Research


Second of Three Parts: The life and times of a neighborhood store and its people

You get the picture from Part 1: In 1910, the Alberta District feels a bit thrown together and rough-and-tumble. But investment and expansion are impressive. A strong sense of neighborhood identity is emerging (thanks in part to business booster H.D. Wagnon other early business owners, early residents and real estate developers). People are coming from near and far because property is cheaper here than in other eastside neighborhoods and there’s a new streetcar that provides dependable service.

Plus, plans underway for a new Willamette River crossing that in 1913 would become the Broadway Bridge were changing the way people thought about living and working in Portland.

 

Built and Run by the Smyths

Enter Michael and Mary Jane Smyth, shopkeepers from Ireland who were running a mom-and-pop grocery near 79th and Southeast Stark (then known as Baseline Road). Michael was born in Ireland in 1842 and immigrated to the US in 1864. Mary Jane was born in 1850 and arrived in the US in 1875.

By 1910, the Smyths had run several small retail shops in Portland and at least one in eastern Oregon. The couple never had children and may have seen the Alberta District investment as setting themselves up for retirement. At ages 68 and 62, they were starting their new venture at NE 27th and Going somewhat late in life.

The original plumbing permit for the building shows construction complete at the end of September 1910, three years before the curbs and sidewalks were installed by local contractor Geibisch and Joplin, and well before the streets were even paved. According to the Polk City Directory, the Smyths opened their business in 1911 as a men’s furnishings store. By 1914, the listing had changed to dry goods and the Smyths were living six doors to the north, with the residence side of the new building rented out.

Mary Jane died on October 12, 1917 and her funeral mass was held at St. Charles Catholic Church, which was then located near the corner of NE 33rd and Webster, two blocks south of today’s Concordia New Seasons (the parish church relocated to NE 42nd years later following a devastating fire and financial hardships). After Mary Jane died, Michael took a rented room in the neighborhood and continued to run the dry goods store on his own until 1921 when he sold it for $3,375. Michael died on February 20, 1922.

 

The Coulters Take Over: Alameda Park Grocery

William and Isabella Coulter, immigrants from England via Canada, bought the business from Michael Smyth, having seen it advertised in the March 2, 1921 edition of The Oregonian as a “very fine bungalow-grocery.” They had shopkeeping experience from several years in Missoula, Montana. It’s unclear if they gave the store its name, or if they adopted the name used by the Smyths, but there it is, listed in the 1928 Polk Directory as the Alameda Park Grocery.

This is unusual for a couple reasons: 27th and Going is near but not actually inside the Alameda Park plat; and, there was a much more prominent store on the southwest corner of 24th and Fremont known as the Alameda Grocery. This must have been confusing, at least. No word about what that rivalry may have been like, but the 24th and Fremont business advertised widely with its name, and the bungalow grocery with its slight variation never shows up in any newspaper advertising or any other annual Polk Directory.

While the naming convention might have been confusing, we know it to be fact thanks to a photograph from David White, grandson of the Coulters, that clearly shows the name Alameda Grocery painted in big black letters on the side of the store. You can see the store and the letters here over the shoulder of these two best friends: William and Isabelle’s daughter Agnes is on the right and her friend Marjorie Ellis is on left. Taken about 1926, looking east on Going a few doors west of 27th. Photo courtesy of David White.

Looking south toward 27th and Going, 1926

William Coulter passed away in the mid 1920s, and Isabelle took over the business on her own, with help from daughter Agnes, until 1943. This 22-year period was probably the best era for this little building and its business: Isabelle ran a tight ship and took good care of the place.

Somewhere during the Coulter years, this incredible photo was taken, which we have paired with the same view today (spoiler alert for Part 3).

Isabelle Coulter, about 1930, 4601 NE 27th

Isabelle Coulter in front of her store, about 1930. Photo courtesy of David White. Click the photo for a larger view (there’s so much to see here you better take a closer look). Below, that same view today.

Alameda Park Grocery

 

From Retail to Church to Artist Studio

Charles and Vera Fiebke bought the property from Isabelle Coulter in 1943 and sold it on June 20, 1944 to Henry and Ruth Rieckers, who owned the business until 1953. During this time, the business was referred to as “Rieckers” and as “Rieckers Grocery.” A classified advertisement in The Oregonian on March 3, 1953 indicated the Rieckers were retiring and putting the business up for sale, asking $6,500.

