Fernhill Park: From wild thicket to popular neighborhood park

It’s often the small and even random things in the past—stuff we don’t pay much attention to or think about now—that make a big difference in outcomes that shape the future.

How Northeast Portland’s Fernhill Park has turned out today is kind of like that: Peel back the layers of history and you can see why things are the way they are today. That’s kind of our broken-record message here at AH, but it’s true.

The hills and gullies that make Fernhill Park distinctive today made it less desirable for crops in the early 1900s.

One of the most prominent features of the park today, located across rolling hills near NE 41st and Holman in Northeast Portland, is responsible for it being a park at all, and probably not for the reason you think. The hills and gullies on the park’s north side, a great place to run the dog in the spring and summer or to sled in the winter, distinguish this place from other nearby city parks.

But back in the day, when much of this area was farmland, this up-and-down topography was a thicket of trees and brush and not very good for growing crops. A close examination of aerial photos from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s show agricultural fields on all sides right up to the edges where the ground falls off into the ravines of today’s park area. So—the reasoning went—if the city really wants to buy that property from us farmers, go right ahead, we can’t grow anything there anyway.

And that’s just what happened.

After voters approved a property tax levy in 1938 to create more parks and playgrounds for a growing Portland, the city set out on a 10-year process of buying those hills and gullies, starting out in 1940 with a 10-acre parcel owned by the Jackson family right in the middle of it all.

During those years, several dirt roads criss-crossed the north side of the park, one even ran right up the bottom of the gully at the heart of today’s off-leash area in the northeast side of the park, pausing at a wide spot that served as a dump and debris field where car bodies and all manner of junk were strewn.

This detail of an aerial photo from 1940 shows the area of today’s Fernhill Park in the middle surrounded by farm fields on all sides. NE 42nd Avenue is the north-south street on the far right and doesn’t yet go through to Columbia Boulevard (it bends around the corner to the right where Holman is today). The north-south street on the left (that also doesn’t go through) is NE 37th Avenue. The east-west dirt road at the top of the park became today’s Holman Street. Paths, a road and a dump area are visible in the top center of the brush patch. Mike Brink’s grandparents’ home is in the upper right corner with the rows of trees and barn to the south. Photo courtesy of the University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library.

It wasn’t an official dump, but more like a secluded out-of-the-way place where folks from the surrounding area knew they could get away with off-loading a truckful of junk if they needed to. So they did. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the NE 42nd Avenue connection to Columbia Boulevard was built, some of the dirt fill needed to make the grade change for the overpass was dug out from and supplied by the gully on the east side of the park along today’s NE 41st Avenue.

Prior to 1940, when NE 42nd didn’t go through to Columbia Boulevard, you could stand near the northeast corner of what is today’s park and see the Kennedy School across the fields and orchards stretching west to NE 33rd Avenue, with more open fields south to Killingsworth and north to the banks of the Columbia Slough. Then during the building boom of the 1940s and 50s, subdivisions marched east transforming the fields into neighborhoods.

Just 10 years later in 1950 the neighborhood was filling in. NE 42nd now goes through to Columbia Boulevard (look for the Tourist Cabins and the Spur Tavern…they’re there). NE 41st has been built and house construction is underway.  And Mike Brink’s grandparents have planted an orchard with orderly rows of filberts south of the house and bing cherries north of the house. Photo courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Often referred to as “truck farms” because the produce was trucked to market (and some of it was sold out of the back of trucks at busy intersections and small markets around town), these surrounding fields produced fruit and vegetables for Portland households. One farm near the corner of what is today’s NE 41st and Holman was owned and run by a Japanese immigrant family, as were others in the area. During WWII, Japanese farming families across the Pacific Northwest were removed from their land and placed in internment camps in southeast Oregon and central California.

We know from our recent visits with Mike Brink—who grew up in the 1940s and 50s in the tourist cabins at NE 42nd and Holman now about to be demolished—that the fields and orchards stretching out in all directions were filled with filberts, apricots, bing cherries, raspberries, strawberries and other crops. Mike remembers walking through them and through the heavily wooded thicket that is today’s Fernhill Park on his way to and from St. Andrew’s School at NE 9th and Alberta. He’d leave the cabins in the morning, pass by his grandparents farmhouse that stood near today’s intersection of NE 41st and Highland, then take the path through the woods and fields over to Ainsworth Street where he’d walk to the corner of NE 30th and Ainsworth, which was the end of the line for the Alberta Streetcar (you should check out this link because it shows the streetcar waiting where Mike used to catch it at NE 30th and Ainsworth). Hopping on a mostly empty streetcar, he’d ride south on 30th and then west on Alberta to school, reversing the process in the afternoon, maybe stopping at a neighbor’s house for hot chocolate on the way home. Quite a solo daily adventure for an elementary school kid, but times were different.

Mike doesn’t remember it being talked about in his house during those years, but gradually, the city was buying up parcels of the woods when bond money was available and when the locals were willing to sell. A couple more parcels in 1942 and 1943. Six in 1949.

As the park took shape through the late 1940s and early 1950s, some locals referred to it as Ainsworth Park, a name that appears frequently in real estate advertising of that era. By the early 1950s, most of the open land Mike remembers to the north of the park had been converted to subdivision (the Vanlaeken and Leitritz additions for readers keeping track of plat names). NE Highland Street was put through the middle of his family’s farm and his grandparents moved to a new house in the neighborhood as the working farm landscape they once knew was transformed into suburbia. By June of 1951 when most of the park buying was done, the city had invested $60,479 and had acquired 25.95 acres.

In this detail of a 1956 aerial photo, the family farm is gone replaced by the cul de sac that is today’s Highland Street and homes are under construction; all of the lots are built up between NE 41st and 42nd in the middle of the photo; a baseball diamond has arrived in the middle of it all; the paths, road and dump are gone. Once again, the Tourist Cabins and the Spur Tavern stand out clearly just right of center toward the top. Photo courtesy of the University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library.

 

Contemporary view from a hill on the north side of the park, looking off into the Vanlaeken and Leitritz additions. Mike’s grandparents’ farm was off to the right.

On July 14, 1954, City Council passed an ordinance officially naming the area Fernhill Park, a name that was not in local usage prior, but that probably takes its meaning from the hills on the north side of the park.

Construction of Adams High School just southeast of Fernhill Park in the mid-1960s caused quite a stir and protest from the neighborhood. More than 150 angry neighbors turned out at a Portland School Board meeting on September 4, 1964 to share their disbelief that the School Board would demolish 26 homes, three duplexes, a local greenhouse/nursery known as Knapps and a PGE substation to make room for the school. The emotion and sense of loss in the letters and petitions submitted to the school board make for tough reading. Despite this strenuous protest, demolition of the homes and businesses went ahead, construction followed, and John Adams High School opened in September 1969.

From The Oregon Journal, September 3, 1964. The homes and businesses inside the dotted line were demolished to make room for Adams High School.

A dozen years later, when high school enrollment dropped in the early 1980s, the building was repurposed as a middle school and operated for another 18 years before being closed in 2000 due to health concerns about mold. The building sat empty and was frequently vandalized until being torn down in 2006 leaving the large open space south of the track. Newcomers to the area today might not even know that vacant piece of ground south of the track was once a school, and before that a neighborhood, and before that farm fields, and before that an Oregon Trail-era homestead.

No history of the area would be complete without taking it back to the earliest record, when this property was homesteaded under the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act, which Congress passed to encourage settlement of the Oregon country. Isaac and Mary Rennison came across the Oregon Trail in 1852 and settled on and farmed the property, filing their Donation Land Claim in 1855 that encompasses the area bounded today by NE 33rd and NE 60th, Holman and Killingsworth.

Before all this recorded history, let’s not forget that these lands on the south shore of the Columbia River and the Columbia Slough were frequented by the Native Americans who called this area home for more than 500 generations.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the places we know and care about today as our local parks came to us partly because of unpredictable events or circumstances: Alberta Park was a brush patch owned by a Chinese immigrant who didn’t want to sell, or to control the brush and trees while the neighborhood developed around it, so the city condemned the property out from underneath him and turned it into a park. Wilshire Park was tied up in a complex probate process inadvertently delaying development until the city took out a bank loan to buy the property on the eve of its being turned into a subdivision. And much of Fernhill Park was property no one really wanted anyway because it wasn’t good cropland. Today, we take these places for granted as fixtures of neighborhood life.

