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The Disappearing Man: Robert Opdyke

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Robert Opdyke took a train from Birmingham and Detroit and was never seen again…until his son received an alarming telegram several years later. Robert’s story is one of business and failure in mid-late 1800s Birmingham. 

Transcripts, Photographs, Census Data and Newspaper Accounts

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The Disappearing Man: Robert Opdyke


Imagine Robert Stack of Unsolved Mysteries telling you about a mysterious case involving a man disappearing from a train station, only for his son to get a telegram eight years later telling him to come quick because his father was dying. Now imagine me telling you about it and you’ve got this episode. The story of Robert Opdyke is a story of 19th century economic growth in Birmingham, a recession and, yes, at least one mystery.

                This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.

                Robert Opdyke was born in 1812 in New Jersey to Anthony and Anna Lindaberry Opdyke and was the oldest son of ten children. Unfortunately, we have no records on if Robert had a stereotypical New Jawsey accent but we do know that none of his sisters were named Snookie, which is a shame. I have taken to nicknaming Robert “the situation” in my head though, which helps.

                At some point before May 1844, Robert married Anna Stiles. As we’ve touched on in previous episodes, lots of records from the early 1800s can be somewhat spotty and sometimes we have to give our best, educated guesses to fill in the blanks. In this case, Robert and Anna’s daughter, Anna “Frances” Opdyke was born in May 1844 and there’s nothing to indicate that her parents’ weren’t married when she was born. By that point, Robert and Anna were living in Massachusetts. Also of note: Anna Stiles Opdyke’s mother was named Anna too. That’s three Annas in as many generations. I’m not going to tell you to name your kid Khaleesi or Golgotha or whatever but if it’s between that or naming your kid the same thing as everybody else in the family, think of the future historians and go for the unique name.

                Like a lot of folks from our previous episodes, Robert and Anna moved further west with their young family. We find them in the 1850 census living in Madison County, Ohio where Robert was recorded by the census as a superintendent of a railroad. The census of 1850 took down much more information than previous censuses; including the names, ages, nativity, race, and occupations for all free males aged 15 and older. Railroad superintendent could refer here to a couple of different jobs-one could be a superintendent of the train itself, kinda like a chief mechanic or they could be a superintendent in charge of a station or stretch of the railroad. Either way, Robert was performing skilled labor, probably making around $1 a day in a decade where, in Ohio, a farm laborer could expect 85 cents per day and a female housekeeper $2/week. To put that into perspective: in a neighboring county an acre of land was about $16 and in a big city like Philadelphia, the amount spent for a family of five for rent, utilities, food and clothing was estimated to be a little over $10 a week.

                Robert Opdyke was also in a field that was rapidly expanding. Take the California Goldrush in 1848-1855, for example, when thousands of Americans (and folks from other countries as well) migrated out west to seek their fortunes. The only problem was that the only method of getting out there was via ship that, if it left from a port on the east or gulf coast, had to go all the way around the tip of South America in order to reach the west coast of the United States. The Panama Canal, which opened up a sea passage through Central America, wasn’t completed until 1914.

                Additionally, as more American settlers found their way into the Midwest in the 1820s and 1830s, fast and efficient ways of transportation were needed to get goods and people around. The earliest railroads in Ohio at this time primarily connected the fertile farm lands of the Ohio River valley with the Great Lakes.

                More trains and railroads were needed.  In 1850, the nation had approximately 9,000 miles of rail lines in active service and through the decade that number tripled to over 30,000 miles by 1860built by numerous competing companies. A journey from New York to Chicago took about a month on the roads in a vehicle fueled by animal power but only took 2 days on the railroad. In 1869, the most famous railroad, the transcontinental Railroad, was completed, connecting the nation’s east and west coasts. Railroads were the foundations upon which America’s coming Industrial Revolution was based. There couldn’t be large scale manufacturing without a cheap and quick way to ship those goods. Nor could folks flock to cities to work in mills and factories without a way to get massive amounts of food and goods to population centers.

                So why did Robert Opdyke leave his job and move to Michigan? By the next census Robert Opdyke is in the Birmingham-Bloomfield area and his occupation in the census of that year is given as “farmer”. In 1856, his son John W Stewart Opdyke was born in Pontiac. Why did the Opdykes leave Ohio just a few years after they got there and why did he leave a job in such a rapidly growing field?

                We don’t fully know the answer to that question in Opdyke’s case, but we do know why other families were moving to the area. Michigan in the 1850s and 1860s had a booming agricultural economy that promised lots of jobs and opportunities, with good farmland available that wasn’t too expensive with great natural resources, like forests and waterways. Michigan had only been a state for a little over a decade and its population was booming.