On June 24, 1953, the property was purchased from the Rieckers by John Henry Moad and his wife Lucy Jane Moad. They operated the store—as Moad’s Grocery—until 1961 when it was sold to Robert A. and Louise M. Klatke, who changed the name to Bob’s Quik Stop Market. But not for long.

An article in The Oregonian on June 29, 1962 reports a robbery at Bob’s Quick Stop. Robert, age 56, was robbed with a knife to his throat. A few months later, he and Louise put the store back on the market, selling it to Agnes Martin on November 2, 1962. Sometime during the mid-1960s, the building ceased functioning as a store.

As we know from earlier posts here on the blog, this was the beginning of a tough time for mom and pop neighborhood grocery stores. The whole retail grocery business was changing and local grocery stores were quickly becoming convenience rather than primary shopping locations.

The Martin family owned the property for the next six years and at least one reference to the building shows it as the Mt. Zion Church of God in Christ. The Polk Directory for 1965 shows the building as vacant, and in 1967, it is listed simply as L.S. Martin. On September 17, 1968, the Martins sold the property to Carl E. Bass (son) and Viola Matheson (mother). Bass, who was a potter, turned the space into an artist’s studio and lived in the property until his death in April 2001 at the age of 73.

The property was purchased from the Bass estate by investor/developers George and Isabelle Zitcak, who held it for just four months before selling it in April 2002 to Chad Crouch. This is where the story gets interesting, which will be the subject of Part 3.

To whet your appetite for the next chapter of the bungalow grocery, we’ll leave you with this photograph, which shows just how far down the building had faded during its later years and why it was a leading candidate for the wrecking ball by 2002.

2

The bungalow grocery at low ebb, about 2002. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

Suffice to say that Mary Jane and Michael Smyth, and Isabelle Coulter, would probably have cried to see it in this shape.

Next up: Chad Crouch and Sheryl Eckrich bring the bungalow grocery back from the brink.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been quiet here on the blog lately because we’ve been busy working on several studies of homes and businesses in northeast Portland. Each time we do a study—which involves becoming immersed in documents, maps, photos, archives, and family stories—we focus in on connecting past and present, which is what this work is all about.

These connections allow generations of owners—the people who have lived in, shaped and loved these buildings—to listen to each other, to learn, and sometimes to nod their heads in common understanding and amazement. What an honor and privilege to be able to help make those connections, to learn those stories and to understand and visualize the passage of time. And each time we take on a project, we learn more about the neighborhood as a whole.

As we’ve zeroed in on this work in the last month (to the exclusion of the blog), it has occurred to us what we’re really doing is taking a hold of time that has already passed and trying to slow it down long enough to look around inside for understanding and for answers. Frequently, that’s what we get. Sometimes we just get more questions.

With the completion of this latest handful of studies, we’re going to have some room to focus on some new (old) projects and studies. Interested?

Meanwhile here on the blog, stay tuned for something new soon about Mom and Pop grocery stores

After a pause in our ongoing quest and passion for Alameda history, we’re back on track in the New Year with a free program as part of the Oregon Encyclopedia History Night series, at 7:00 p.m., Monday, January 13 at the Mission Theater in Northwest Portland. Consider yourself invited.

In pictures and words, we’ll track the early development of Northeast Portland’s Alameda neighborhood, profile key builders and building styles, and share a social history of the homes, families and changing generations of this 100-plus-year-old neighborhood.

Come experience how these layers of local history add up to a deeper understanding of the neighborhood today. This updated presentation will touch on Alameda School, the Pearson Ponderosa Pine, Wilshire Park, the Subud Center/Alameda Park Community Church, the Broadway Streetcar and other institutions and businesses that have defined Alameda life over the years.

It’s free. The beer is good. You might see your neighbors and other history-inclined folks.

7:00 pm, Monday, January 13 at the Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan, Portland.

More on the Garfield telephone exchange, with thanks to frequent Alameda History blog visitor John Hamnett for inspiration…

We remember the time—which seems not so long ago—when our phone numbers began with two letters (and a word associated with those two letters), and then a number.

We grew up in the Alpine exchange and our number was AL1-2820, which eventually became 251-2820 (get it?…A=2, L=5). When asked for our number, we really did use to say “Alpine 1 2-8-2-0.”

