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Top 10: Birmingham Notables Behind Familiar Names on Signs

Meet men and one woman immortalized on local streets and parks.

You have often walked down these streets before,
But you may not know just who they're named for

A first name clearly is all I share with Alan Jay Lerner, but his adapted lyric fits this look at pioneers who earned permanent places on Birmingham addresses and signposts.

Street markers and pavement were things of the future when some of these folks settled here. They opened the way for the Birmingham of today, so read on to connect first names and personal details to last names you know.     

1. Augustus Woodward: Nearly two centuries before his last name preceded Dream Cruise, he was the first chief justice of the Michigan Territory — appointed in 1805 by President Thomas Jefferson. Court House Avenue, a thoroughfare along a Native American trail from downtown Detroit to Pontiac, soon was renamed for the justice.   

2. Benjamin K. Pierce: This pioneering settler graduated from Dartmouth College in 1810, fought in the War of 1812 and then moved from Massachusetts to a new Michigan community called Bloomfield Township. His ownership of a 160-acre farm in what's now Birmingham was first recorded in 1819, showing a $390 purchase price. Three years after Pierce died in 1850, a younger brother named Franklin was elected as the 14th president. Benjamin Pierce's name is on a downtown street that was an eastern boundary of his land. , just south of the business center, also is named for the 19th century farmer and Army colonel.         

3. Charles Shain: The namesake of the city's centerpiece park was a pharmacist and later a director at the First National Bank of Birmingham. In 1916, at age 34, he developed a cluster of two-story stone row houses at Maple and Peabody — now retail and office spaces marked with a "Shain Townhouses" historic plaque. In 1923, he helped establish the , a theater group starting its 89th season Sept. 16. 

4. Booth family: The north-end city park with an award-winning playground is on land bought by tycoon George Booth (1864-1949) and later donated to Birmingham by his family's Cranbrook Foundation. Booth owned an  iron-working company in Windsor, Ontario, when he married Ellen Scripps in 1887 — the 24-year-old daughter of James Scripps, founder of The Detroit News. A year later, Booth began working with his father-in-law, who owned newspapers throughout the Midwest. Booth and two brothers also invested in several Michigan newspapers and formed Booth Publishing Co. The firm, now Booth Newspapers, still owns eight Michigan dailies. In 1904, Ellen and George Booth moved from Detroit to a 174-acre farm in Bloomfield Hills, which they named Cranbrook after a Booth family ancestral town in England. The site is now Cranbrook Educational Community. The couple and other family members are buried in .

5. Martha Baldwin: This social activist's impact is memorialized by a at Maple and Southfield, and more prominently by . As a donor, fund-raiser and community campaigner, she's credited as an instrumental force behind the Free Public Library established in 1907 by village board members when voters passed a half-mill property tax. Five weeks after her death on Memorial Day 1913, city leaders unanimously voted to name a planned larger facility the Baldwin Memorial Library. Her grave is in Greenwood.

6. Albert Adams: This early farmer's name was used for a north-south lane near his spread and later for Adams School, built in 1921 to serve 750 elementary and middle school students. The 's upper and middle school campus uses the building now.  

7. Elijah Willits: This 1818 pioneer was 26 when he arrived and built a log home. He ran a tavern and was a brother-in-law of John Harmon, who also has a street named for him a few blocks to the north. Willits died at age 76 in 1868.     

8. John Hamilton: Hamilton Row is named for this War of 1812 veteran, who joined Willits, Pierce and John West Hunter in 1818 as the first non-native settlers in Bloomfield Township, a predecessor to the Village of Birmingham. Each of them bought 160 acres. The first trustees meeting in 1827 was in his log home at what's now Hamilton and Woodward. Next door, Hamilton built a tavern and horse barn to serve overnight guests at a time when the area was a day's ride from Detroit.      

9. Roswell Merrill: This 1832 settler, born in Vermont, started a foundry that expanded into a machine shop and blacksmith operation. He also opened a tavern, served as justice of the peace in 1836 and built the village's first brick store in 1841. Some historians credit him with suggesting the name Birmingham in 1832 to identify the area as a manufacturing hub resembling Birmingham, England. One of his foundry co-owners was George Martin, whose name is on another key downtown street. Merrill is buried in Greenwood.

10. William Brown: This former New Yorker, a grocer and farmer, worked with father-in-law Roswell Merrill to make threshing machines in the 1850s-60s. He was village president in 1866-67, which is why his name is on a street that became a popular link between Woodward and Southfield for modern-day drivers wanting to avoid Maple.  

Other historic footnotes:

  • and a nearby avenue in my east-side neighborhood are named for a 1920s subdivision created from farmland by Knox Poppleton, son of mid-19th century Birmingham merchant Orvin Poppleton. The son also put his first name on the area's first street north of Maple.
  • Ann and Frank streets near the business district were named in the late 19th century for store owner George Blakeslee's wife and son.
  • John Daines came from New York in 1840, served as justice of the peace in 1852, was a potter who made tile for street drains, and later bought the local National Hotel. George Daines, city clerk for seven years in the 1870s-80s, ran the hotel after his dad's 1873 death.
  • John Hanna: Pierce Street food merchant was a village trustee and school board member.
  • Birmingham's first village trustees were elected March 1, 1864 at the home of J.C.K. Crooks, who became board president and now has his name on a Troy road. 

Sources: The Book of Birmingham by Jervis B. McMechan, 1976; History of Oakland County, Michigan by Thaddeus D. Seeley, 1912.

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