                And not only did the  Birmingham area have lots of trees and lots of water, but it was also very close to Pontiac, which was a thriving city and Oakland County’s seat, also near was Detroit which was, even before the automotive industry, the commercial and industrial center of Michigan. In the mid 1800s, railroads connected Birmingham to both cities and much of the surrounding area, which meant that people, and the goods that they produced, were only a short train ride away from major population centers. Birmingham itself, due to its location along the Saginaw Trail, now Woodward ave, and its close proximity to Pontiac and Detroit had become a commercial center of its own.

                In 1863, Robert shows up in tax records owning one house, one horse and a carriage and harness for the horse. Two years later he added a gold watch to his taxable assets. While these records seem fairly mundane, they can help us see just how financially well-off the Opdyke family was becoming. The tax records only show the people who owned things though, and they don’t give us a very good picture of the percentage of folks in the community owned or rented property or who didn’t own horses or gold watches. It also attributes all of the family’s assets to the husband or father, due to the principle of coverture (taken from English Common law). A married woman didn’t exist as a legal entity separate from her husband under coverture-so any assets that she came into the marriage with or acquired during it were his legally to do whatever he wanted with. It was only in the early 1900s during the womens rights movement when many married women across the country had the right to their own paychecks and even later still when married women were allowed to open bank accounts or credit cards under their own names.

                The ecominic landscape was just about to undergo a massive shift that would change how everyday Americans lived, worked and consumed goods. The Industrial Revolution in the United States was a period of time in which labor largely went from agricultural and farm labor to manufacturing labor. Many historians put this revolution as taking place from 1870- WWII. Factories needed labor and the mining, forestry and other industries that supplied the fuel to run the machinery in the factories needed more labor to keep up with demand. Many folks flocked to the cities to take these new jobs-which not only shifted demographics (between 1860 and 1900 many cities doubled, tripled or quadrupled their populations) but shifted how folks lived-many moving to cities who had previously lived in houses on farms or homesteads now lived in apartments that they rented alongside many other families.

                Let’s just get a guesstimate of the percentage of homeownership for funsies. In 1890, 47.8% of Americans owned their own homes and let’s adjust slightly upward for 1865 as people weren’t yet flocking to cities en mass- say 55%. So, the Opdykes owning the home they lived in were doing pretty good. Additionally, the horse and harness on the tax rolls of 1863 are the most pricy but they aren’t the worst quality on the list. The Opdykes appeared to be doing well for themselves.

                Additionally, in the 1860 census, there are two seemingly unrelated young adults in the family household, perhaps servants, boarders or farm hands. Boarders provided the family with a bit of extra income, while servants or farmhands provided the labor to make the house and farm more productive.

                At some point between 1860, when Robert Opdyke reports his occupation as farming, and 1870, he acquires the Flour Mill in Birmingham. The Opdyke family genealogical history states that he traded his farm to RE Trowbridge for the mill. In the 1870 census he reports that he is a miller by trade. And, coincidentally, Trowbridge was a miller in 1860 and a farmer in 1870.

 On the surface, this looks like a great business opportunity for Robert. As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam, there was be more and more demand for processed goods like flour by folks who lived in cities and didn’t have access to grains that they  grew or milled themselves. Additionally, flour was an essential ingredient for most homes at the time, as breads, biscuits, cakes and other gluten-laden foods were made by hand in the home and formed a big part of the diet. Even in hard economic times, most households wouldn’t be cutting back substantially on their flour purchases. And, thanks to the Railroads, the flour produced could now go farther faster, meaning that new markets for goods in far-flung parts of the United States were opening up.

                And the mill he purchased, located a very convenient distance from both Detroit and Pontiac as well as being well positioned just a little ways off of what is today Woodward Avenue, the main road through Oakland County, to serve many neighboring communities, looked like a great investment.

                The mill itself was built along the Rouge River in the 1830s by a man with both the best name in the history of Birmingham and who gave Birmingham it’s name: Roswell T Merrill (in the 1830s he decided that the community should be named after Birmingham, England and began putting up signs to that effect and everyone just went along with it). There had also been a saw mill built around that stretch of the river as well, and sometimes folks get confused and conflate the two mills but the mill that Merrill built was always a flour mill. The mill passed through several hands and it’s hard to trace exactly who owned it when but it appears that Opdyke may have owed the mill twice- he and a business partner with the last name of Gardiner owned it when the mill burned down in 1858, then it passed to RE Trowbridge who rebuilt it in 1860, then Opdyke traded Trowbridge a farm for it.