With these lessons of history in mind, what should we be thinking about and taking action on today that would change some future outcome about how our neighborhood feels and operates in the future? Demolition and densification? Traffic? Hmm. More on that next week.

End of Story: Spur Tavern & the 42nd Avenue Tourist Cabins

We’ve been working on the history of Northeast Portland’s Fernhill Park this week, and it’s a fascinating tale of the city’s growth during the mid-20th Century, land use change, local politics and community engagement.

But we bumped into a story along the way that we have to share first because it’s going to be the next one that goes away and we have to appreciate it briefly while we can.

We’re talking about the old Spur Tavern and the garage-like apartments at the northeast corner of NE 42nd and Holman. Here they are:

NE 42nd and Holman, looking east, April 2017. In the mid-1940s, this was a community of returning WWII servicemen and their families, temporary workers and others passing through the Portland area.

The former Spur Tavern, built in 1942, 6300 NE 42nd Avenue.

These buildings have obviously known better days. Some might call them an eyesore, with broken and boarded up windows, tilting roofs and doorways and rotting siding, all spray painted with graffiti. A small ocean of cracked and buckling pavement and gravel surrounds it all, moss growing everywhere, branches down, junk piled. And for the moment it’s surrounded by barbed wire fence. When you see fence go up around buildings like this, you know things are about to happen.

In fact, this week the City of Portland issued a demolition permit, so if you want to go look, make it quick. We haven’t yet been able to connect with the owner, so we’re not sure what’s planned for the property. But we’re guessing most people are probably not going to miss these tired and dejected looking buildings.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Built in 1942, about the time NE 42nd Avenue was connected up to Columbia Boulevard and the new Portland airbase, the “Tourist Cabins” and Spur Tavern provided a sought-after home base for servicemen and their families on short assignment and others who needed temporary quarters for seasonal jobs or as a jumping off place into the next chapters of their lives.

When it was first built, from the front door of the Spur you could look out at agricultural fields in every direction. The Cully neighborhood to the south and east was already established and growing. Off to the west, across the open fields of what is today’s Fernhill Park and the eastern edge of the Concordia neighborhood, you could see the Kennedy School. To the north, more farm fields and dairies around the Columbia Slough and a beehive of activity at what was fast becoming the Portland Air Base and the new Portland airport.

The close-in fields and orchards were the livelihood of local families. One family of immigrants from Croatia lived in a 1917 farmhouse at the corner of today’s NE 41st and Highland Street (there was no Highland Street then). Home to the Anna and Josef Ugar family, this farm residence was completely surrounded by fields and orchards, with the nearest neighbor a quarter mile off to the west. You get the idea: this was the outskirts.

One young person who knew this place well and loved it for the adventure, family and community it provided, was Mike Brink, grandson of Anna and Josef Ugar. Mike split his growing up years between his grandparent’s farmhouse just to the west on the hill overlooking the fields, and the “cabin” at the far north end of the line of connected apartments.

Mike’s dad Bill was from Cascade Locks. In the 1930s, while helping build Bonneville Dam, Bill married Kay Ugar. After Mike was born, Bill  shipped off to World War II, so young Mike and his Mom Kay headed home to the Ugar family farm in Northeast Portland. When his dad returned from the service, the young family stayed local, moving across NE 42nd Avenue to rent one of the tourist cabins.

Mike remembers:

“5 million men came home. Many to wives and families they hadn’t seen in years. There were no jobs. Insufficient housing. And many other societal problems. The cabins served a vital function for us. They were a virtual community. Everyone was in the same boat. Those of us who were there for a longer time formed close bonds. The Spur Tavern was a social hub. Some had difficulty finding work and spent too much time there. Others spent all their free time there. Weekends could get out of control at times.”

Mike recalls the modest means of many cabin residents, and how from time to time when rent was hard to come by, the landlord Al Druery, who also ran the Spur Tavern, would cover a family who needed help with groceries until payday.

“He [Al] also collected the rent for the cabins. He lived in the end cabin—#1 – right behind the tavern. I remember him as a harried looking man who looked like he drank too much himself but I don’t remember anyone ever having a real problem with him. I remember if we were low on milk or coffee or bread or some other staple my mom would send me over to the Spur and they would give me what ever we needed and put it on our bill. And all of us worked together to convert the garages to additional living space and finish the interior. Then there would be a big party. There was a rotating weekly pinochle game. It couldn’t have been too bad.”

Mike recalls how the long line of cabins used to include garages, but residents gradually converted them to living space, which was a premium as families grew. Here’s a current photo, and memories from Mike that help evoke that life and times:

Cabin # 7, 6300 NE 42nd Avenue, April 2017. Note the daffodils by the front door, a remnant of more optimistic times.

“We had a ‘hide-a-bed’ couch in the little room you can see through the partially open door. My folks made that up each night and slept on it. I slept in the area to the left of the door on an old wooden and canvas fold up army cot that we made up each night. There was a small table and three chairs behind the couch and a little kitchenette along the back wall. In the northeast corner was a really small ‘bathroom’ with a shower. It was so small my grandfather commented when he came to visit for the first time, ‘That bathroom is so small you have to decide what you are going to do before you go in.’”

“The area to the right of the front window was the garage for the unit next door. There is a wall there now because after a year or so, when that unit became vacant, my father persuaded the landlord to let him enclose that area and finish the inside. We moved into that unit and the finished garage became my parents bedroom. I then got the hide-a-bed in the ‘living room’ of that unit. It also had a real bathroom and a bigger kitchen. We lived there until 1949-one social strata above the Joads!”

The Spur Tavern was the proverbial watering hole where residents of the cabins, servicemen and people passing through stopped in for a beer and a snack. Mike remembers:

“The Spur was a busy place. It was a ‘beer joint’ in the truest sense of the word. A long bar with round swivel seats running south to north with the bartender behind the bar facing west. Pickled eggs in jars on the bar along with ‘punchboards.’ Two pin ball machines and a juke box in the north end. And cigarette smoke so thick I’d have to squint to see my dad when I went to get him. There were a few plywood booths along the west wall and in the south end. There were rest rooms in the southeast corner with a door going out back to the east. They had sandwiches and pickles but I don’t remember any chips. They made coffee but only in the morning and at night. I remember for a while they had ice cream and made milk shakes. But, no one went there for the food. During the period right after WWII jobs were scarce and the Spur was busy pretty much all day. Most of the patrons then, and I remember they all were men, were mostly guys just ‘hangin’ out’. Sippin’ a beer or two, or three. There was rarely any trouble. Evenings were about the same. A little bigger crowd 15-20 maybe, a little noisier but rarely rowdy.  On the weekends, though, it could be busy and noisy and go on late—loud music, loud voices, cigarette smoke and honky tonk women. There were some loud arguments and some fights but I never knew of anything to get really out of control. I think the real problems came much later when the the drug culture took over the cabins and the Spur. I think it had a pretty well known reputation as a crack house.”

Newsprint and photos are always helpful to record the facts, but personal memories like these are what keeps places known and alive, so even after the Spur and tourist cabins have been demolished and hauled off, many indelible memories for Mike Brink will linger on, including this last one related to the end of World War II:

I still remember V-J Day. I was playing catch with my friend Bobby Collins in front of the cabins and traffic on 42nd Street got very heavy with many cars going very fast in both directions, the drivers honking their horns and people hanging out the windows and yelling. I’m sure you know 42nd was the main axis route to the air base. It scared the hell out of me. I ran in the house (cabin) and my mother had the radio on and told me the news.

Thanks for the memories, Mike. We’ll hold onto these so the future can remember the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Storefronts of Northeast Alberta

There’s something about the pride of ownership, of hopefulness, of service that comes through in simple portraits of small business owners standing near an open door, their businesses behind them, wares in the window. We loved the recent photo of John Loyd, arms folded, in front of his butcher shop at Killingsworth and NE 15th. We could look at and wonder about pictures like these all day.