Here in Alameda and in other nearby neighborhoods in Northeast Portland, our phone numbers used to begin with GA. And that’s not by accident. It’s because our neighborhood was served by the GArfield Exchange. If we had grown up here, we would have given out our number as Garfield 2-8-2-0.

A “numbercard” from an old Western Electric style phone bearing the GArfield exchange name and number

Check out this clipping from The Oregonian on September 1, 1955 which charts the evolution of a local business’s phone number. Keep in mind that behind these changes were corresponding changes in technology at places like the Garfield Exchange Office.

The spoken word “Garfield” would have been ubiquitous in our old Alameda homes in years past. And anyone passing by the building at 24th and Stanton would have thought about it as “our” exchange. The Garfield Exchange.

If you look closely as you travel the city, you might find evidence of these old telephone exchanges, and the days in which we referred to our numbers with a word. Alpine. Garfield. Check out this blog entry from a fellow local historian in New York who has made a practice of collecting these references. Pretty neat. Let us know if you find similar references here in Portland.

And if you are captivated by the idea of exchange names, you must check out this website, which has an incredible collection of information about early telephone exchanges (you can even search your old exchange name). We appreciate the reason given for why remembering these things is important: “Exchange names helped foster a sense of place…

Looking southwest at the corner of NE 24th and Fremont, early 1920s. Note delivery bike visible behind power pole. OrHi 49061.

There was a time when the building we know today as the home of Lucca and Garden Fever—at the southwest corner of 24th and Fremont—looked after most of the neighborhood’s needs for grocery and personal goods. Alameda Pharmacy, Alameda Grocery, John Rumpakis’s Alameda Shoe Repair, even the dentist’s office, upstairs above the pharmacy, were neighborhood landmarks that everyone knew, shopped in, and pretty much took for granted (except the ice cream sodas at the pharmacy which were supposed to be legendary). The pharmacy and grocery even provided a delivery-by-bicycle option for homemakers who needed a few small items, but couldn’t get out of the house. It was a win-win situation for Alameda and for the local family-owned business during those early years.

To be sure, some shopping needs were taken care of away from the neighborhood. Even then, there were smaller markets or “convenience” style stores of the day located within walking distance (see this post on the Davis Dairy Store, one such locally-owned convenience market). Built in 1922 during the peak of neighborhood construction, the Alameda Grocery commercial building at 24th and Fremont quite literally had a corner on the market.

That is, until the mid 1930s, when a fully-built-out neighborhood with a growing population, combined with a slowly recovering economy and new trends in shopping, opened up new opportunities for big business which began to shape the corner.

Enter the Safeway Corporation: a publicly-traded rampant success story, with headquarters in Oakland, California and more than 3,200 chain stores nationwide. The company’s penetration of local grocery markets was so complete that by 1935, many states around the country were passing legislation—urged by local merchants who were getting slammed by Safeway chain stores—that taxed the huge company’s local operations to discourage competition.

But not in Portland. By 1937, Safeway had 54 stores here, including 46 stores located in eastside neighborhoods, and even one on the doorstep of Alameda at the southwest corner of NE 24th and Broadway (today it’s Brake Team, an auto service garage) built in 1936. Most of these stores were modest in size, and not like the sprawling stores we know today. Undoubtedly, the local Safeway on Broadway cut into the market share of Alameda Grocery. But nothing like what happened starting in 1938.

Click on the image for a larger view. This ad is from The Oregonian on September 13, 1940 announcing a remodel and reopening of the Alameda Safeway.

On July 16, 1938, Safeway opened a store in the building we know today as the home of Alameda Dental and Frontier Bank on the southeast corner of the intersection. The property had been leased from the Albers Brothers Milling Company, who incidentally also owned the Alameda grocery and pharmacy building across the street. Retail activity in the single-storey 50-by-100 foot concrete Safeway building began to take a big bite out of Alameda Grocery’s market share.

By 1940, Safeway expanded and remodeled, while Alameda Grocery across the street struggled to hold on. About that time, Safeway made plans to expand beyond the footprint of the existing store to take in the entire north end of the block. But as The Oregonian reported on March 20, 1942, the Portland City Council narrowly defeated a zoning change that would have allowed this major expansion. Despite voicing concerns about home values in the neighborhood, Mayor Earl Riley voted to expand the commercial zoning to permit the Safeway expansion:

From The Oregonian, March 20, 1942.