                On older maps of Birmingham you won’t find Maple Rd, instead you’ll see a road that suspiciously looks like Maple but is called Mill Road. Mill Road went to the Mill but according to the Birmingham urban legend, future podcast subject and controller of a child army Martha Baldwin decided that it should have a nicer sounding name and planted Maple trees along its length to influence the name change. And that is why the museum’s address is on Maple and not Mill Rd. The more you know the more confusing it gets.

                Originally in the 1830s, the mill used a wheel spun by water to power the machinery that ground grain from nearby farms into flour. Eventually the steam turbines upped the power level and the mill’s owner in the 1910s reported that he could mill 50 barrels a day. There are several old photos of the mill that we’ll put on the website showing the mill on the banks of what is now called Quarton Lake but once had the much humbler name of Mill Pond.

                But sadly for Robert, the national economy wasn’t in his favor. While in general the economy and banking system in the US rapidly expanded after the Civil War, there were a few bumps in the road. One of the biggest was the banking panic of 1873, when a large bank in New York failed, causing folks all over the country to rush to pull their own money and assets out of banks, fearing that they would fail as well. Ironically, everyone pulling their money out of banks all at once caused those banks to fail.  Over 100 banks failed along with 18,000 businesses (included many railroads) and unemployment began to rise. This caused a depression that lasted several years and was known as the “Great Depression” until certain events in 1929 came to overshadow it.

                The Opdyke’s run of good fortune was over. According to the article written years later, when the mystery had been resolved, the mill was foreclosed on and, with creditors knocking at the door, Robert Opdyke took a train to Detroit on Dec. 16, 1876, in order to do some business. He then disappeared from the depot for the Milwaukee Railroad line in Detroit, never to be seen alive by his family again. A blurb from a January 1884 issue of the Pontiac Gazette says that he was believed to have been “foully dealt with”, while a longer article published that same year on the west side of Michigan says that he was believed to be foully dealt with but also that his family believed him alive somewhere on earth. The longer article mentions that creditors were many but not clamorous.

                In the 1880 census, Robert’s wife, Anna Styles Opdyke is listed as both disabled and widowed and living with and keeping house for her youngest son, John Stewart Opdyke, a clerk in a dry goods store. Did Anna believe that Robert had been “foully dealt with”? Possibly, but we have to remember the creditors. Had Robert still been alive out there somewhere, his creditors could still come after his assets that Anna now held. Under the legal concept of coverture, discussed earlier, Anna had no way to protect assets or money that she may have brought to the marriage or acquired during it because it all belonged to her husband and thus was far game to his creditors. But, if he was dead, those creditors may have backed off from a poor widow.

                Considering Robert dead was better socially as well. There was social stigma attached to both abandoning a family as well as being the abandoned family. The care of an abandoned spouse and young children often fell to the community or they would be sent off to a poor farm and there were no social safety nets like social security or food stamps to help families left without a breadwinner. Many folks might have resented having to keep such families afloat.  Thankfully, all three of Robert and Anna’s children were adults. A 65 year old widow keeping house for a single son was a much more respectable and secure position than a woman who had been abandoned by a spouse.

                There is another theory though, what if the whole family was in on it? Perhaps Robert, in over his head financially, realized that the best way to care for his wife was to leave and get the creditors to back off. It’s interesting that we don’t have any evidence that Anna or his children tried to find Robert. George, Anna and Robert’s eldest son, even buys the mill and ran it successfully before selling it for a profit and moving to Pontiac. It’s an interesting idea.



                But what had happened to Robert? We find him in the 1880 census in Saratoga Springs, New York with his occupation as a farmer. Further, he gives his marital status as “married”, which must have been news to Anna.

                What the heck was Robert doing in Saratoga Springs, New York? In the 1870s and 1880s, the city was experiencing a building boom as it grew into an attractive vacation destination due to its springs and racecourse. Did he find himself missing his wife of 30-some years? Did he spare a thought for his kids- George, Anna and John? Was he remorseful for sticking them with his debts and the mystery of his where abouts while he started anew in the United States’ number one vacation destination? Unclear.

                But January of 1884 saw this strange story finally resolved. To quote from an article in the January 10, 1884 issue of the Lake County Star,

                “A few days ago, the oldest son, George K Opdyke, received a telegram from John Skidmore of Saratoga, NY saying: ‘By the time this reaches you, your father will be dead. Come.’ George K Opdyke started at once, but just before he could reach his destination another telegram arrived notifying the family of the father’s demise. The son returned on New Year’s with the remains which were interred in the cemetery at Birmingham, At the time of Mr Opdyke’s disappearance, O. Poppleton foreclosed a mortgage on the mill property, which was then valued at $10,000. George K Opdyke purchased the property, ran it for a number of years very successfully and finally sold it and is now living on a farm in Pontiac. Mr Opdyke was about 69 years of age at his death and his demise is said to have been caused by a small wound in his thumb which suddenly began to show sign of blood poisoning which gradually ran up his arm until his lungs were reached and then death ensued.”