Thanks to the City of Portland Archives, we’ve come across a few more—taken on NE Alberta in the early 1930s, between NE 20th and NE 23rd. The photos came to us without any identification—a challenge we love—so we’ve spent some time this week in research mode and revisiting these places trying to piece together the basics of their stories. Each image is worth taking time with. Click in and have a good look around for the details, sense that pride of ownership, look for clues, watch for the reflections in the window. And think about change, which is so clearly evident on ever-changing Alberta.

F.L. Carlo Shoe Shop – 1931

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.34

How can you look at this photo and not smile back? The proprietor’s friendly smirk, hand jammed in pocket of pin-striped trousers, carefully organized window tableau of shoe care products, orderly line-up of tools on the wall. I’m bringing my shoes here. This is 749 Alberta, which after Portland’s Great Renumbering became 2215 NE Alberta (north side of the street). While the building is still there, its façade has been reconfigured several times over the years. This is about as close as we think we can come today:

2215 NE Alberta (detail), 2017

Here’s what we learned about our smiling shoe repairman. While the name on the window says Carlo, we believe he is actually Ciarlo, one of a family of Ciarlos who ran shoe repair shops in several Portland neighborhoods during these years. Emilio and Mary Ciarlo and their seven children lived in southwest Portland’s Italian neighborhood. The couple immigrated to the US in 1900 from Serra Pedace, Italy (in the south), and Emilio set up a shoe repair shop downtown near SW 2nd and Madison. Two of his sons (all of the kids were born in Oregon) Giuseppe and Vincent, also had shops in Westmoreland and out on SE Foster.

City directories for the early 1930s list this Alberta address as “Emilio Ciarlo,” but here’s what we think: Emilio helped set up his younger sons here on Alberta as they got their start. We don’t think this is Emilio: in 1930 he was 57 years old, plus his immigration papers indicate he was missing most of his left hand. Our guess is that this is son Louis Ciarlo (age 21 in the 1930 Census), who along with his 19 year-old brother Frank were just starting out in the shoe repair business. Our guess is that “F L Carlo” is likely Frank and Louis Ciarlo. It was not uncommon for immigrants of the day to simplify or “Americanize” their names. In fact, Giuseppe’s shop in Westmoreland was called American Shoe Repair.

The “rest of the story” on this is that their business operated at this address from 1930-1932, but the storefront was vacant after that until the late 1930s. Later city directories show Louis as a driver and Frank as a machinist, though brothers Giuseppe and Vincent stayed with shoe repair throughout their lives.

An unknown in the midst of this and the other two moments in time is the motive and identity of the photographer. Was he walking up the street taking pictures for a small fee? Was he as fascinated as we are in the stories and adventures of the small business owners? Was he thinking about the future? Look carefully in the reflection of the window at Ciarlo’s and you can see the head, cap, white collar and shoulder of our photographer (you can also see a billboard reflected from across the street). Hmm.

 

H.B. Olsen, Watchmaker – 1932

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.32

One block west and across the street from Ciarlo’s was H.B. Olsen, Watchmaker at 734, which became 2112 NE Alberta. Built in 1908 when Alberta was still a dirt road, this building still stands though it has seen major modifications and better days. A small residence is located at the rear of the shop and on the second floor. It’s just next door to the east from the American Legion Post 134. Here’s the same view today:

2112 NE Alberta, 2017

Halver B. Olsen and his wife Marie immigrated to the US from Norway in 1902 and lived in Minnesota before moving to the Portland area in 1926. When this picture was taken, Marie had recently died and H.B. had moved from the upstairs apartment attached to this business where the two lived into a rented room in a family house just up the block. He was 52 years old in 1930, no children. H.B. ran his watch and jewelry repair at this address until 1935 and then he disappears from the city directories.

The rest of the story on this building is described by another old photograph fanatical researcher like ourselves like this:

It also served as a “restaurant & deli (1916), shoe repair shop where one of owners died of stroke on premises (1917-1922), “store” (1924), coppersmith’s shop (1924), barber shop (1925-26), “Alberta Food Lockers” (1948), “Bud’s Plumbing Co. (1956), upholstery shop (1983). The property was for sale and vacant for several longish intervals during 1960-64. It had a 2 BR, 2BA apt. upstairs.”

That excerpt, by the way, is taken from comments posted on an outstanding blog we follow and recommend called Vintage Portland, which is run by the City of Portland Archives and Record Center and regularly features old photos drawn from the city’s collection. This one appeared there in November 2013.

 

Irving Market and Grocery – 1932

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.31

Of all three photographs here, this building façade is closest to its original shape, at least for the moment. When we dropped by recently, construction was underway. Whenever we see chain link fence out in front of an old building, we get nervous.

2022 NE Alberta, 2017

This original old photo came with little identification, simply the “Red and White Store, 718 Alberta.” We’ve determined it was actually known as the Irving Market and Grocery during its short life, operated by David and May Irving, who we suspect are the couple to the right. His military records—he was a WW I soldier—indicate he was six feet tall. David was born in Canada and May was from England. Did they meet during the war? In the 1920s, they ran several small grocery businesses in Portland. The couple owned a home not too far away in Rose City Park.

We’ll remember from our recent post about Gwaltney’s Red and White Store on Killingsworth that these independently owned stores were everywhere. The Red and White franchise enabled Mom and Pop businesses like the Irvings to set up shop by buying Red and White branded merchandise, marketing materials and even store shelving. In the mid 1930s, there were 6,700 Red and White markets nationally. We had several in the neighborhood.

This building on Alberta was vacant in 1930 before David and May were on the scene, and the Irving Market and Grocery’s life was short: by 1933, the building was vacant again and remained so until 1937 when the Ray-o-Sun Grocery moved in, and David had gone to work for a large wholesale grocery company.

The subject of small neighborhood grocery stores, as AH readers will know, is close to our heart. We’ve taken an interest in understanding the life stories of local Mom and Pop grocery stores in the neighborhood. Understanding the ecosystem of small grocery businesses at the time also points to how shopping trends, the larger economy and day-to-day life in the neighborhood have changed over the years.

In 1930, we count 208 businesses along Alberta between MLK and NE 33rd Avenue. We’ve gone back through city directories of the late 1920s and early 1930s and have found a vacancy rate for any one year between 15-20 percent, highest in the early 1930s.

An analysis like this also turns up some interesting trends. Here’s a listing of the types of businesses on Alberta in the early 1930s, in descending order by type: 15 grocery stores; nine beauty shops or barbers; seven shoe repair shops; seven tailors or sewing shops; four butchers; four bakers; four pharmacies; four filling stations; four variety stores; four sweet shops; three hardware shops; three auto repair garages; three dentists; three furniture stores; two doctors; two theaters (including the Alameda Theater, which we’ve written about here on the blog); two radio shops; two restaurants; one ice delivery station; and a hodge podge of single shop fronts for plumbers, electricians, painters, real estate agents, sign shops, pool halls, watchmakers (our Halver B. Olsen), hat shop and others, including quite a few residences. And a busy streetcar line connected these businesses with local residences and beyond.

There’s some perspective for you. Radio, ice, hardware?

A little more on Oakhurst

Our recent post about the corner of NE 15th and Killingsworth produced memories and comments from a number of AH readers which we were pleased to see, including a request for a bit more about Oakhurst, which we’re glad to oblige. Learning about these many plats/subdivisions is enlightening.

Here’s the original plat, filed on September 16, 1892 by a handful of real estate speculators who had their hands in multiple subdivisions all over town. Click on this to have a good look, we know you are going to have some observations and questions:

Detail of the official Oakhurst plat on file with the Multnomah County Surveyor. 

First, you’ll notice the fashionable graphic banner sporting the name. We’ve looked at hundreds of plats and have to say this is the most attractive graphic we’ve ever come across on a formal, dry plat document. Particularly from the 1890s.

Next you’ll note all of the partners (and this is quite a crowd of partners), surveyors, commissioners and notary passed over the misspelling of Killingsworth. It was never “Killingworth.” They knew better. So much for attention to detail.

You’ll also note there is no Jarrett Street: it shows up here as Holbrook Street. In fact, if you go looking, you’ll find Holbrook Street stamped into the curb at the northwest corner of NE 15th and Jarrett, even though it doesn’t exist.

