The land that is becoming Lake Norcentra Park at Rochester College is home to much history.
In the first year of Michigan’s statehood, Governor Stevens Mason launched an ambitious program to improve the new state’s infrastructure. The crown jewel of Mason’s plan was the 216-mile Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal that would link Lake Michigan and Lake St. Clair. The canal would follow the path of the Clinton River, which passed through the farmland that would someday become Rochester College.
The canal age ended quickly and in 1843, construction on the canal stopped for good. The canal easement, the strip of land that belonged to the canal company owners, remained for the next 25 years. In the late 1860s, the Michigan Air Line Railroad bought the canal easement. Instead of canal barges, trains would pass through on the new railroad. We believe construction of the Air Line railroad bed in 1868 was the beginning of Lake Norcentra as a gravel and sand pit. Trains would pass by Lake Norcentra for the next 130 years.
Lake Norcentra’s location next to the railroad made it an ideal gravel and sand pit. Detroit entrepreneur Isaac Boomer owned the site from 1914-1918. From Lake Norcentra, he supplied bricks, gravel, and sand to contractors as far away as Detroit. Boomer’s company is still in business as one of metro Detroit’s premier construction supply companies.
The lake also became useful as a source of water for the fruit farm that grew up around it. The Eureka Fruit Farm operated on the site from 1870 until the 1890s. Evidence shows that fruit farming continued on the site until the 1950s. Up to 85 people worked the berry patches and orchards at Eureka Fruit Farm. Pump houses on the banks of the lake pushed water uphill to the crops.
Detroit advertising giant Lou Maxon bought the property in the 1940s and renamed it Maxon Farm. There, Maxon built a house for entertaining his clients, family, and friends. He spent lavishly on gardens and landscaping, including a greenhouse where Maxon’s gardeners cultivated new flowers, shrubs, and trees. At one time Maxon’s ad agency was one of the biggest in the world, with offices in Detroit, Los Angeles, London, and New York. Maxon originated the use of athletes as pitchmen for male hygiene products. He is also famous for his falling out with President Roosevelt while serving as deputy director of the Office of Price Administration during World War II.
In 1957, Maxon sold his estate to North Central Christian College. Upon the graduation of NCCC’s first class in 1961, the school changed its name to Michigan Christian Junior College. Students elected to call the lake “Norcentra” in tribute to the college’s original name.
For generations, Lake Norcentra was the center of campus and campus life. Lou Maxon’s old totem pole that stood in the center of the lake became the college’s unofficial symbol for several decades. Alumni made fond memories relaxing and strolling around the lake. In 1997, the institution changed its name to Rochester College and began a construction campaign on the opposite end of campus. Students came less frequently to Lake Norcentra.
In 2005, the Clinton River Trail opened on the former Grand Trunk Railroad tracks that once passed through the site. Bike and pedestrian traffic through the Lake Norcentra area began increasing and continues to grow as the trail becomes more popular by the year.
In January 2013, the Rochester College Alumni Association selected Lake Norcentra as the focus of its volunteer programming for the year. Alumni organized two popular clean-up days that renewed interest in Lake Norcentra. Meanwhile, the college’s new president, Dr. John Tyson, began looking for an initiative that would extend Rochester’s mission of education and service into the community. He believed Lake Norcentra and the several acres of land surrounding it could be the vehicle for community service.
In May 2014, Lawrence Technological University and Rochester College hosted a three-day community design charrette to develop a concept for a community park at Lake Norcentra. Architects and environmental experts met with representatives from several local governments and nonprofit organizations. The charrette produced a “service learning park” concept that would serve both the campus and surrounding community.
Rochester contracted BT Irwin LLC as project manager and Team-4-Community L3C as architect. In April 2015, they delivered a $5 million conceptual plan, which the community steering committee and Rochester’s Board of Trustees endorsed.
Improvements began at the site in June 2015 with plans under way to launch a ten-year construction and program development initiative around Lake Norcentra Park. Activity and momentum are building. Find out what’s happening at Lake Norcentra Park now and how you can make it your place, too.