Royal Oak, Michigan 1938-2006

In the 1930's, Royal Oak was a bedroom community for the automotive plants in Detroit. There were still a few farms on the east side. Royal Oak was workers and foreman with a few exceptions. Managers and executives lived in Birmingham, just north of Royal Oak. The northern suburbs were developed by the advent of inter-urban light rail, streetcars and buses. The light rail was replaced by buses and a train. The streetcar was replaced by buses by the late forties. Buses remain to this day. The train is now a twice a day Amtrak instead of a commuter.

We moved to Royal Oak from Detroit in 1938. Brother Bill had just been born, we needed more room and my dad was more comfortable in a small town. At that time Royal Oak was about 14,000 people and we moved into a rented house on a street with only seven houses and near a of couple farms. The streets were not paved and every spring my dad insisted on getting his car stuck in the mud. It was great entertainment. When Adair’s family moved to Royal Oak in 1941, Adair's mother thought she had moved to the end of the world. She was a Brooklyn, New York woman in a remote village.

"Downtown" Royal Oak was the shopping center. Montgomery Wards, three dime stores, hardware, clothing stores, three movie houses, lumber yards, coal yards, four drug stores, furniture, a small super market, meat and poultry markets, bars, cafes and all the little specialty shops like sewing, vacuum, bakeries, etc. By the late 60's, big shopping centers took over and Royal Oak's downtown became very quiet. Two original shops remain today. It's Herman's bakery and Hagelstein’s bakery. The Main theater turned into an art movie house, the Royal Oak theater became a live music venue and the Washington theater became a local playhouse.

 Growing up kids could play in fields, woods, ponds and streams. Sports were not organized by adults. They were organized by the oldest kids. It was called sandlot. It was rare to have to worry about who owned the property you played on. My dad could go pheasant hunting by walking a half mile from the house. However, one neighbor hunted pheasant from his basement window. Not very sporting. Horse drawn milk and ice trucks entertained the kids and the ice man would give kids a chip of ice from his wagon. We didn’t worry about the cleanliness of the ice. Our house converted to electric refrigeration in the 1940's. We could go horseback riding a mile from our house for fifty cents, but that was a rare luxury.

Montgomery Wards had a Santa Claus each year but we went to Hudson's in downtown Detroit to see the "real" Santa Claus. On the way home we would stop at Sear's in Highland Park to see an assistant Santa Claus and finally visit the assistant, assistant Santa Claus in Royal Oak. It involved buses and streetcars but the rewards were small gifts from each Santa. Usually a coloring book or story pamphlet.

Halloween was grueling. We did the few houses in our neighborhood and then ran toward town where the houses were more plentiful. During World War II, when sugar was in short supply, word of mouth alerted kids as to where the best candy was being given out. Houses that gave pennies were OK but we avoided houses that gave apples. You could get apples off the local trees anytime. One of my best memories is picking a farmer’s corn three blocks from my house and roasting it in a park nearby. I don’t think the farmer liked it but we always escaped with our life. Years later I confessed to his granddaughter. 

 At the end of World War II, returning GI's needed housing. Royal Oak was filled with bungalows. Our neighborhood was built up and the farms were gone. Gone were the horses that plowed our Victory Gardens, and gone were the streams, woods, fields and ponds. Royal Oak peaked out at about 75,000 people and then receded to today's population of about 65,000. In 1958 when Adair and I married there was still a lone horse stable at Coolidge and Starr roads, just north of 13-mile road, but it quickly disappeared. 

In the 1970's we thought about moving but were unsure where we should go. Things picked up a little and by the 1980’s Royal Oak started to become a Yuppie Ville of sorts. Housing was affordable, freeways made the locale ideal, schools were pretty good and we stayed. We had a great neighborhood, close friends, a good church and driving to work was easy.

In the 1990's Royal Oak became the Greenwich Village of Detroit. Young people flocked to the restaurants and odd shops. Newspapers, magazines and TV frequently deferred to Royal Oak for reactions to news events. Coffee shops sprang up, condos started sprouting up all over town, housing prices soared as Birmingham became too expensive and the Royal Oak downtown was booming. Many of the restaurants and shops are fragile. They come and go but the condo's get higher and higher. In 2006 they are constructing an 18-story condo with prices ranging from $250,000 to over a million.

In 2006 real estate is in a slump, prices have leveled and Royal Oak continues to fine tune its image. The farmers market has been renovated. It never slumped. The library has been updated. Wireless is being installed, services remain excellent and even the least costly houses are being cared for. The homeless find Royal Oak a good place to be as we supply the best support in the area.

By - Don Calder

Don is a Museum volunteer and past airplane pilot.  Read his story about flying by clicking link below.