A now-extinct street name, set in concrete at NE 15th and Jarrett, April 2017.

In fact, when the sidewalks were poured in 1911-1912, Holbrook Street had been off the books for four years. Was the cast-in-concrete mistake really a mistake, or do name changes just take a while to settle in among the locals?

Merritt L. Holbrook was a realtor, banker and developer who worked in north and northeast Portland. The street name was changed by city ordinance on August 23, 1907, no particular reason given. Here’s our hunch: Jarrett Street already existed starting in today’s Arbor Lodge neighborhood and running east. As it passed through the Oakhurst plat, Holbrook was offset just a half block south. It was probably just easier to call it all one street than to have a short segment known as Holbrook.

Jarrett, by the way, was Mark L. Jarrett, who owned property west of Oakhurst, and who platted his own 25-square-block subdivision between Ainsworth and Killingsworth, from North Michigan to the alley behind North Commercial called Jarrett’s Addition. Jarrett died unexpectedly at age 30 in October 1888 from smallpox while visiting family in Virginia and his estate—without a will—went through an ugly, drawn out probate process that makes for interesting reading in its own right, but doesn’t bear on Oakhurst.

When you immerse yourself in the newspapers of the early days of Portland’s land boom (1890-1920) you quickly see a pervasive web of bankruptcies, lawsuits claiming money owing, delinquent taxes, land transfers and settlements. It’s clear these early speculators platting this open land were barely staying one step ahead of paper and financial obligations owed to someone else. Elsewhere in the newspaper, they appear together on the society pages being jovial, leading outings and picnics together, playing tennis, attending operas, lectures, teas and dinner parties, traveling to the coast or back east.

Oakhurst’s incorporators are a perfect example: Henry and Margaret Gilfry (he the long term clerk of the U.S. Senate); Eugene and Emma White (he a realtor as well as the bond guarantor who bailed out J. Carroll McCaffrey of Foxchase fame on fraud charges, shake your head now); H. Boyer and Adile McDonald (he a real estate and life insurance salesman); Frank and Sue Hart (also real estate and insurance). By 1903 all of these individuals had been sued by their mortgage holder Portland Trust Company for taxes owing on vacant lots in Oakhurst. A couple of them paid, most of them didn’t and the lots were then transferred to Ainsworth National Bank (L.L. Hawkins, president…note his name as an incorporator on the plat…. a friend, neighbor and Portland socialite). It was a very small world.

So there’s the history of the Oakhurst plat’s early days. Most of the land remained unbuilt well into the early 1900s, just curbs and streets. As Portland’s population boomed after the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, lots were bought, houses built and Oakhurst began to come to life. Specific newspaper references to Oakhurst as a place begin drop off after these early years, though we know at least one pharmacist who thought the name would bring him business.

Detail of a classified ad from the November 4, 1906 edition of The Oregonian.

 

Time travel at 15th and Killingsworth

We came across a great old photo recently of a proud apron-clad businessman standing, arms crossed, in front of his market at the corner of NE 15th and Killingsworth. It’s a photo worth having a look at. We’ve been staring at it for a while to puzzle through some of its riddles.

Photo courtesy of Portland City Archives, image A2008-001.39

First, there is no identification. Who is this proud man? Second, there’s a spelling conflict: is it Loyd’s (as the window suggests) or Lloyd’s (as the shingle suggests), and how did that happen? What did Loyd’s sell? And when you really look at the picture you understand it’s actually two businesses: Gwaltney’s Red and White Market where the watermelons and cigarettes are for sale, and Loyd’s (or Lloyd’s, depending on which sign you read). Can you hear the spring in the screen door when it opens, and the door smacking back into the frame as it closes?

We do know where it is: the southwest corner of Killingsworth and 15th. Loyd’s was 608 and Gwaltney’s was 610. After some research, it became clear to us that the main entrance to Gwaltney’s was off the picture to the left, at the corner. More on that in a moment. These addresses translate to 1478 Killingsworth today. Remember, all of Portland was readdressed in 1931, so we know this photo was taken before that. We’re guessing 1929-1930. Built in 1927, the building still stands. A look back through permit history shows many chapters and changes: market, pharmacy, restaurant, tavern, pool hall, rented rooms upstairs, and now office space.

Here’s a look at that same view today. The portico is gone, the front of the building looks like it has been pushed out a bit, the grass is gone and Killingsworth has been widened, putting the early vantage point almost into the street. See for yourself:

1478 NE Killingsworth, March 2017

Next is the question of who this gentleman is. We believe this is actually Mr. Loyd in front of his store, not Mr. Gwaltney (who would have been posing in front of his own front door somewhere off the picture to the left). With the help of the Polk City Directories, census records and a few other genealogy tools, we believe this man is John F. Loyd (only one “L”). From 1929-1939 he ran a meat market at this address. For some of those years his son Clarence helped out in the shop. Loyd lived on Dupont Street near the Broadway Bridge (now gone under the Portland Public Schools building–Dupont no longer exists) with his wife Alma and children Clarence, Ruby and Lester. He was a WW1 veteran. John and Alma were born in Sweden and immigrated to the US in 1900.

Willis H. Gwaltney was the shopkeeper at the Red and White Store, off to the left. Gwaltney and his wife Martha lived just around the corner on NE 16th. He spent a career in the grocery business, his last assignment being at the Kienows on SE 39th and Lincoln. In the 1930s, Red and White markets were everywhere. Each was independently owned: shopkeepers could buy Red and White branded merchandise, marketing materials and even store shelving. In the mid 1930s, there were 6,700 Red and White markets nationally. We had several in the neighborhood…more on that in a future post. Gwaltney’s shows up in the Polk City Directory at this address from 1929-1933, when Willis moved on, likely a victim of the changing economy.

While out taking pictures of this building, which in 2017 is the home of Portland/East Metro Habitat for Humanity, we decided to knock on the door and share this picture with the current occupants. The very friendly Tim, who was at the front desk there, was welcoming and excited to see Mr. Loyd. Tim wanted to share an old picture of his own and took us into the back room to see a large format framed photo of the building hanging on the wall, shown below. The timeframe for this one is a bit later.

The Oakhurst Pharmacy is listed in city directories from 1940-1948, and if you look at the passerby’s hat, the ads in the window, the style of street sign, that timeframe fits. Gwaltney’s is gone. Lloyds is gone and the “welcome to my front door” sense of entering the building on that side has changed, Mr. Loyd’s proud perch now covered up with an awning and boxes. The street has been widened and grass replaced with concrete. Looks like they must have had a leaky roof too, the valley of that far gable reinforced with flashing. Here it is:

1478 NE Killingsworth, about 1945. Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity Portland/East Metro

March 2017

Oakhurst, by the way, is the name of the platted addition just west of the Vernon area between Killingsworth and Ainsworth from 14th to 19th, originally platted in 1892. We’re betting that name has faded away like so many of Portland’s other plats. Have you ever heard someone talking about Oakhurst? We haven’t.

Back then, Lee Witty was proprietor of the Oakhurst Pharmacy and he must have been a resilient person: the pharmacy appears multiple times in The Oregonian during his eight years in stories about several armed robberies, a fire that damaged part of the building, and even a major accident in March 1947. Check it out:

From The Oregonian, March 10, 1947

How much longer will this building last? Good question. It has certainly seen its share of change. Uncovering its story, like all the research we do, is about as close to time travel as we can get.

Northeast Portland’s Foxchase: What’s in a name?

If we asked you to find Foxchase on a map, could you?

Here’s a clue: it was one of a dozen different subdivisions created more than 100 years ago that taken together today make up what we think of today as northeast Portland’s Concordia neighborhood.

Here’s a visual clue: then-and-now photos of the same place, separated by 63 years.

Then: Looking east on NE Killingsworth at 30th Avenue, 1954. Note stop signs faced traffic on Killingsworth. The building with the striped awning is today’s Cup and Saucer Cafe. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives, reference A2005-001.365.

Now: NE Killingsworth and 30th Avenue looking east, March 2017. Lots of change in this photo: the Shell station on the northeast corner (which we knew for years as a U-Haul rental place) has been replaced by a type of massive apartment block that has become ubiquitous on Portland’s eastside.

