Alameda Census Study Reveals Clues to Neighborhood Life in the 1920s, 1930s

Over a period of about two weeks in April 1930, census taker Jane W. Miller knocked on every door of the Alameda neighborhood with some very personal questions: How old are you? What do you do for a living? Where were you born? What level of education have you achieved? Where were your parents born? What is your home worth? What language did you speak growing up?

The answers to those questions, recorded in her flowing hand on the pages of the Fifteenth Census of the United States, paint a fascinating and revealing picture of Alameda life in the 1930s.

Seventy-five years ago, three of the houses within a one-block stretch of my home on Northeast 30th Avenue had boarders. Here in my house, living with the Walter and Edith Morrison family — a family of five — was Miss Emma Thomas, age 58, a schoolteacher. The Morrisons converted a closet of one bedroom into a sink and wash area-still there today-to accommodate Miss Thomas.

Next door, living with the Eldridge family was Mrs. Eldridge’s 36-year-old sister who was also a teacher. Around the corner, the Taylor family made room for an uncle and a mother-in-law.

Enumerator Jane Miller — that was her official title…enumerator — recorded some of the house guests as relatives. Some she recorded as “boarders,” others were “roomers,” and some were “lodgers.” Roomers, I’m guessing, just lived there. Boarders lived and ate with the family. Lodgers, I’m not too sure what that distinction means.

These days, I’m knee deep in the pages of Jane Miller’s work, and that of her predecessor Agnes M. Padden, who did the enumeration honors during the 14th Census, ten years earlier in 1920. A correlation of the two Alameda neighborhood censuses, paired up with information from city directories, tax and assessment records, and a handful of personal memories from those who witnessed the early days, has helped me to map an understanding of early neighborhood life.

It’s hard not to wonder about the stories of the families, the relatives, the immigrants, and the boarders, who were once settled into the houses we all occupy today. In fact, in the process of comparing the changes during that decade, I’ve had to fold up a census page or two in my pocket, put on my coat, and go for a walk past the house that was once filled with a large family from Armenia, or the one that had a squad of Norwegian servants. Clues to the stories of our houses are there, like a distant echo, that whisper from the pages of the census.

Most of the people who lived in our neighborhood were from somewhere else, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since Portland’s population was booming during these years. “Birthplace: Oregon” is common only among the youngest segment of the population. Many parents were from midwest states, some from the east coast. Some were immigrants, including families from Germany, Armenia, England, Canada and Yugoslavia.

Platted in 1909 and built substantially by 1925, the Alameda Park neighborhood was home to some of Portland’s notable business leaders, and they all show up on the pages of the census. Plywood magnate Thomas Autzen, his wife Marvel, their five children and two “servants,” show up in their mansion at 26th and Alameda. Portland Architect Harry Herzog, his wife Bertha, their three children and “servant” show up on Glenn Avenue (today’s Northeast 32nd Place). Captain Delmar Shaver of Shaver Transportation (a company still in business today), his wife Nellie, their two daughters and Yugoslavian “maid” are there in a big house on The Alameda. Leading Lumbermen including Lester Brix, John Byerly and Egbert Mersereau show up too, as do George and Phyllis Greenfield, proprietors of Greenfield’s Shoes, one of Portland’s largest shoe emporiums.

A quick survey of residents of the original Alameda Park addition, bounded loosely by Northeast 33rd, Prescott, Fremont and 21st, includes roughly the same number of households you might find today. A sampling of professions evident in the census includes bank managers, librarians, school principals, doctors, building contractors, sales managers, newspapermen, and life insurance saleswomen.

A few other somewhat notable occupations show up as well: Herman Bringmann, 74 from Germany, was a cigar maker who lived on Dunckley. Not far down the street was Edward Clark, age 40, a game warden for the surrounding district. Several teenage boys are enumerated as paperboys. A half-dozen foresters appear as well, notable for what was then such a young profession, and what one would think of as being a rural vocation. Speaking of which, over on Northeast 27th lived William Scotton, age 58, listed as a fruit grower and rancher.

Even on the cusp of The Great Depression, some Alameda homes were kept by nannies, maids, cooks and gardeners, typically listed as “servants” in the census. They were mostly young women, typically in their 20s. A listing of nationalities would include: Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, English, Romanian, German, Japanese, Canadian.

In the blink of a page from 1920 to 1930, whole families mature, change and fledge off into the world. The Morrisons, who lived here in my home for 49 years, go from a young family with children at Alameda School in 1920, squarely into middle age, their eldest son Bruce working in Spellman’s grocery at Northeast 15th and Fremont. During those years, some well-off Alameda families prospered and stayed. Others moved on to more upscale addresses elsewhere in the city. With the storm clouds of The Great Depression building over Oregon, some families undoubtedly left Alameda in distress.

It’s hard to imagine, when you walk the sidewalks of our neighborhood, all the family stories and memories that have played out here in the last four generations. Thanks to the census, and the door-to-door questions of Jane Miller and Agnes Padden, clues to these stories remain.

(C) Doug Decker

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17 Responses to “Alameda Life | 1920-1930”

  1. Dave Heller Says:

    Doug – I enjoy your research and articles. I have been trying to find out more about a local builder by the name of Berkmeyer. I am not sure of the spelling but when we moved into our current home in 1980 a long time resident told us that Berkemeyer was one of the first local builders of quality homes in the area and that he lived in our house while he was building in the area. His homes are very distinctive and usually include brink fronts and unique window in the front. I am curious to know if you have run across anything on this? Thanks-Dave

  2. Doug Says:

    Hi Dave. Thanks for your comment…I’m glad you are enjoying the blog.