Safeway’s expansion into residential neighborhoods was not a phenomenon isolated to Alameda. Blog reader and longtime Grant Park resident John Hamnett writes that in nearby Grant Park, local residents fought a pitched battle with the City of Portland regarding a plan to build a Safeway adjacent to the Grant Park Grocery, a similar locally-owned market at the southwest corner of NE 33rd and Knott. The vision for that zone change took in all of the southwest corner, and further considered zoning the entire intersection commercial at all four corners. In May 1942, City Council voted 4-1 to allow the Safeway development. Incredulous neighbors protested time and again concerned about their property values, but the City would not relent. Finally, in March 1943, neighbors filed suit against the city for allowing the zone change, and won in a clear decision handed down by Circuit Judge Walter L. Tooze.

Back at NE 24th and Fremont, two gas stations were added on the northwest and northeast corners—the true portal of the Alameda Park subdivision (today site of a parking lot, and Perry’s on Fremont). Generational and ownership changes were remaking the anchor businesses on the south side of the street as well. Eventually, as Safeway’s business model changed (fewer, larger stores instead of the 50-foot by 100-foot businesses sprinkled all over Portland), the former Safeway store went back to being a family-owned business, loved and known by a generation of Alamedans as Brandel’s. Nature’s Fresh Northwest (or simply “Natures”) eventually took over the Alameda Grocery building. And today, after a string of unsuccessful restaurant tenants, Lucca seems to have hit its stride.

Check out this story from The Oregonian on January 17, 1984, which is a snapshot as the corner transitioned from some difficult times in the 1970s to the place we know today:

From The Oregonian, January 17, 1984. Click on the image for a larger view.

We still miss Brandel’s and the ease of slipping into that old Safeway building for a gallon of milk on the way home. But every time we pass through that intersection, we pause for a moment to think about how our neighborhood geography could have turned out quite differently.

When it snows in Alameda—or more properly when we think about snow in Alameda—there are a few things that come to mind: When did we last fill the oil tank? Will the kids get a day off? Where did we put the sleds?

Which leads to the next thought: Deadman’s Hill.

Over the years we’ve sledded down, walked up and often wondered about the namesake Dead Man behind the slang name for Stuart Drive. In this case, it’s not just a myth, it’s a real story about a well-known and popular Portland businessman who died in 1917 in a freak accident that rattled the business community and shocked the young Alameda Park neighborhood.

Fred A. Jacobs, art collector, civic booster, real estate broker and owner of the Fred A. Jacobs Company, had set out with his employee J.P. Parker to drive through Alameda on their way to have a look at rental properties in the Vernon neighborhood. At the time—and well up until the 1970s, we’ve been told—Stuart Drive was a two-way street. On the morning of June 5, 1917, they started up Stuart Drive on their route north. Why they chose Stuart Drive over the gentler and wider Regents Drive is anyone’s guess. The car made it about half way up the hill, but then stalled out and started to roll backwards down the street. Unfortunately for Parker and Jacobs, the emergency brake did not hold and the car rolled to the far left side of the street, went backwards over the curb, bumped over the small sliver of property that goes with the lovely George A. Eastman-designed Craftsman home there on the hill, and then flipped over hard, landing on its side 25 feet below on Ridgewood Drive. Here’s what The Oregonian said the next morning:

From The Oregonian, June 6, 1917

Jacobs, age 47, left behind his wife Gussie and two children, Elizabeth, and Fred Jr. Pallbearers for the funeral—held with full Masonic rite honors—included Portland’s most powerful and successful business leaders. Services were held at home, and then again at graveside. No known plaque or marker was ever put in place in honor of Fred Jacobs. The real estate company bearing his name lived on for many years.

The same story that carried news of the fatal accident also described the hill as a perilous spot and the scene of other accidents. Indeed, an earlier news story, this one from April 19, 1912, described a serious but non-fatal collision between a motorcycle and a car near the top of the hill that ended up with the car over the side and smashed into a just-finished (and now much remodeled) house, and motorcycle driver and passenger pinned under the car.

Here’s The Oregonian’s description from April 19, 1912, and even a photo.