 

Here is the other then-and now pair:

Then: Looking west on NE Killingsworth at 30th Avenue, 1954. How about that stop sign? By the time this photo was taken, the Alberta Streetcar that traveled down NE 30th Avenue to Ainsworth had been gone six years, but the “through street” mentality was still more with 30th than with Killingsworth. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives, reference A2005-001.366.

Now: NE Killingsworth and 30th Avenue looking west, March 2017

An unscientific survey taken on a Friday morning walk with the dog turned up the fact that most local business owners at the increasingly busy intersection of NE 30th Avenue and Killingsworth know they are in Foxchase. There are some Airbnb’s in the area identifying themselves as being in “Fox Chase.” And maybe a few residents who think of themselves as Foxchasers too. But chances are if you tell a friend “I’ll meet you in Foxchase for a beer,” they’re going to need directions.

So when we came across the 1954 photos recently and were already doing some serious digging into how the Foxchase plat came to be—and it is a fascinating story—we thought it was time to set the record straight with a little history.

First of all, it’s Foxchase. That’s what the plat says, filed on April 1, 1889 by Eugenie M. and J. Carroll McCaffrey. Here it is:

Only the numbered streets retain their identity today. McCaffrey = Alberta. Junker = Sumner. Alvan = Emerson. Birch = Killingsworth. The intersection of NE 30th and Killingsworth anchors the northwest corner.

The 1889 Foxchase plat was actually filed in the town of East Portland. At that point we were a separate city distinct from Portland, as was Albina and several other outlying communities. In 1891—in an attempt to roll together the greater Portland area population into one number that would keep us ahead of Seattle—the three towns consolidated to became one (46,385 people in Portland + 10,000 people in East Portland + 5,000 people in Albina = 61,385 people total in the Portland “metropolitan” area). Take that, Seattle (total 1890 population: 42,837).

Not long after platting the property, J. Carroll McCaffrey started running classified ads in The Oregonian and the land speculation boom was on.

From The Oregonian, February 19, 1890. McCaffrey set up the Western Oregon Land and Investment Company for his real estate deals.

Dozens of Foxchase real estate transactions show up in the early 1890s. All speculation: the buying and selling of lots.

At that point in our history, there wasn’t much up here on these gentle slopes of the Columbia Slough and the Columbia River beyond. Fields, forests, a few dairies here and there; Homestead Act claims from the 1860s held by a couple dozen families. Alberta was a dirt track meandering 10 blocks between MLK (Union Avenue then) and what is today’s NE 15th Avenue. Across the Willamette River, the small grid of what we think of as downtown Portland was getting ready to explode, and investors like McCaffrey knew it. His business was to use other people’s money to buy up open land for the eventual grids of streets and lots that would follow.

Here’s where the story gets interesting.

J. Carroll McCaffrey was a Georgetown-educated attorney, born and raised in Philadelphia, who kept a small practice there as well as here in Portland. He and his wife Eugenie were busy on the social scene of both communities and frequent travelers back and forth.

They showed up in Portland about 1886 and McCaffrey quickly became ingratiated with Portland business leaders as a likeable and cheerful person. That fall and through the winter of 1887, J.C. placed the same advertisement in The Oregonian almost every single day:

McCaffrey found what he was looking for and was quickly engaged in the development of Portland Heights (southwest Portland), being quoted in the newspaper about the availability and quality of artesian well water in the southwest hills, helping incorporate the Portland Cable Railway Co. to transport people up to the heights, and building a prominent mansion known today as the Markle House to entice development.

At the same time as he was speculating on property in the southwest hills, McCaffrey looked to the east side guessing Portland was headed that direction too. He acquired a majority interest in a 15-square block portion of what was the larger 160-acre Donation Land Claim of George Emerson. He and Eugenie platted these 15 blocks as Foxchase.

Here’s where the Philadelphia connection comes in. Fox Chase is the name of a comfortable neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia, named for an 18th century inn. During McCaffrey’s timeframe of reference—the 1870s-1880s—Philadelphia’s rich and famous were building their mansions in Fox Chase. He and Eugenie were trying to call that to mind.

Their choice of street names hit close to home too: Because Alberta didn’t exist except in the Albina area, they planned for that main street on the south end of the plat to be McCaffrey Street. Junker, the next street to the north, was Eugenie’s maiden name. Was Alvan the nick name for one of their four young children? And Birch? Hmm, no birch in that area. Choose any nice tree name.

McCaffrey liked what he saw in the land speculation business, and in 1890 incorporated as the Western Oregon Land and Investment Company (that’s his company in the 1890 classified ad up above). He was just getting rolling.

But not long after that, things started to fall apart. McCaffrey unsuccessfully sued his former partners in the southwest Portland cable railway enterprise and George Markle, who bought the mansion McCaffrey had built on Portland Heights. In 1892 McCaffrey was arrested for land fraud related to 80 acres he was trying to sell south of Oregon City, charges he wriggled out of on a technicality. In 1893 he was charged with embezzlement, which he tried to shrug off as a misunderstanding and escaped because of technicality related to evidence. That same year he was accused of fraud by two of his fellow members of the Chamber of Commerce. And, Eugenie was granted a divorce citing inhuman treatment.

When he was indicted on check fraud in February 1894, The Oregonian reported that in a period of a few years, McCaffrey had been remanded to a grand jury on a dozen fraud charges of various types. He was no longer able to secure a bondsman to keep him out of trouble, and business must have gotten tight as people discovered he was not a man of his word. Eventually, McCaffrey was convicted of check fraud and served a few months in the Oregon pen before winning on appeal on a technicality, when he fled to his native Philadelphia to resume his legal practice.

Here’s where it gets stranger than fiction (a small reward for those of you who have stayed with me this far): In 1895, McCaffrey was hired by the defense team of serial murderer H.H. Holmes (made famous in the book The Devil in the White City…about the “murder castle” near the 1893 Chicago World Fair) to try to persuade Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattison and the Pardon Board to stay Holmes’s execution. We know McCaffrey was a persuasive attorney when it came to appeals, but not this time. Several months later, McCaffrey took his own life.

So, it’s probably OK McCaffrey Street never made it to the map. And interesting that Foxchase is making a comeback, though some still think of it as the northern part of Concordia.

We’ve written here before about the distinction between subdivision or plat names and neighborhood names. Most plat names have disappeared into the fog of the past, no longer used or even known by neighbors who occupy them every day. Plat names were provided by developers when they extended their portions of the grid into the fields and forests that were here before us. Just like the McCaffreys did, developers tended to choose plat names that sounded attractive or that called to mind the suggestion or essence of a special place.

Some of our favorites that exist invisibly under our feet here in northeast Portland today are Manitou, Railroad Heights, Spring Valley Addition, Town of Wayne, Durant’s Nightmare (yes, that’s a real plat name…referring to the nightmare the surveyor had in getting all the survey lines to meet up).

Long live Foxchase.

Old Vernon Part 2: The Practice Houses

Scattered and unidentified in File 1856 at the Oregon Historical Society are pictures of young people preparing food in an old house kitchen and lined up on a front porch looking very determined in their white aprons.

The pictures are piled into a dog-eared manila folder containing random old photos of schools in north and northeast Portland, so at first glance they seemed out of place. Why was a house in the school folder? The photos did have the name “Vernon” written on the back, but they were clearly of a house, not a school.

We made copies of these photos anyway and kept on in our search for information on the old Vernon School. That’s one of our rules of research: you never know how all the parts might fit together, so keep an open mind and gather up the pieces because eventually they might make sense, and you’ll need them to complete the puzzle.

As we’ve learned more about old Vernon School—which occupied the entire block bounded by NE 22nd and NE 23rd, Wygant and Going from 1907-1932—we found references to two different nearby houses, rented by the school board at different times, that provided a learning laboratory for “domestic science.” These insights helped us make sense of the photos.

Launched by Vernon School Principal William Parker, the program started in 1914 in a rented house at 4715 NE 24th (rent was $18 per month) where it ran under the supervision of Mrs. Caroline Redding. References in The Oregonian and a handful of national magazines referred to it then as the Vernon Community House.

