of Metro Detroit’s other thrumming suburbs, I have a hard time imagining gnarly old forests, foot-worn trails and a few lackadaisical fruit orchards where we now have Mr. B’s, Blackfinn and a gigantic Barnes and Noble.
Still, there is more to Royal Oak than meets the eye — particularly the eye that belongs to the person that tries to get in and out of Royal Oak as quickly as possible, which, admittedly, I usually am.
I rode up Hilton, which turns into Campbell north of 696 and the Royal Oak city line. I planned to take Campbell up to 13 Mile but the road proved a total nightmare to ride on, so I hooked west into one of Royal Oak’s many pretty little tree-shaded neighborhoods and ventured north on residential streets which, this time of year, are strewn with acorns that pop under passing tires.
Veering off the main road was a good strategy, not only for my safety, but because I had no idea how many parks there are in Royal Oak, almost all of which look like this:
Royal Oak’s colossal trees made it much easier to visualize an earlier Royal Oak — the kind of place, indeed, that General Cass might name after a tree. In fact, in 1938, a “City of Trees” committee (this place is serious! About trees!) managed to acquire 60 acorns descended from THE Royal Oak. You know, in England. Some of them were planted in the city’s Memorial Park. I don’t know if they are still standing, but maybe a Royal Oak arborist does.
At or around 13 Mile, I headed west, but for a short northward detour on an unpaved road when the hum of traffic started to bother me. An idyllic aside:
… that reminded me, again, that we are not very far removed from metro Detroit’s more rustic past. I grew up in Farmington Hills, with relatives telling me, holiday visit after holiday visit, how much Farmington Hills had changed — how it used to be actual farmland. Seriously, my aunt & uncle were married at a hunt club in Farmington, which is probably now a subdivision named Hunt Club.
Jostling cautiously across the gravel on my not-really-appropriate-for-that bike, watching gleaming SUVs tear up dust en route to some gorgeous house in the woods, I also considered recent alarm in the press over “America’s crumbling infrastructure” (unpaved roads an oft-cited concern) and giggled. Another block later I had to get back on the main drag because, of course, work crews were paving a street.
At Crooks, I turned south, to go see someone’s front lawn.
I know it doesn’t look like much (I hope you’ll understand that it’s kind of weird and hard to take a picture of a lawn), but do you see how there’s a little dip in the land, right beneath that unsightly telephone pole?
That, miraculously, is the last trace of the Saginaw Trail. And there’s a historical marker nearby to prove it:
This depressed path, northwest across the Almon Starr land, is the last visible remnant of a trail worn by the feet of Indians and the hoofs of their horses traveling between Detroit and Saginaw until the mid-1800s.
The Children of the American Revolution planted the pin oak nearby in 1939 to mark the trail.
The marker was placed in 1987.
The Almon Starr house still stands, too. It was built in 1868 from bricks that were fired in John Almon Starr’s tile works. Early captains of industry in Royal Oak, the Starrs were first successful in the manufacture of COWBELLS. DING A LING.
The rest of the ride was nice downhill coast to the intersection of Crooks, Main Street and Rochester Road, for the final crowning glory of the history tour — the attraction that started the whole excursion:
I wonder how many people have ever even noticed this pretty commemorative plaque, tucked unassumingly between two bushes in what appears to be the back yard of a big cemetery.
General Cass was out to prove that lower Michigan, a place most people thought was a hostile, uninhabitable swampland, might make an attractive settlement.
He was so right. Even too right.
Thanks, General. We owe you one. Raise a glass next time you’re at Ye Olde.