Portland’s Horse Tethering Rings

You’ve probably seen those old iron rings tethering toy horses to curbs across Portland’s older neighborhoods, a kind of whimsical tip of the hat to our pre-automobile past. But that old hardware rusting on the curb in front of your house is more than just a quaint antiquity: it had an important job to do back in the day.

Many eastside neighborhoods like ours were conceived and built when horses and wagons ruled the streets. In the early 1900s, as Portland was expanding and our neighborhoods were the newly minted suburbs, cars were an unproven, mostly unavailable commodity. In 1905 there were only 218 cars registered in the entire state of Oregon. People got around on foot, horseback and by horse and wagon, but mostly our predecessors here in eastside neighborhoods got around by streetcar. And mostly, neighbors did not keep a horse and wagon at home. So, what’s with all the hitching rings embedded in our curbs?

Every commodity and supply that came to your house in those days was delivered by horse and wagon: firewood, coal, ice, groceries, dry goods, laundry, building materials, parcel post packages. A page of classified ads in The Oregonian from 1900-1910 looks like the land of opportunity for horse-wagon delivery teams and people with strong backs. If you had a horse and wagon, you had a job.

In 1907 Portland City Council passed an ordinance requiring that new curbs in front of houses have “ring bolts” installed every 25 feet so that delivery vehicles could be securely tied down to protect pedestrians and other wagons using the street.

From Ordinances of the City of Portland, 1910

Horse tethering rings weren’t quaint. They were the law.

Many delivery drivers also carried a heavy weight attached to a strap they would place out on the ground—kind of like an anchor—to prevent the horse and wagon from moving around when the deliveryman hopped out and ran up the steps.

Horse tethering weight. These typically weighed 25 pounds and were attached to a wagon by a leather strap. The driver placed these out on the ground when away from the wagon.

By the late 1920s, the automobile (and delivery truck) had almost completely replaced the horse and wagon. Interestingly, streetcar ridership also began to drop off in the late 1920s as more people bought cars and drove where they wanted to go—unleashing a raft of other problems—leading to the demise of Portland’s streetcar system by the late 1940s. But we digress.

When tethering rings became obsolete, the cities of Vancouver and The Dalles passed ordinances requiring their removal due to safety concerns. Here in Portland, one visitor’s misstep resulted in a similar proposed ordinance to do the same. This was actually a front page news story on August 16, 1938:

 

From The Oregonian, August 16, 1938

Editorial response to the proposed ordinance was immediate, sarcastic, nostalgic. The next day, this unsigned piece appeared on the editorial page, bearing the distinctive style and cadence of editor Ben Hur Lampman, columnist and editorial writer, and eventually Oregon’s poet laureate.

 

From The Oregonian, August 17, 1938

 

City Council declined to take action in 1938, but the topic re-emerged in 1947 on the editorial page rising from what appears to have been a chit-chat between Ben Hur Lampman and his grandson. Kind of wistful, we’d say…evidently a topic close to his heart.

 

From The Oregonian, April 9, 1949

 

Over the years, the city’s Public Works Department adopted an unofficial policy of removing tethering rings. Some were saved, but many were dumped. But in 1978, when the city went to work on a curb in Ladd’s Addition, one unhappy homeowner picked up the phone and called the newspaper. His complaint, and his desire to remember the past, caught the attention of City Commissioner Connie McCready (who went on to become Portland mayor). The ensuing dust-up put horse tethering rings back on the front page of The Oregonian. Who would have thought?

 

From The Oregonian, January 7, 1978. Click to enlarge.

 

In recent years, the rings have re-entered the public consciousness in the form of the Portland Horse Project, dozens of photos and entries about the tiny horses tethered to curbs all across town (just Google “Portland Horse Rings”), and hundreds of acts of creativity and imagination by horse and history fans across the city.

There’s some magic about all of this: the horse rings are here with us in this moment but represent and call to mind a totally different world and time. They ask us to step out of ourselves for a moment to put time and place into perspective, to contemplate both change and steadiness, to acknowledge that what we know about the world today is not necessarily all there is to know. Our old houses do that too.

We love the line from Lampman’s 1938 editorial: “Something there is about the past, there always is, that causes us to put the present to the question.