In 1917, the program shifted to a different teacher—Mrs. Lois Swafford—and a different house, this one also rented, at 4545 NE 21st. This house was referred to as the Vernon Practice House.

Regardless of which house or what it was called, Vernon’s community-house-practice-house was a pretty resourceful little institution. Students built the furniture, dug, planted and weeded the vegetable garden, made the drapes, sheets and linens, planned and made the meals, planned household budgets and hosted dozens of teas and gatherings to practice their domestic arts. They developed systematic approaches to cleaning and maintenance. Principal Parker dubbed the insight and experience this created as “homecraft,” the art of running a household. Students had the responsibilities and the learning rewards of figuring out how to run a two-story, six-room house; to practice at some life skills that might come in handy down the line.

Over a period of four years between 1914-1918, old Vernon School was a kind of educational mecca visited by leading lights in the education world and the national press to see what this learning-by-doing house was all about. During those years, the neighborhood had an impressive list of visitors that included the head of the Education Department at Harvard University; Ladies Home Journal magazine; Sunset magazine; scholarly education journals; The Country Gentleman, a national-circulation magazine targeted at rural homeowners.

Here’s a July 1915 article from The Country Gentleman, that describes the Vernon Community House. Click the image to enlarge.

 

Below, an article from Sunset Magazine in October 1918 tells pretty much the same story of the program. Featured in the photo is the Vernon Practice House (the second of the two houses) at NE 21st and Going, which operated after 1917 under the leadership of Mrs. Lois Swafford (inset). Click the image below to enlarge.

 

Even though old Vernon School has been gone now for 85 years, we wondered how both houses were faring and if their residents had any inkling of the former role these houses played in the neighborhood. So with pictures in hand, we set out to find them.

Investigation by bike, some walking around, a quick look at old city directories and a pre-address change cross-reference turned up the locations pretty quickly. We wondered if the students from the 19-teens would recognize the houses today. Judge for yourself:

 

From The Oregonian, January 24, 1915

 

4715 NE 24th Avenue today

We visited briefly with the homeowner here on NE 24th, who has lived in this house for 20 years. He had no idea his house was once part of a school program or, for that matter, that there had been a school just one block over. Most people we talked to, and those we’ve heard from since posting our story on Old Vernon, had no idea of the school’s former presence in the neighborhood.

 

 

Continuing on our hunt for old houses, we found and knocked on the front door at the second Vernon Practice House, where we met homeowners Ann Gravatt and Brad Ouderkirk, who were not aware of the home’s history but were interested to learn more. Again, no indications from their knowledge of the house that it was long ago the focus of so much attention.

The second Vernon School Practice House (after 1917). Detail from October 1918 Sunset Magazine (above), and today (below).

4545 NE 21st Avenue today

We shared more vintage photos from the Oregon Historical Society file (below), which they were excited to see. Their children are about the ages of the students in the photos from 1917, which prompted Ann to ask her son if he was going to be cooking dinner for the family…

Written on the back of this photo: “Vernon School boys, Portland, Oregon, who have been learning ‘fantastic cookery.'” Courtesy Oregon Historical Society, file #1856. Our best guess is that these photos were taken by Portland Public Schools in fall 1917 or spring 1918.

 

When the current homeowners saw this photo: “Yes, that is definitely our dining room.” Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, file #1856.

After several feature-length stories in The Oregonian in the mid 19-teens, and many blurbs promoting upcoming community teas, fundraisers and social events at the house (all catered and staffed by eager students), newspaper references to the house stop in late 1918. No clues in the archives, and no one to ask about what it all meant or how the Vernon Practice House ended.

Did Mrs. Swafford leave? Did the return of soldiers at the close of World War I swamp the rental market and return the practice house into actual use? We know that Principal Parker, a key leader of the effort, was at Old Vernon until 1920 when he was transferred to the Albina Homestead School at NE Beech and NE Mallory streets. Did he take the program with him when he left?

Hmm.

 

 

 

 

 

Old Vernon – Forgotten Neighborhood Ghost

The old Vernon School, located south of Alberta between Going and Wygant, was the center of community life for two decades. Evidence of its presence has faded to invisible today.

Everything about the old Vernon School (1907-1932) has made us want to know more:

It’s gone now, slipped below the surface of living memory leaving few traces, so we’re going to have to reconstruct a sense of it through research, experience and a little imagination, which is what we love to do.

The original Vernon School, built in 1907-1908, was located on the block bounded by NE 23rd, NE 22nd, Going and Wygant. This view of the school’s south side is looking north-northwest about 1912. The main entrance was on the north side in the center. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

As a public school, it was both cornerstone and hearth for the community. During the day, Old Vernon was filled with the neighborhood’s young people: in class, outside on the grounds, in the portables, in the “manual training” rooms, walking home for lunch. In the evenings, every community group, service club, parent gathering, neighborhood concert, tea, dance, or lecture drew people from the surrounding blocks into the building. It was a place and institution that connected people to each other.

Vernon School Art Classroom. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society.

There was the sadness at the end of its time. Many families didn’t want to leave the big old building and its traditions in favor of a promised new brick school a half-mile away.

And then there was the way it went: destroyed by an arsonist on a hot summer night with the entire community looking on, in fact, jamming the streets as they streamed in to watch, unwittingly hindering the fire department’s three-alarm response.

 

 

You probably know the vicinity of the old Vernon school south of Alberta Street, but you probably never knew it was there, occupying all of Block 54 of the Vernon Addition, bounded by NE 22nd and NE 23rd between Going and Wygant. Old Vernon was a giant, imposing wood frame building that commanded the center of the block, its main doors and prominent stairs facing north. The auditorium took up the entire top floor, tucked in under the hipped roof, dormers letting in light all the way around. Periodic construction added space over the years, eventually 17 classrooms in the main building, and several outbuildings for shop, cooking and a play shed. It was a big place.

 

Sanborn panel 567 from 1924 shows old Vernon School and its outbuildings in upper right corner occupying the full block. Click on image for larger view.

Today, if you walk that block—as we have so many times looking for clues and trying to imagine the big old barn of a school—you’ll see how the brick and Cape Cod-style homes and duplexes on today’s Block 54 are different from the Craftsman and Old Portland style houses across the street built three decades earlier. Now you’ll know why.

After Old Vernon was abandoned in 1932, the school district tore down the wreckage and traded all 18 vacant lots of Block 54 (plus $2,000) to a developer for six lots adjacent to Thomas A. Edison High School, which during the 1930s-1940s occupied the corner of NE Beech and Mallory. This seems like a sweetheart deal to us, and we note the Portland School Board was split on the sale when they approved it on the night of April 11, 1940. Soon, new home construction was underway on the Old Vernon site, which was then fully built out with the houses we see today by 1945, erasing all traces of the old school.

 

 

The early story of old Vernon School is much like other eastside neighborhood schools. A building boom followed the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, which put Portland on the national map as a desirable place to live. Open lands within four miles of downtown were bought up and platted for new development. Streetcars were the arteries of progress. And as people moved into the new neighborhoods they pushed for schools and parks.

Old Vernon opened as an eight-room school on September 15, 1908 with 324 students, many of whom were exports from Highland School (today’s Martin Luther King Jr. School at NE 6th and Wygant), which had overflowed with more than 700 students. By 1909, The Oregonian reported Vernon itself was already crowded and plans were being made to add 10 more classrooms, a covered play shed, three portables and a manual training (shop) building.

By 1914 Block 54 was a campus of four buildings, bulging at the seams with new students. Enrollment boomed, with more than 800 students at Old Vernon by the late teens. Meanwhile, plans were being made to build other nearby schools to take the pressure off and create closer-to-home options for local youngsters. Kennedy School on NE 33rd was opened in 1915 as part of this push.

Glimpses of life at Old Vernon can be found in recollected memories and newspaper clippings, including these postcard-like tastes:

“Many of the children who attended Vernon School helped in the barn prior to school each morning and weren’t always too careful about cleaning the manure from their shoes.”

“In the early years, there was one playground for the girls and another for the boys.”

“The old school had electric lights in the hallways, the principal’s office and the gymnasium where community programs were scheduled in the evenings. The classrooms had no lights. In the wintertime, when we lined up in the basement before going to class in the morning it was gray, almost too dark. If it got too dark in the classroom, we sang or listened to stories. This was good. We learned to listen.”

