When Northeast neighborhoods outgrew their dairies

Much of Northeast Portland at the turn of the last century went like this: a sparse grid of dirt roads, brushy open fields, clumps of thick forest, a scattering of orchards planted in the 1880s and 90s, limited central services, a few established rural residences, and houses with newcomers popping up here and there as the real estate business percolated. And dairies.

Portland’s fresh milk came from a relatively small number of commercial production dairies and hundreds of smaller operations scattered across the landscape—including right here in the backyards of neighborhoods we know today—consisting of a few cows and a small barn or garage. In 1914 there were 1,004 licensed dairies operating in Portland. In his report to City Council that year, Mayor Albee worried out loud about just how many more small dairies didn’t bother to get a license. Our hunch is there were many.

We know this for a few reasons: partly due to the trail of official documents required of dairy operators by the city, all still carefully filed away at City Archives. But also because as residential growth escalated in the 19-teens and early 1920s, neighbors and dairy operators came into conflict over the smells, sounds and hours of operation that were just natural to the dairy business. The leading edge of new neighborhoods as they were built formed a line of demarcation between an older way of life that involved open fields and agriculture and a new way of life with its grid and density of houses, people, schools and streetcars.

By 1915 in what is our part of town today, newly established neighbors were demanding City Council take action:

From The Oregon Journal, August 8, 1915.

Ordinances about the proximity of out-buildings couldn’t really address the fundamental land use conflict of agriculture and urbanizing residential life, particularly when a dairy operator was walking the cows up the street past the neighbors to graze in a vacant lot for much of the day and rounding them up in the evening for milking in the shed out behind the house.

The dairy mentioned in the news story at 969 East 21st Street North (today’s 4539 NE 21st, remember Great Renumbering) was run by Lizzie Goldstein. By 1915, most of the houses on that block were built and the street was a vibrant place. Here’s a view of the Goldstein house and block today. With some obvious modernizations, this street scene was pretty much the way things looked when the dairy operated out of a big barn out behind the house (which is no longer there).

The former Goldstein house (center) at 4539 NE 21st, and the driveway where the cows filed in and out each day. The barn was at the back of the lot, directly behind the house. Neighbors in the houses to the left and the right filed complaints with the City of Portland over the noise and smell of the Goldsteins’ 10 cows. December 2018.

Confirming our belief that all things are somehow connected, the Goldsteins lived on the same block as the Alberta Shul, where they were members (which we’ve written about), and directly next door to the Vernon Practice House (which we’ve also written about). The imposing Old Vernon School was just a block over (when you read this, be on the lookout for the part about kids walking to school getting manure on their shoes). And don’t forget the bungalow grocery just up the street. Lots going on here off of Going Street.

Lizzie and her husband Morris were Russian immigrants who became naturalized citizens in 1901 and moved in to their brand-new house in 1909 with their children Bertha (then age 11) and George (then age 9). Morris ran a store on Alberta and she ran the dairy. Evidently Lizzie knew her business well because milk from her dairy routinely won contests for quality. Did she grow up on a farm in Russia?

Lizzie and Morris felt the pressure of growth and the unhappiness of their immediate neighbors, but they also were committed to producing good milk and making their dairy business successful. Lizzie knew she needed to bolster her case in the face of the complaints piling up since the year before, triggering Mayor Albee to direct the city’s Bureau of Health to inspect the Goldstein dairy. Here’s the inspection report, and don’t let the first page fool you, even though Lizzie ran a tight ship, the City Health Officer was no fan of hers and clearly wanted to get dairies out of Portland’s emerging neighborhoods, even suggesting to Mayor Albee a model ordinance patterned on San Francisco:

Courtesy Portland City Archives | Council Documents, Licenses-Miscellaneous-1916

 

Did you catch the language there on page two? “It is a personal wrong that anyone should be allowed to maintain a dairy in a nice residence or business district.” And, “…these dairies sometimes become a menace to public health.” Pretty strong stuff.