 

Gems from the Treasure Trove

It’s been quiet on the Alameda old house history blog for the last month or so, but time to get back into the swing of things as the kids return to school, and as the weather transitions to more research-friendly conditions like cloudy, cool and wet. Actually, I think this stretch from now through late October holds some of my favorite Oregon weather.

In addition to perking along with a few research projects this summer (but not much blogging), we’ve been working on a kitchen remodel in our almost-hundred-year-old house. We’ve tried to be faithful to the historic design concepts even though we are using standard current kitchen technology. We’ve been fortunate to have a great architect in Arciform and an excellent contractor in Joe Petrina and Petrina Construction. You can read more about our kitchen adventure here, and maybe share your own pearls of wisdom about surviving a kitchen remodel.

As we’ve worked through the remodel process, we’ve kept a keen eye for clues from the past, and we’ve found some interesting items…nothing earth shattering, but some quaint signs of the time. Thanks to some insulating material (as in crumpled up newspaper) we confirmed the long-held thought that a back porch extension was made to the house sometime in 1930.  Below is a clip about the Reo Convention coming to Portland, from the Sunday Oregonian on February 2, 1930.

 7-14-Exhibit-7

 

Here’s an interesting scoop about the world’s largest passenger plane — a 30-seat Fokker – coming to Portland. And below that, from January 26, 1930, a story about a record order expected for new Chevrolets to keep up with a booming demand for new cars. Apparently, the market had not yet found the bottom. Hmm.

7-14-Exhibit-3

Exhibit 8

 

But probably one of the most interesting finds during the remodel was the signed name of our original builder, William B. Donahue, who we have profiled here on the blog. We found this little gem buried deep inside a wall, signed in what looks like blue grease pencil or blue chalk on the back of a wainscot panel that faces our breakfast nook, on the other side of the kitchen wall. Check it out:

9-15-post-Donahue-Signature

Because we’ve found documents and letters sent by Donahue years after his construction endeavors, we think we can recognize the handwriting. If you look to the left of the crossbrace, you can see the “#1.” Could be that Donahue was sorting out the plywood he wanted for the wainscot, and this had a number 1 grade side (the other side). Not sure. But it sure was a treat to find.

When you are working on your renovations, be sure to tell the contractor and the crew that you are interested in old house archaeology. You might even ask them for their stories about the most unusual items they’ve ever found working on these time capsules we call our homes.

What have you found?

Time Treasures | What have you found?

In some ways, our old houses are like unintentional time capsules. The guys who built them long ago — and who have patched them together over the years — were resourceful, using materials at hand to get the job done. When we opened up a bathroom wall recently, we found handfuls of heavy wrapping paper used to prop up an electrical junction box (gulp). Packing materials from the original porcelain fixtures were used for shims or to frame out the medicine cabinet. Old newspapers were used all the time for insulation. These little treasures give us a moment’s glimpse into the past: people here in this room were trying to solve a problem and they used what they could get their hands on.

One of my favorite time treasures is a series of sketches found on the rough shiplap sheathing underneath the clapboard exterior of the house.

sketch-2.jpg

Our builder, William B. Donahue (or his mason), used some unusual brick patterns on his chimney exteriors (I’ve found four other Donahue houses in the neighborhood…more on that in a future post). On the outside face of the firebox he used brick to create crosses, patterns and other symbols. When we were replacing some cracked siding a few years back,  I found a series of sketches on the sheathing right next to the chimney that showed he was thinking about a cross.

sketch-1.jpg

Strangely, he didn’t put a pattern in our brick, but the sketches show he was thinking about it. Elsewhere — pretty much everywhere when we take something apart — are quickly scrawled measurements in pencil, signs of a carpenter at work almost 100 years ago.

Over the years, past homeowners and their families have surrendered all kinds of items, lost to the crack at the edge of the floor, the space behind the plate rail trim, or that hole where the radiator pipe goes downstairs. We’ve found an ivory diaper pin, a buffalo-head nickel and a lovely heart-shaped locket that escaped from a necklace. On the back is the inscription “From grandpa.” How long did someone look for that? Did grandpa replace it with another keepsake when no one could find the precious lost locket?

grandpa-locket.jpg

Who knows what else is here in the walls, under the floors, lost in the garden bed, or scribbled in some long covered-up corner. Whenever we’re working on the house, I’m always on the lookout.

What have you found?

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