Early settlers to Royal Oak were farmers who cleared land to build their homes and plant crops, as agriculture was the primary occupation of the time. The advent of the railroad soon brought about logging, milling and other industries. Many early settlers to the area migrated from New York, including Orson Starr, the township’s first manufacturer. He became well known for making cowbells.
In 1845, he built his wooden frame home incorporating many characteristics of Greek Revival, an architectural style that was popular at the time. The home still stands at its original site on Main Street, reminiscent of the days when Royal Oak was a remote township. The Orson Starr House (3123 N Main Street) is currently listed in Michigan’s State Register of Historic Sites and has been designated an historic district. The Orson Starr House Historic District has also received the official project designation of "Save America’s Treasures," awarded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In 1819, Michigan Governor Lewis Cass and several companions set out on an exploration of Michigan territory to disprove land surveyors’ claims that the territory was swampy and uninhabitable. The beginning of their journey seemed to support those claims until they reached a desirable area of higher ground near the intersections of Main, Rochester and Crooks Roads. Here they encountered a stately oak tree with a trunk considerably wider than most other oaks. Its large branches reminded Cass of the legend of the royal oak tree, under which King Charles II of England took sanctuary from enemy forces in 1660. Cass and his companions christened the tree, the "Royal Oak." And so Royal Oak received its name.
As early as 1891, when Royal Oak was a small village, there were only a few hundred residents. In the 10 year span from 1900 to 1910 the population grew to over 1,000. By the time Royal Oak was incorporated as a city in 1921, the population had exploded to over 6,000. This was due in large part to new jobs created by the booming auto industry.
The development of the super highway, Woodward Avenue, led to greater population expansion. Woodward Avenue replaced the old Indian road, Saginaw Trail, as the connection between Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw, making Royal Oak more accessible. Today, the 28 mile Woodward Avenue (M-1), bridging 10 communities from the Detroit River north to downtown Pontiac, holds the honorary designation of Michigan Heritage Route. The designation was awarded because of the historical and cultural significance of some 350 sites along Woodward Avenue, including 42 historic churches.
Completion of 1-696 on the southern border of Royal Oak in 1989, positioned the city centrally within Southeast Michigan. Merchants and city government began pumping new life into the city’s downtown.