                Orrin Poppleton, the businessman who taught John Allen Bigelow how to run a dry goods store pops back up again! This time holding the mortgage to Birmingham’s flour mill. Inflation calculations are neither super accurate nor precise before 1913, but $10,000 isn’t an insignificant chunk of change today so one can speculate how valuable that mortgage was back then.

                And we get an intersection with medicine at the time. Today, blood poisoning can still be quite serious for patients but is often successfully treated with antibiotics. But in 1883 those weren’t available. Penicillin was discovered in 1923, 40 years too late to be of any help to Robert. We don’t know what the wound was, but in the 1880s it was possible that someone could die from something so commonplace as a paper cut.

                Also, to get back to the theory that the whole family was in on the disappearance: how did John Skidmore know where to contact George? George had moved since Robert had left. Did they perhaps keep in contact? If he was a cad why bring him home and bury him in the family plot at Greenwood Cemetery?

                Also I just want to point out how much I hate that newspapers at this time continually shorten “George” to “Geo.” Why not then shorten Robert to Rob? Why list everyone’s middle initial if you’re trying to save room?! People complain about folks nowadays being lazy but at least I could bring myself to use three extra letters to spell out “George” in this script.

                In Birmingham we often portray the economic development of the community as a straight line going ever upward, and while that may be generally true, the life of Robert Opdyke reminds us that general trends are not an individual’s life. And while old portraits of unsmiling people may give us the idea that folks in the past shouldered their burdens and soldiered on stoically, we also see time and time again that that is simply not true. People have always been the same and some of us have always run away from our problems. People have always been intrigued by a missing persons mystery as well, the story of Robert Opdyke was printed in papers all over Michigan and possibly beyond because it’s a compelling mystery and a very human story… or a very compelling story of a whole family in on a scam, you decide.

                Join us next week for a look at the woman, the myth, and the legend: Martha Baldwin. How did a single woman, living in a time when woman had little legal or social power, shape Birmingham in her own image? It’s all in the threat and leveraging child labor, my dear Watson.

                To see photos of the Mill that Robert owned, read the newspaper stories about the mystery of his disappearance and see other photos and documents relating to the Opdyke family check out our website, link is in the shownotes. For comments, concerns or episode suggestions email us at museum@bhamgov.org. I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you so much for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a rating and review.

Mill Photographs and Map
Original Land Purchases MapMillBham Mills
Opdyke Family 1870 Census
Robert Opdyke 1880 Census
Anna Opdyke 1880 census
1884 Pontiac Gazette Blurb
Blurb from the 1884 Pontiac Gazette which reads "Some eight years ago Robert Opdyke, the  a resident of Birmingham, and engaged in the milling business, disappeared. It was then believed that he had been foully dealt with. Two week ago to-day his son received a telegram from Saratoga, announcing his serious illness. This was soon followed by another saying he was dead."Pontiac Gazette 1884
1884 Lake County Star Article
Lake County star 1884 articleArticle reads" Robert F Opdyke, proprietor of the Birmingham Flouring Mill, mysteriously disappeared eight years ago on the 16th of December and until recently nothing was heard definitively from him, and his long absence was believed to have been a case of "foully dealt with". At the time Mr Opdyke left he was in a state of indebtedness; creditors were many, but not very clamorous. He went to Detroit, transacted business at several places and was last seen in a hotel near the Milwaukee depot, a short time before the train was to leave, since then nothing was heard from him, although after quite an interval it was believed by the family and friends that Mr Opdyke was living somewhere on earth.A few days ago, the oldest son, Geo. K Opdyke, received a telegram from John Skidmore of Saratoga, NY, saying :"By the time this reaches you your father will be dead. Come." Geo. K Opdyke started at once, but before he could have reached his destination another telegram arrived notifying the family of the father's demise. The son returned on New Years Day with the remains which were interred in the cemetery in Birmingham. At the time of Mr Opdyke's disappearance O. Poppleton foreclosed a mortgage on the mill property, which was then valued at $10,000. Geo K Opdyke purchased the property, ran it for a number of years very successfully and finally sold it and is now living on a farm near Pontiac. Mt Opdyke was about 69 years of age at his death and his demise is said to have been caused by a small wound in his thumb which suddenly began to show symptoms of blood poisoning or crysipelas, which gradually ran up his arm until his lungs were reached and then dearth ensued. The family left is Mrs Opdyke, his wife, Geo K Opdyke and JOS Opdyke, his sons, and Mrs Chas. Fisk, a daughter living at San Diego, Cal."