Service clubs like the Lions, Rotary, Optimists, and Kiwanis- and their female counterparts like the Woman’s Club and the Soroptimists -- have a long civically focused history in Royal Oak.
In the opening of “The first 25 years of Kiwanis in Royal Oak,” Elmer E. Hartwig presents one of the best descriptions of early Royal Oak that our museum has encountered. In the 1950s, retired in Florida, Hartwig wrote:
“If you can recall Royal Oak in 1927, you will remember that the double-end street car ran from Detroit up the Stephenson Highway and into town on Fourth Street. At Main Street, it was turned around by the Motorman, who also served as the Conductor, by simply hauling down the trolley wire connector in the rear and raising one on what had been the front.
“The Grand Trunk Train ran on the surface through town, unloaded passengers at Fourth Street, and veered over to Woodward Avenue on its way to Pontiac. The Inter-urban Street Cars entered from Woodward Avenue onto Washington Avenue. At Fourth Street, some cars cut over to First Street and went west to Woodward and north to Pontiac. “Other cars turned east on Fourth to Main and north to Troy, Rochester, and Bay City.
“Automobiles arrived from Detroit on a single strip of paved road and entered town on Main or Washington, but if the drivers turned onto side streets they were immediately in trouble. There was no pavement and the loose sand was inches deep so that it was common to get stuck within a few blocks of city hall, located in the old Storz residence on Main between Fourth and Fifth Streets.”
Hartwig then literally left the streets and focused on commerce, specifically banks.
“There were three banks in town then. The First State Bank stood where Klebba’s Store stands at Fourth and Washington. The Royal Oak Savings Bank had just completed building the structure occupied by the Wayne Oakland Bank on Fourth and Main. The National Bank had just entered into competition with the first two and was located in a store building in the middle of the block between Third and Fourth on the East side of Main.”
Finally, the writer got to his main topic, Service Clubs. He wrote, “The Exchange Club was the oldest, but the Rotarians claimed the leadership,” and commented humorously that the churches “seemed to compete among themselves, but in more quiet ways.”
In 1927, a dozen or so men who frequently lunched in the same restaurant, led by Earl Becker, formed a local Kiwanis Club. Immediately the club moved into its service mode: buying books for students; loaning money to seniors for their Washington, D.C. trip; helping needy families with fuel and clothes. During World War II, the Kiwanis Club provided “farewell breakfasts” to departing draftees and enlistees and gave money and blood to the Red Cross Blood Bank; establishing a soup kitchen.
Club historian Hartwig’s 12-page history recalls that the club’s meeting places ranged from “the Girl Scout’s Room on the second floor of the Washington Square Building” to “Marquard’s Restaurant over Hilzinger’s Hardware” to Maison’s Restaurant on Main Street, to the “basement of the Congregational Church,” where the Kiwanis still meet. During Depression years, the Kiwanis stopped meeting in restaurants, to save money for good works. So, they dined on sandwiches, canned fruits and coffee in the Girl Scouts Room.
Himself president of the club in 1935, Hartwig appended the list of 1-year presidents from 1927 through 1952. The list contains such well-remembered names as George Dondero, Nathaniel Quickstad, James Sullivan, George Carhart, William Beer, and Thomas Prior.
The Royal Oak Woman’s Club, founded in 1902, is probably the city’s oldest women’s service club, and a future column will survey its civically focused history. As it happens, the Kiwanis met for a while in the Woman’s Club clubhouse before it was moved to its present location at Fourth and Pleasant.
The Curator and one of the founding members of the Royal Oak Historical Society Museum.