    Yes, I definitely know about Kenneth Birkmeier. He was a prolific builder of a kind of ranch-bungalow hybrid, often using Roman style (narrow) brick. His works stand out in the neighborhood mostly because of the later style. He was the last major builder (following Frank A. Read) to make a studied approach of finding the remaining vacant lots in the neighborhood and building on them. In the period between June 1945 and August 1952, he built at least 10 homes in Alameda, and likely other homes in other neighborhoods. I don’t have a lot of biographical information on him, but I can point you where to look and give you a jump start if you are interested in looking into him. I’ve often wondered about Birkmeier, and would guess his children may still be in the Portland area. Drop me an e-mail if you’d like to pursue this. I can also give you the addresses of the other homes he built. I have building permit information on all of them.

    -Doug

  3. Dario Storm Says:

    Doug, Thanks for putting together such an interesting and informative site. Having just read the comment regarding Birkmeier I thought I would drop a line. My teenage years were spent in a Birkmeier home and my parents still reside in it today. My mother remembers it as being one of the new “modern” houses when she was a child having grown up on the other side of the block in a Tudor @ Alameda and 43rd(We have many pics of that home and some vintage street scapes). We were once told that our home was built by Ken for Ken, and another time it was mentioned that ours was built from left over materials from other homes, we simply don’t know. I do know having been in @ least 3 other Birkmeiers it is one of the larger ones. There is a smaller duplicate of ours in the Concordia area. I would like any information you have available about these homes. Thanks again for a great site. Dario

  4. Doug Says:

    Hello Dario. Thanks for your feedback on the site, and for contributing your knowledge about Ken. While I have not yet looked into all the Birkmeier houses, my research through the permits suggests that he lived in more than one of them after construction.

    I’m currently researching three other Alameda houses but hope to be able to dig into and share what I find about Ken later this spring.

    Eventually, I hope to be able to assemble a package of photos and stories about Alameda builders. It’s a rich history.

  5. Susie Says:

    Would love to know more about these homes as I am about to list one.
    Thanks,
    Susie

  6. Trish Says:

    Hi Doug,
    My parents home is also a Birkmeier, as well as the house next door. We are in the 4100 block of NE 37th, facing Wilshire Park. Over the years I’ve tried to find more information about this builder. Can you direct me to more info on Birkmeier?
    Thanks and love your blog!
    Trish

    1. Doug Says:

      Hi Trish. Thanks for dropping by the blog. I can see by the interest in Mr. Birkmeier that I better add him to my to-do list. I’ll do some digging this next week and share what I find out here on the blog. In your experience with the Birkmeier houses, what design features do you like best/least?

  7. Gary Says:

    I am also interested in Birkmeier information. My wife and I are looking at homes in NE Portland to purchase and have been intrigued with the style of these homes. We are looking forward to future informational postings. Thanks for your efforts on this!

  8. Trish Says:

    Hi Doug,
    You asked about what design features I like best/least and what I can tell you is that these are QUALITY homes, well-built, and solid! The curved walls, wonderful woodwork (crown moldings, wood floors, scroll work bannisters) are things you don’t find today. I can’t think of anything I don’t like about these homes.
    If you can pass on my email to Gary, we may have a home for him to look at. We are making plans to list our Birkmeier this Spring.
    Thanks again for getting the information out on these fantastic homes!

  9. Gary Says:

    Trish, if you would like to email me with more information on your home feel free to do so. You can do so at dutchmaster47@gmail.com.

  10. Doug Says:

    Thanks to Trish for sharing some observations about her Birkemeier. I’ve started the research on Mr. B and should have some news to share soon.

    Neat to think that maybe the old house blog has connected a seller and a buyer. Gary and Trish: let me know if it works out!

  11. Gary Says:

    Doug, thanks for your work on this. We will look forward to whatever you find out in your research.

  12. Robert Says:

    I placed the Autzen House, at 2425 Alamenda Drive, on the National Historic Register while living there. I have a lot of information about it (and the original plans) for those who may be interested.

    1. Doug Says:

      Hello Robert.

      Thanks for dropping by the Alameda History blog. I am interested in seeing whatever materials you would wish to share relating to the register listing. Drop me a note at doug@alamedahistory.org or give a call and let’s talk.

      -Doug

  13. Sylvia and Gary Groce Says:

    We have the first Birkmeier home that Ken Birkmeier built. Mr. Birkemeier stopped by our home in the early 90’s and told us this was the first home that he built. He was 27 years old when he built our house. We live in Laurelhurst (829 NE 41st Ave). Our home was built in 1932, an English tudor with a rolled roof and very large picture window. We gave Ken a tour of our home and he was very happy his house has stood the test of time. It was so wonderful to meet him.

  14. Rosamonde Bergey McKay Says:

    HELLO,
    I lived at 3335 N.E. 25th between Fremont and Klickitat from 1940 to 1952. Do you know who built that house. I drove by a few years ago and I am pleased at how the neighborhood has been kept up. I remember most of the people on the street during those years. Any neighbors out there? Rosamonde Bergey

  15. mary foster Says:

    Hi Doug:
    Love the article, my great grandmother Mary Braun came to live in Alameda in 1930—she answered an ad to become a maid, her first husband passed away,but later married the man whose ad she had answered. They lived at 1505 Pacific Ave. Later my mother, Dorothy came to live with her, and she meet my father. We all grew up in Alameda, they had 9 children total.I remember the neighborhoods and loved growing up in Alameda, my children and I lived there until 1999. Wish I could move back, but was just there, has changed quit a bit. We all went to Haight School, Alameda High, then after a move, Encinal High, the homes we lived in were fun, and we found a lot of old trap doors and trinkets. Mary Foster

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