From The Oregonian, April 19, 1912. Click to enlarge.

Here’s some bonus information that we found fascinating: A later news story about the motorcycle vs. car accident, and the law suit that resulted, appearing on July 3, 1914, helps solve another mystery about the hill. Frequent readers of the blog will recall the post about “Hugby” Drive, which we now know was Rugby Drive. The July 1914 story refers to the accident as happening at Rugby Drive and Alameda Street. A search through the city’s street naming records shows the only “official” Rugby Drive as being on the Westside. References to Stuart Drive exist both before 1912 (including in the original 1909 plat) and long after, so we’ll have to continue wondering about the story behind this visible but extinct street name. Theory: the Alameda Land Company boys had it set in the concrete curb before the official naming protocol became clear.

One more item, for the record: the late Portland historian Eugene Snyder, author of the definitive Portland Names and Neighborhoods: Their Historic Origins, which we greatly admire, guesses incorrectly about who Stuart was. After researching E.Z. Ferguson, president of the Alameda Land Company, and understanding more about his social network, it’s clear to us that Stuart was Donald M. Stuart, Ferguson’s business partner, owner of the Spencer-McCain-built home on the northwest corner of 26th and Hamblet, (less than a block from Ferguson’s Craftsman mansion at the southeast corner of 26th and The Alameda). Long-time friends from Astoria, Stuart served as pallbearer at Ferguson’s funeral in July 1917.

Sled carefully please.

We’ve written in the past about Alameda School and the portable buildings that preceded it. To be clear, there is much more to learn and write about the school itself, but recently we’ve come across some information that will make you want to go stand at the corner of NE 25th and Fremont and imagine a different reality (that’s a big part of what history is all about for us…trying to reassemble the pieces).

And since it’s the start of the school year, what better time to pause for a moment to think about our favorite local school?

We’ll remember that in 1914, the Alameda Park neighborhood was a blank slate with streets and curbs in, but less than 80 homes built. Still, there were kids, and parents who organized to push for the School Board to build a local school.

On September 3, 1914, the Board heard from a delegation of Alameda parents, and received a promise for further action:

From The Oregonian, September 4, 1914

Construction of Kennedy School on NE 33rd was underway which may well have just served to irritate Alameda parents, who felt there should be a school here too. By October, the Board was ready to provide a temporary solution, leasing a 200-foot by 500-foot lot on the northeast corner of 25th and Fremont for several temporary buildings:

From The Oregonian, October 2, 1914. Interesting unrelated note: the writer refers to the “overlap” area (see post from August 24th) as Alameda Park.

By Thanksgiving week 1914, the buildings were in and so were the kids:

From The Oregonian, November 24, 1914

Over the next several years, the portables multiplied into a compound of buildings and by October 1919, Alameda parents (there were more of them by now) held a rally of sorts, signed a petition and expressed their readiness to levy a tax against themselves to build a building:

From The Oregonian, October 29, 1919. Note that additional portables had been added to the mix since the first two in 1914.

On an interesting side note, Dr. C.J. Smith was a notable Alamedan who while serving as the President of the State Health Board was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for Governor against James Withycombe in the election of 1914. The Smith family was very active in Alameda community affairs. Despite his pleas and the voices of the community, when school started in 1920, the Alameda portables were bursting at the seams with nearly 150 students. Something had to be done. By mid-October 1920, School Board Director W.F. Woodward had been to see the hardships, and parents submitted more petitions.

From The Oregonian, October 15, 1920

Which is exactly what they did. A bond issue was passed and school construction began to catch up with the growing student population across Portland. One year later, on October 27, 1921, the School Board selected a contractor and construction soon followed leading to the school we know today (the building of which is another story for another day).

The following year, homes were built on the property where the portables stood. In fact, there may be a few missing pieces to the story about the location of the portables. The northeast corner of 25th and Fremont has had a house on it since 1919. Perhaps the reporter meant the northwest corner of 25th and Fremont, though we’ve seen multiple references to that northeast corner. Possibly by the early 1920s, the portables were moved onto the current school site–which was a dairy pasture–as the neighborhood expanded.

Regardless, it’s an inspiring story about neighbors making a difference. And it still makes us wonder what the corner of 25th and Fremont looked like with six portable buildings and 150 students. And tip our hat to the parents of the day who helped make it happen.

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