Looking Back: Royal Oak's community dynamics change, and grow, along with its city

The Royal Oak Historical Society was first established as a social group in 1939, where residents would gather once a year to show off their family heirlooms specific to the city’s history. But in 2004 Royal Oak opened its own museum to house the city’s historic artifacts, and the historical society purchased a large selection from a local collector.

“We were cataloging artifacts forever, for an eternity,” says Muriel Versagi, who has been the museum’s curator since its founding. “We are very strict with our rules,” she explains. “It must be from Royal Oak or have belonged to someone in Royal Oak. We have to be careful because people want to give us all kinds of stuff.”

Among the collection is a rare photo of Abraham Lincoln, taken by the famed Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady. Only five of the same photo exist. These items were included in a donation from the son of Royal Oak’s first mayor, George Dondero who was devoted to Abraham Lincoln’s memory and collected anything associated with Lincoln.

“We have some amazing pictures of Lincoln in our library," says Versagi. "[The photograph], is really precious to us.”

Another piece in the collection is a treasured letter signed by Lincoln, which was featured on an episode of the "History Detectives", which Versagi was a part of. 

Despite this unique collection one of the hardest things right now for the museum is COVID-19 restrictions and the decline of visitors. Versagi says that the museum gets a lot of visitors from people who buy houses in Royal Oak who want to research their home.

“Apartment dwellers downtown,” she adds, “we don’t see them. There are no young people from the center of the city who come to the museum. That’s the distinguishing mark right now. We have a hard time getting younger people involved.”

She goes on to explain that other age groups are faltering in interest as well. “We’re missing a whole segment of people in their 50s and 60s who tend to be interested in history, but we haven’t captured them yet, and we’re not sure why.” 

Royal Oak's main street, looking north, in 1930. Photo: Royal Oak Historical Society Museum.

Matthew Day, a long-time resident of the city and librarian of the Royal Oak Public Library, says  there seems to be a silent conflict going on between the young apartment dwellers downtown and older residents and families who live on the outskirts of the main strip. He notes that in the 1960s, Royal Oak was a “folksie, quiet, small city."

Day's fondest memories of historic Royal Oak include going to Kresge’s soda fountain, visiting his favorite bookshop, and watching the train click through downtown. He explains he really felt the sense of community in the family-oriented city and feels Royal Oak has been slowly moving away from its original family focus ever since.

Pat Paruch, city commissioner and mayor pro-tem, has been involved with the city’s politics for over seventeen years. She, too, originally moved to the area in 1975 because of the neighborhoods.

“We loved the community," she says, adding that the most memorable events were the neighborhood Halloween parade, attending high school football games with her kids, and the Memorial Day parade. “All those community events with people you enjoy being around usually make up your fondest memories of a place; those are the things that are important.”

Day adds that the tree lighting ceremony at Christmas and the Memorial Day parade are still among the most notable events the city puts on today. 

The Royal Oak Post Office, 1959. Photo: Royal Oak Historical Society Museum.

If a bit of the small-town community was stripped away with the city’s rapid development in the 1980s, it was found again in the days following the tragedy of 1991 when a disgruntled post office worker entered the Royal Oak post office and opened fire on his colleagues, killing four people. 

“It’s still hard for me to talk about,” Paruch says, who was mayor at the time. That day, the library opened its doors to house over one hundred traumatized workers and give them a safe place to gather. Then, the Red Cross "just showed up,” Paruch recounts gratefully, “with their wagon, coffee, donuts, and food; they hung their huge flag over the door of the library.”

Berkely and Ferndale officers self-dispatched as soon as they heard it on the wires. “Common Ground dispatched two or three counselors. They just showed up and said, “you’re going to need us.” Moreover, Coleman Young’s office called to offer help. “You know there are all these stories about Coleman Young and how awful he was to the suburbs, but he was the first one to call and say if you need anything call us.”

Paruch remembers many restaurants sent food to the library to give comfort to the traumatized postal workers. “McDonald's sent over food, the bakeries, and other restaurants, so we were overwhelmed with food for a while. A lot of people wanted to do something, so there was an outpouring of this kind of support from the community at large.”

Though tragic, the event allowed Royal Oak to see its own heart; the immediate result was a gathering of community, a coming together. Three thousand people attended the memorial service. It’s this sense of community Royal Oak hopes to sustain and nurture amidst its continued growth.

“A city never stops," Paruch says. “It’s either growing or changing either in a good way or a bad way. When I was first elected [in 1979] there were a lot of empty buildings downtown.” But she explains that the city prevailed even on the brink of an economic recession.

“The Downtown Development Authority put some financial incentives in place for people who owned or wanted to buy the older buildings. A developer bought and renovated the Washington Square Building and others followed along, and it just continued.”

The Washington Square building was once the tallest building in the city. Built in 1927, it was the original site of the Royal Oak Hospital and later became Beaumont Hospital. Royal Oak’s farmer’s market has also been preserved and was saved from demolition in 1996. It is currently waiting for official historic designation. Once a small community produce sale, it is now one of the largest year-round markets in Metro Detroit. 

“You’re not seeing downtown demolitions, you’re seeing renovations," Paruch says. "And that’s been a constant for decades and it hasn’t changed.”

Photo courtesy of the Royal Oak Historical Society Museum.
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Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.