After arriving at school first thing, children stowed their coats in cloakrooms then lined up in the basement before marching in straight lines to their classrooms while a teacher or student played the hallway piano. One student remembered that if you stepped out of line, “you got the stick.” Old Vernon’s favorite march-to-class song was the Percy Grainger tune “Country Gardens” (which you have heard before even though you may not know its name).

“Students could roller skate or play games under a play shed in the back of the school, unless the piles of newspapers collected for periodic paper drives were too large. That was about the only time boys and girls could mingle with each other outside the classroom. Even cloakrooms were separated.”

“One teacher in a top floor classroom permitted her students to climb down the outside fire escape—quietly to avoid disturbing other classes—as a treat for being especially good.”

“Old timers recall a disciplinary ruckus which had strong repercussions in the community. This involved an older boy who defied the principal’s efforts to take him to the office. A wrestling match on the stairs between boy and principal [they reportedly fell down the stairs injuring the boy] spurred a pupil walkout, and the boy’s parents pressed charges. A hearing board exonerated the principal, but teachers and principal were reluctant to use severe punishments afterward.”

Year after year, students from Vernon School won the maypole dance competition during Rose Festival:

Maypole dancers from Vernon School won first prize at the Rose Festival in 1911. Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society.

 

The Oregonian, June 10, 1911

 

Apparently, Old Vernon’s academics were as strong as their maypole dance:

The Oregonian, April 3, 1927

 

By 1926, trends in school construction, safety and changing demographics were shaping the next generation of area schools.

Disastrous school building fires in other cities had galvanized the national building codes community—and Portland Mayor Harry Lane—into calling for “fireproof” buildings. Code changes were made: away from wood frame to concrete, steel and brick, and lowering the profile from multi-story to one or two stories. In 1926, some school board members proposed abandoning the existing building and locating a new Vernon School close to Alberta Park, an idea that didn’t go over well in the community. An article in the April 14, 1926 edition of The Oregonian chronicles opposition from the Vernon Daddies’ Club, a position they developed and had approved at a school-wide parent meeting:

The Oregonian, April 14, 1926

But the Daddies’ Club and the Vernon school community were on the losing end of the argument.  By 1927, the school board was on the hunt for property and wanted the city to carve off the southern five acres of Alberta Park on Killingsworth between 19th and 22nd for the new school site. The community pushed back on this—whether to protect the park or because they just didn’t like the idea of losing Old Vernon we’ll never know—and was upheld by City Attorney Frank S. Grant, with a finding on October 15, 1927 that Alberta Park, which had been acquired through condemnation in March 1921, must be protected as park land and not used for a school

After being spurned by City Attorney Grant at Alberta Park, the board focused on a two-block area across the street, bounded by Killingsworth, Emerson, 20th and 22nd, where almost two dozen homes had already been built and 13 vacant lots were ready for more home construction.

A late-night meeting of the school board on December 2, 1929 heard several hours of public testimony on the acquisition, and according to The Oregonian, spiraled into “a sharp verbal combat between the directors,” but ultimately resulted in direction to move forward on the Killingsworth property. Gaining this site for a new school meant major work for school district staff, which they took on, eventually acquiring the property, demolishing the homes and getting the city to vacate NE 21st Avenue where it bisected the site. This took two years of wrangling.

Sanborn panel 533 from 1924 shows the area of today’s Vernon School prior to acquisition by the Portland School District. Today’s Vernon occupies the two blocks between 20th and 22nd, bounded by Emerson and Killingsworth. The large empty block at the top left is Alberta Park. Click on image for a larger view.

Meanwhile back at Old Vernon, students continued to fill the aging, creaking classrooms, play outside in the sheds and open fields, and gather in the top floor auditorium. The city granted authority to temporarily close East 22nd Street during the school day so students could play in the street. Community clubs, concerts, lectures and Boy Scout troop meetings continued–the headquarters of Troop 33 was the Old Vernon basement.

On April 8, 1930, after acquiring the Killingsworth property, the school board auctioned off the remaining abandoned houses.

A $250,198 contract for construction of new Vernon was awarded on July 6, 1931 to F.S. Starbard and Company of Portland, and activity began on the new site targeting a September 1932 opening.

In March 1932, with construction going full steam, school leaders planned to mark the coming transition and perhaps heal the community with one last big gathering at the old school that would be both homecoming and forward-looking celebration. There’s no one around to ask how that went, nor any reporting that might reveal what that last evening was like, so that’s one for your imagination. Here’s the preview story:

The Oregonian, March 8, 1932

A cornerstone ceremony and time capsule placement was held at the new building on June 6, 1932 with all 500 students from Old Vernon looking on and checking out what was about to become their new school.

 

 

With school dismissed for the summer of 1932, the Portland School District had options. For the first time—with new buildings coming on line—they didn’t need to jam students into every available building space. Facility planners could contemplate the next move with properties. Bids were out for demolition of the buildings now empty on Block 54, but there was no hurry: New Vernon over on Killingsworth was ready.

Just after dark on Sunday, August 14, 1932, someone broke the glass in a basement door and let themselves into Old Vernon, ascended the stairs to the second floor, and set a fast-moving fire that lit up the night sky for miles. The three-alarm fire drew thouands of spectators and 19 engine companies. The morning newspaper was delayed to include the news. The Oregonian was swamped with calls resulting in an explanation for the delivery delay in a prominent boxed message on the paper’s front-page masthead: “Pardon Us – But our telephone exchange was swamped when the Vernon School burned.”

Front page breaking news coverage on Monday the 15th, and a follow-up story about the fire investigation on Tuesday, August 16th, tell the grim story:

The Oregonian, August 15, 1932

On Tuesday, the story had moved inside the paper to page 6 for more details on the investigation and cause:

The Oregonian, August 16, 1932

A year-long battle with the insurance company followed while the burned hulk of the building sat untouched. Originally insured for $70,000, the insurance settlement paid only $31,039.41 with underwriters arguing the building had been abandoned and that arson changed the equation. In March 1933, the board let a contract to Rose City Wrecking for $100 to demolish and haul off the remains, though the manual training building and the portable were salvaged and removed. The site was cleared by June 1933.

Detail of an aerial photo from 1936 showing vacant Block 54 and the burn scar / footprint of old Vernon School. NE Prescott runs east-west along the bottom of the frame.

 

It’s hard to read the dozens of newspaper stories between 1908-1932 about the vibrancy of Old Vernon and what it meant to the community, and not want to slow things down a bit, to hear more from the decision makers, to ask a few more questions of the neighbors, to see what we might be able to work out on Block 54. Eventually, all of the multi-story big-barn type schools built in Portland between 1890-1915 either burned or were replaced. Neighborhoods changed, as they continue to do today.

Two time travelers still around from the Old Vernon era are nearby houses leased by the school to teach girls and boys about home economics. In our next post we’ll share photos and stories about how these houses gained national notoriety for Portland as an innovative education pioneer, and what the house can tell us today.

Alberta Park Marks 100th Anniversary

Alberta Park marks its 100th year in 2017, originally leased from a local property owner and then condemned by the city in 1921 to provide needed park and open space for the growing neighborhood.

Alberta Park 1929. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Like many areas of our city, northeast Portland’s neighborhoods evolved from Homestead Act land claims, where settlers bought or received rights from the federal government to develop open land for farms and homes. The recorded real estate transaction history of the Alberta Park area begins in 1866 when Mexican-American War veteran Harry McEntire used his Military Bounty land exchange certificate to acquire the property bounded by today’s Ainsworth, Killingsworth, 19th Avenue and 22nd Avenue: what we know today as Alberta Park.

As developers began to lay out streets and neighborhoods for the area beginning in the early 1880s, the property changed hands. Chinese business leader, landowner and entrepreneur Moy Back Hin, referred to by The Oregonian at the time as “Portland’s first millionaire” acquired the property, along with other real estate he owned downtown and on the eastside. Hin was frequently in the news for his real estate dealings and as a leader of Portland’s vibrant Chinese community: he served as Chinese Consulate General to Portland.