In November of 1915, in preparation for a pending City Council action on licensing her dairy, Lizzie brought her own strong case in the following petition to Mayor Albee and his council describing her investments made over time, all allowed by past city ordinances. Be sure to check out her fascinating signature.

Courtesy Portland City Archives | Council Documents, Licenses-Miscellaneous-1916

Bolstering Lizzie’s petition—and seemingly undercutting her neighbors directly to the north and to the south who had complained (remarkably, the only people on the block to complain)—Lizzie filed this impressive petition signed by more than 80 neighbors in the immediate vicinity:

Courtesy Portland City Archives | Council Documents, Licenses-Miscellaneous-1916

Can you imagine getting the signatures of 80 people in the neighborhood today to support something as impactful as a dairy operating next door or up the street? She must have sold a lot of milk to many happy neighbors.

City council was in a jam: they were strongly pro-business and had after all passed policies that encouraged the kind of business investments Lizzie made in her dairy. Still, they had citizens demanding action and a major livability and possible public health issue on their hands (and maybe on their shoes). Throughout much of 1916, via continuance and delay, council kicked the can of decision making down the road about whether to relicense the Goldstein dairy.

Meanwhile, a few blocks north and east, council was ordering other dairies closed.

From The Oregonian, April 20, 1916.

 

Finally, on July 21, 1916, City Council ordered Lizzie’s dairy closed, which she seemed to accept surprisingly easily. Hard to know what was actually going on in these proceedings given all the reported smiles and cheerful atmosphere, but council direction was unambiguous:

From The Oregon Journal, July 21, 1916

There’s no further reporting about the Goldstein dairy after that encounter, and nothing conclusive in city council proceedings or archives. We examined every dairy license issued in Portland from 1916-1922, and Lizzie Goldstein was not among them. But she continued to operate for another seven years, winning contests and being listed each year in the newspaper as producing some of the very highest quality milk in Portland from the dairy behind her house. Lizzie must have decided she just couldn’t quit the business, and had the last laugh in the face of the city’s weak enforcement mechanisms.

In 1920 she even placed a classified ad for a milker to help out around the place.

But the tide of urbanization crested in the early 1920s (1922 was the busiest year for home construction according to building permit research we’ve done) and the pressure on the Goldsteins must have been overwhelming. By 1923 they were making other plans and put their home up for sale, the classified ad referring to the former dairy barn out behind the house as a “garage for 4 machines,” meaning autos. Not milking machines, or cows.

With the Goldsteins’ departure, the days of urban dairies in this neighborhood were done. City council was thinking deeper thoughts about planning and zoning, street paving eventually came along, the residential real estate business exploded building out most vacant lots, and the Alberta business district was going strong. No more room for cows. Lizzie, Morris, Bertha and George moved to Kenton and took over a furniture business on North Denver Street.

Our review of official dairy paperwork during those years shows a shrinking geography in which licenses were granted. In yet-to-be developed areas like the open fields around today’s Fernhill Park and north and west of NE 33rd and Knott, licenses were granted for small operations of 3-6 cows. But in established young neighborhoods like Vernon, Concordia and Homedale, long-shot applications were usually accompanied by petitions from understandably cranky neighbors citing the obvious concerns: smell, flies, mess, and the bellowing of cows.

By 1921, with a new milk inspector on board, the city was increasingly skeptical of small, local dairies, expressed in this letter seeking the revocation of another nearby dairyman’s operation:

Courtesy City of Portland Archives | Council Documents – Dairy Licenses

In a tragic postscript to this story, Lizzie was killed and Morris seriously injured in a freak automobile accident at NE 8th and Alberta on April 19, 1925. They were riding in an auto that was hit by another car and pushed in front of the Alberta streetcar, which could not stop and demolished the Goldstein car. Her memorial service was held two days later in what must have been a packed Congregation Tifereth Israel (Alberta Shul) just around the corner from the former Goldstein home and dairy. Down the years, on the anniversary of her death, Bertha and George published memorials in the newspaper in her honor. Morris died on June 23, 1933. Both are buried in the Neveh Shalom cemetery in southeast Portland.

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