Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Romeo, Michigan

The place where I'm from originally. Romeo is an interesting town. It's on the northern border of Macomb county, which is part of the tri-county Detroit area. Macomb is the working class county, with Oakland county being the much more bourgeois one and Wayne county being the one consisting of Detroit and down river, being mostly very poor and black, with some industry south of the city.

Van Dyke is the main highway and road connecting Romeo to the rest of Macomb county, with the order of towns going north being Detroit, Warren, Sterling Heights, then Shelby/Washington, then Romeo.

Romeo wasn't really incorporated into suburbia until fairly recently, but was founded in the mid 19th century. The people who founded Romeo were folks from New England and New York state who had pushed west down across western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio and then up into Michigan. This was the trend of migration, which started with western New York state being colonized by people from the area forming new towns. Romeo became the headquarters for the timber industry in the area, leading to the construction of large Victorian mansions and very ornate Victorian homes that have since been designated as part of a official historic district, protected by law.

The timber industry in Michigan is one of the tragedies of westward expansion. Originally, Michigan was stacked full of old growth trees, but indiscriminate logging completely leveled the tree population, leading to only one patch of old growth trees existing in the whole state, in northern Michigan up by Grayling. While it lasted, though, timber products like furniture and paper were some of Michigan's biggest products, and Romeo profited from them. Then the industry collapsed.

Folks who founded Romeo seem to have been somewhat progressive in their ideas for the time, a feature of people who pressed on from western New York state. Western New York state was known as the "burnt over district" because of the multitude of new religions, revivals, communes, and general radicalism that existed there in the mid 19th century. The Republican Party, which in those days was progressive in that it supported abolition of slavery and had an ethos later represented by Teddy Roosevelt's style of trust busting, was founded in Jackson in southern Michigan. Romeo became a stop over on the underground railroad leading to Canada, and in consequence actually has African Americans living there, which is impressive considering that Macomb county is largely a product of white flight from Detroit.

There are indications that this radicalism in Romeo back in the day didn't extend just to politics. Sifting through things I found out that a chapter of the masonic Ancient & Primitive Rite of Memphis was founded in Romeo by Calvin Burt, the American leader of the Rite who also lived in Michigan. The Rite of Memphis, with I believe 97 degrees, was an explicitly esoteric rite of Masonry. I have some of the documents relating to it and right there in the beginning they state that the original three degrees of masonry derived from the mysteries of Isis, Serapis, and Osiris respectively. It was an explicitly pagan rite, declaring that the story of the resurrection of Christ was just another incarnation of the mysteries of Osiris. Of course I think all of this is really awesome. I like masonry but think that the big high degree rite, the Scottish Rite, which is the 33 degree one, is way too connected to a mindless ra ra America conservatism. Which is a shame....someone should rewrite those rituals... Anyways, many of the founders of Romeo were also masons but probably of the conventional kind. Yet the rite of Memphis being practiced in Romeo is absolutely mind blowing.

These days Romeo is a bed room community but for the present Detroit economy. Most of the commuters living in Romeo are working class folks whose jobs are down the road in either Sterling Heights or Warren, which are from fifteen to twenty minutes away. There are also white collar folks who commute but at least when I lived there they weren't the dominant force. The economy these days in the Romeo itself consists, beyond service jobs, of a couple of small factories making auto parts outside the city limits and apple and peach orchards.

Romeo is known for its apple orchards, and they're everywhere, with evidence of them being right outside of town. One of the really great things growing up there was being able to go to cider mills and get fresh cider pressed right in front of you. The mills were just outside of town. Unfortunately the apples are harvested just like fruit is harvested everywhere, by migrant labor, leading to a small and until really recently invisible hispanic population in the area. Since I left Romeo a music store specializing in Spanish language CDs has opened up on Main Street, which is a very good sign. The conditions of the pickers, as they were known, was/is identical to that of other places: small badly painted shacks made out boards and not much else. We have peaches too, and even the Peach Festival, which is a great fair that happens once a year with rides and games and things like that.

Ethnically the place is really interesting because the residents of Romeo are the descendants of immigrants who came to work in the factories in Detroit. This means that there's a large Italian population, a large Polish population, and many people of miscellaneous southern and eastern European descent, with Greeks being a kind of visible presence, sort of. The funny thing is that in the next town up, which is located across the invisible border separating the Detroit area from red neck ville, the folks who drive big trucks and listen to country music are likely to be of Polish and Italian descent. It's true. In the one misguided attempt to teach me line dancing the protagonists were some girls who were Italian. Too bad that they'd be considered not white enough by the real rednecks in rural areas.

Romeo is a nice place, good to grow up there. I didn't seriously have any problems until I moved farther away from it into the country, where although just a few miles separated me from Romeo the people tended to see me as a foreign alien creature who was a threat to their very existence. Back in Romeo I was more or less normal, if a little on the eccentric side.


romeogal said...

interesting post...i grew up in romeo and still live here where I raise my 3 children. I found your take interesting.

ganspat@hotmail said...

Hey John liked your post. How old are you? I grew up in Washington and a trip to Romeo was a big deal on Saturdays. That is where my folks went to go to the bank as there was at the time no bank in Washington. I remember when the A&P Super Market opened--wow what a big deal that was-search lights and everything --we were such a bunch of hicks in the 50's. I have very fond memories of the town movie theater and the Peach festival. My Dad grand Dad and great grand da were all of the esoteric Masons--very mysterious stuff when I was a kid. By the way I just noticed on a different site that Kid Rock is from Romeo--can this be true? That would be way to cool.
Pat in Todos Santos

Anonymous said...

I like this post too, interesting narrative. I'd like to add the orchards that used to be along 32 Mile Road where the high school is now, were owned by a large supermarket chain. I heard they owned thousands of acres at one time and the fruit supplied both fresh produce and canned/prepared goods for the region.

I have to agree with you about the invisible "hick" line that is somewhere just north of Romeo. I like to bicycle ride and the people in the Romeo area pay no bother. Ride past Armada or Almont and they look at you like you just landed from Mars.

Larry S

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher at a predominantly African American school in Houston. I had always wondered about why I hadn't heard anything about my Romeo, Michican ancestors and the civil war. Recently (this week) I began to wonder about the underground railroad and Romeo. Thanks for your posting. Now it's REALLY got me wondering.

Lauren Krakowski said...

Just explored Romeo all day today with a girl who grew up there. I live in Shelby Twp. and i have begun my research on Romeo to discover more about yhe area i live in. I want to thank you for the post. P.s. kid rock does live in in Romeo and I.spoke with a land owner today which houses the oldest /only pear tree dated approx. 200 years old. The seedlings for this particular tree were brought by the the French, and the oldest recorded recorded owner of the land was French. Not only this but the land is covered with with indian burial mounds. Hence "mound road" ... which gives us a whmy e new historical topic!