The Early Settlers and the Growth of Royal Oak – The 19th Century:
At the beginning of the 19th the development of what is present day Royal Oak began with the opening of a “public house” (or inn) in 1822 by a man named Henry O. Bronson. This inn became a landmark for those making the journey to and from Detroit.
In 1835, Sherman Stevens, a railroad businessman, came to Oakland County. In 1836 he purchased 80 acres of land. This plot of land was laid out to be the Village of Royal Oak. Stevens worked hard and helped get a charter for the Detroit and Pontiac Railway Company to connect the City of Detroit and the Village of Royal Oak. In 1838 the track was completed. Once the railroad reached the area, logging became a major industry and the area only grew in prosperity and population. The people took advantage of the oaks and other trees in the area and began to log and farm and ship their materials via railroad to Detroit for trade. A sawmill was constructed that made oak rails for the railroad company.
The next pioneer of an industry of any kind in Royal Oak is Orson Starr. Originally from New York, Starr came to Royal Oak and built himself a small empire by making bells for cows and sheep. The cow bells gained national recognition and put Royal Oak on the map. His home was of the first permanent ones built in Royal Oak, and the site is now a national historic landmark.
The early settlers in Royal Oak had an eclectic mix of occupations. In the beginning of the 19th century, many were farmers and sold lumber to railroad companies. As the area was more populated and businesses started, farming of cranberries and blackberries provided income to many families. Also, much work could be found building the railroads and in a shipyard (even though many miles from water). The fish nets made were a very lucrative trade.
The village and then city grew concurrently with the surrounding area. As the city continued to expand, so did its options for work and play. Within forty years of Mr. Sherman settling, in addition to the railroad business sites, there were three blacksmith shops, a hotel, four churches, two doctors, two pharmacies, three general stores, a school house and a town hall. The township expanded with a library, orphanage, a newspaper and telephone service in addition to more churches and downtown businesses.
The late 19th century brought exciting opportunities to the residents of the area. Railroads were slowly replaced with streetcars and roads as means of transportation. People saw that Royal Oak was being established as a strong village and many started to acquire as much land as affordable. Farming increased for industry and occupations. Woodward Avenue, known as M1, was a gravel road as were the other passages. All sidewalks were made of wood. Community gatherings were important. The Fourth of July and Harvest Time picnics were well attended and a big part of building community.
Business expanded with more stores, inns and places of worship to name a few. The establishment of the auto industry helped expand the population as people flooded the area for the chance to work in the factories.
Royal Oak was on its way to becoming a great small town.
Penney, David G, and Lois A. Lance. Royal Oak Twigs and Acorns: Articles, Essays, Letters and Other Historical Writings; Also Pictures and Various Illustrations Most Previously Unpublished About Royal Oak and Royal Oak Township. Royal Oak, MI: Little Acorn Press, 1996. Print.
Perkins, Owen A. Royal Oak, Michigan: The Early Years. Royal Oak, Mich: Golden Jubilee ’71, Inc, 1971. Print.