In 1910, Hin called on the city to follow through with plans to open Killingsworth Avenue between Union Avenue and NE 42nd (a $150,000 project for which the funds had not yet been identified) saying that as soon as the street was opened he would begin to build houses on his land.

During those years, eastside home construction was exploding: commercial development booming along Alberta Street; a vibrant home building business across nearby neighborhoods; a major streetcar line—packed with commuters—serving these new communities carved out of the fields and forests northeast of downtown.

Through its community clubs (of which there were many), locals began calling for development of parks. Influential Catholic priest The Reverend James H. Black—who went on to lead southeast Portland’s St. Francis Parish for many years–appeared before the Portland Parks Board to encourage the board to purchase land for a park in the Alberta area before real estate values jumped.

Minutes of the meeting show the chairman informed Father Black that “at present there are no funds on hand to purchase park property, and suggested that he write a communication to the Board incorporating his ideas in regard to the proposed Alberta Street Park property.”

In November 1912, locals petitioned the city, saying the more than 14,000 new residents of the area deserved a safe place to recreate and noting that nearly all the available lots for playground space had already been built over.

From The Oregonian, November 3, 1912

By 1917, the last remaining unplatted stretch of land in the area was the 17 acres bounded by 19th, 22nd, Killingsworth and Ainsworth, owned by Moy Back Hin. While Hin did eventually planned to develop the area for homes, he agreed to lease the property to the city starting in 1917 to serve as a park. Almost immediately, baseball diamonds, a clubhouse, walking paths and restrooms were built on the leased property.

In 1920, with the parcel in popular public use (and Killingsworth Avenue now open and paved between Union and NE 42nd), Hin offered to sell it to the city for $65,000, which was refused. The city responded with an offer to buy it for $39,333, which Hin refused. City Council responded on March 23, 1921 with an ordinance condemning the property and ordering it taken over by the city. After a jury trial, Hin was paid $32,000 and the property was taken over as a “public necessity.”

In 1924, the city passed an ordinance naming the parcel Alberta Park, though it was frequently referred to as Vernon Park as well. Hundreds of newspaper references to the park—and to the robust City League baseball schedule that occupied the new baseball diamond and sometimes drew more than 1,000 spectators—randomly used both names. Use of the Vernon Park name faded by the 1940s.

Investment immediately followed the city acquisition. A 1927 inventory of the property identified the following improvements:

1 wooden field house, built 1922 for $500 (heaters to be installed in 1927)

Two comfort stations (including a tool room) built in 1926 for $5,000

Sewer and water connections

One shelter

1925 plantings: $1,096

1926 plantings: $223.47

27 lights, cost $3,469.21

70 hose bibs and four automatic sprinklers

One large baseball field with backstop

One small baseball field with backstop

One wading pool, built in 1927 for $719

4 sets of horseshoe courts with steel frames and covers

2 sand courts ($100 and $108.72)

1 handball court

2 tennis courts ($1,722.58 and $2,055.86)

1 flag pole

Alberta Park “comfort station” and lamps date to 1926.

Hundreds of references in newspapers of the day called the new parcel as Vernon Park and sometimes used the two names interchangeably in the same story, but on April 9, 1924 the city passed an ordinance officially naming it Alberta Park. The official name change didn’t seem to stick: newspaper references to Vernon Park show up well into the 1940s.

An annual summer community picnic tradition connected neighbors of all ages and included a parade, games, the naming of a local queen, dancing and a lantern parade after dark.

From The Oregonian, August 16, 1924.

In October 1927, the Portland School District tried to acquire the southern five acres of the park as a location for the “new” Vernon School being planned to replace the original Vernon School south of Alberta Street that had become too small for the growing neighborhood. The city attorney, referencing the 1921 condemnation order and its intent that the property was acquired specifically for a park, refused to budge, protecting the park we know today. The school district scurried to find a site, selecting the current school location on the south side of Killingsworth Avenue across from the park.

In the 1950s, despite a fractious encounter with the neighborhood that included references to the 1927 decision by the city attorney not to subdivide the park, the city made a different decision and did allow use of the southwest corner of the park for construction of Fire Station 14.

Aside from the new fire station, not much changed in Alberta Park until the 1970s, when a comprehensive planning effort and citizen survey recognized a changing pattern of use. The 1972 report found:

“Alberta Park has remained relatively unchanged from its original development in the 1920’s. However, the interests of the users of Alberta Park have changed extremely. At this time we find Alberta Park as a park with high usage by children, while maintaining a passive character of walking and picnicking.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, the park was a kind of every-person’s backyard, where the community went in family units to picnic, play, celebrate, appreciate the plantings. By the 1970s, the car was much more a fixture of family life. Plus, the demographics of the neighborhood were changing and spending leisure time in a park as a family unit was no longer a high priority. The park was for young people.

As part of the 1972 master planning effort, 1,800 surveys were mailed to homes in a radius of six blocks from the park. The 182 replies that were returned ranked park needs, and 44 percent of the respondents raised concerns about park safety.

Drawing on the survey results, the 1972 Alberta Park Master Plan called for a new set of priorities, including adding a covered and lighted basketball shelter ($73,000); installation of tot play equipment ($2,000); paving of the existing gravel paths ($3,000); and resurfacing of the tennis courts ($2,000). These improvements were carried out over the following years as funds were available.

The park continues to be a community fixture: the sounds of pick-up basketball games can be heard on weekends and evenings; the upgraded playground structures filled with youngsters; and come spring the timeless sounds of baseball.

Alberta Streetcar: Catalyst for Change

It takes lots of imagination to conjure up a picture of what our neighborhood might have looked like 100 years ago. The fields and forests of today’s Alberta district, Vernon, Concordia, and Alameda were way out in the country, beyond the far edge of Portland. But one key development changed all that: the Alberta Streetcar.

a2009-009-4152-streetcar-along-alberta-line-1944

A photo of the Alberta Streetcar from 1944 looking north on NE 30th Avenue at the line’s far northern end, NE 30th and Ainsworth. Only the building on the northeast corner remains. Development of the streetcar line changed everything about the landscape that eventually became our neighborhood. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

First constructed in 1903, the line left downtown at SW 2nd nd Alder, crossed the old Steel Bridge and ran north up Union (today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.), where it turned east on Alberta to NE 25th. A few years later it was extended five blocks east on Alberta to NE 30th, and then a few years later north on NE 30th to Ainsworth, which became the end of the line. For a time, there was talk of connecting the Alberta line with the Broadway line, which terminated in Alameda at NE 29th and Mason, but by the time that seemed possible, automobiles had begun to eclipse streetcar use.

Wherever the streetcar went, so did development. Initially just two rails in the mud through brush and open fields, by the heyday of Portland’s streetcars in the teens and 1920s, the Alberta streetcar had attracted scores of business owners and thousands of residents to this new developing part of the city. Its impact on the shape and feel of the neighborhood can’t be overstated.

The December 28, 1913 edition of The Oregonian reported:

“The streetcars are now operated to East Thirtieth street and Ainsworth avenue. The line runs double cars in order to take care of the traffic and even then the cars morning and evening are overcrowded.”

The fact that autos were not the primary mode of transport in those early days meant streetcars—and lots of foot traffic—fueled growth of the business district along Alberta. It was a thriving place of activity and commerce, not unlike today. But by the 1940s, with automobiles dominating the transportation picture and Union Avenue no longer the main north-south travel corridor (travel had shifted to Interstate Avenue), the Alberta streetcar became disused and was eventually replaced by a bus. By then, Portland had turned its back on its once robust streetcar system. The last day for the Alberta line was August 1, 1948.

As if to silence the era of the Alberta streetcar once and for all, in September 1949 The Oregonian reported that the City of Portland authorized a $75,000 paving contract that took 11 days to erase all evidence of the tracks:

“A total of 110,748 yards of materials went into the project to bury the old Alberta streetcar tracks. Paving tonnage amounted to 8,407 tons of blacktop.”

Today, there aren’t many specific clues other than the hundreds of streetcar-era buildings that would not have developed without the line. When you’re out for a walk along our neighborhood’s path of the old streetcar line (1.8 miles along Alberta between MLK and 30th; then 30th Avenue between Alberta and Ainsworth), see what evidence you can find.

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