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.

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?

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.

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 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.

Setting Sail on the East bank of the Willamette

This 1900s view of Portland Harbor from the east bank of the Willamette River in the vicinity of today’s Memorial Coliseum is from the precious scrapbook of family photos shared with us by Laurelhurst resident Bob Elston. You’ll recall the photos Bob shared last year, which led us into a reconstruction of 1900s life near the corner of NE 3rd and Broadway where his family grew up, and then into a deep dive to explore the history of the eastside gulches. It’s amazing where a few pictures can take us (we’re always looking for photos of the neighborhood and old houses, so go have a look at that box in the attic). Check out the name of this boat setting sail from the east bank, and click around to look at the details on the west bank as well.

Willamette River scene

It’s been a quiet spell here on the AH blog. My history work is avocation and passion, but I have a real job too, which has always come first, with history research and writing relegated to what’s left over after a more than full-time commitment of time and energy. This fall, I’ll be transitioning away from that commitment and shifting into a new chapter with a totally different role and pace. When that happens, the subjects of exploration here on the blog—and a desire to further engage with helping connect past and present—move into first position.

The result: more blog activity and insights into the stories of our old houses and neighborhoods; maybe a new branch or two of inquiry; a ramp-up in my ability to take on and complete individual house and building history requests; other ideas?

Thanks for following along on the journey these last nine years, for the ideas and photos you’ve shared. Looking forward to expanding the Alameda History conversation here in this next chapter.

NE 3rd and Broadway as you’ve never seen it

One of the great joys of our research is finding the unknown—more properly the long forgotten—in the midst of the known. Photos, memories, documents and stories from the past add new understanding to places we know (or think we know), and often bring a hint of the familiar: the profile of the ridgeline on the horizon, the curve of a street, the form of a building we recognize.

Sometimes these clues from the past are unreconcilable with the landscape we know today. In the world of Northeast Portland neighborhoods, pretty much anything after 1910 will carry a hint of the familiar. Turn back the clock a bit further and those hints are harder to detect.

Case in point: this Sanborn fire insurance underwriting map from 1909 of the Eliot neighborhood, showing the vicinity of the busy intersection at Grand and Broadway that we all know. Or think we know. Have a good look and pay attention to the location and extent of the gully shown as Deep Gulch, the wooden bridges, the buildings up on posts, the row of houses with their bay windows all to the side. Check out the State Laundry Company building too, and the note about the night watchman. (If you don’t know about Sanborn maps—which were used for fire insurance underwriting—be sure to check out our post on the topic).

1-16-16 Sanborn 289 Detail

Detail from plate 289, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1909

Everything in this frame from 1909 is absolutely gone today—the gully, the buildings even the streets which have been widened—and most of us speed through here (being careful about the red-light cameras) on our way somewhere else. Below is a modern view of that intersection.

1-16-16 Detail from Google Earth

Thanks to Google Maps. Click the thumbnail above for the full photo.

* * *

Ready for an even closer look? This is the fun part where we get to try to imagine the landscape that once was, and how different it is today. As you study this photo, be sure to check out the detail: the awning style shutters; the orderly clapboard and fish-scale siding; the beautiful shingle roof; the decorative round gable end ornaments; the family members at each level; the gulch out back. The picket fence in the left foreground is running north-south along the edge of NE 3rd. The double gable end faces NE 3rd, so this view is looking off to the south/southwest at the corner of NE 3rd and Broadway.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway

Home of B.T. and Cora Soden, NE 3rd and Broadway. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

And an approximate view today:

Site of Soden Home, NE 3rd and Broadway, northwest corner

237 NE Broadway in January 2016.

We’re able to feed this imagination thanks to fourth-generation Northeast Portland resident Bob Elston, great-grandson of Bartholomew and Cora Soden, who recently shared these and other family photos that got us to wondering about this part of the neighborhood, and to haunting these blocks ourselves in order to take a good look. Thanks Bob.

Fast forward a few years and a slightly different angle at the Soden place, this time looking west/northwest showing the barn out back, which is depicted in the 1905 Sanborn map. Note the same wooden bridge on Northeast 3rd over Deep Gulch, which keys the building into the northwest corner of that intersection. The dip of the gulch is still visible off to the left.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway 1905

NE 3rd and Broadway, looking west in the late 1890s. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

 

Mildred, Willard, Frances, Raymond in front of the house on NE 3rd.

Frances, Willard, Mildred and Lester Soden, in front of the house on NE 3rd, 1898. This view is looking north on 3rd. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

* * *

Bart Soden was owner and proprietor of B.T. Soden Hay, Grain, Coal and Plaster, provisioner of vital goods for the eastside at the turn of the last century. His warehouse and business was located just a block east from the family home at the southeast corner of Union and Schuyler (today’s MLK and Schuyler). Scroll back up to the Sanborn map and look at it there in the upper right corner, labeled “Hay, Grain and Cement Ware HO.” Here’s a picture of Bart and a helper, probably from about 1905, showing the delivery wagon heading out on a run:

1-16-16 BT Soden Business

The southeast corner of NE 3rd and Union, about 1905. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

Here’s the same view today:

Site of Soden Business, MLK and Schulyer, southeast corner

Bart was born in Australia in 1849, came to Oregon as a young boy, and grew up in rural Polk County. He earned a degree from the Oregon Agricultural College in 1879, tried his hand at teaching for a while, and eventually moved to Portland in the 1880s where he married Cora Wells, 16 years his junior. The couple built the house and business we’ve been looking at here, raised a family of two sons and two daughters, and were active in Portland society. Bart died in 1926. Cora lived until 1950. Both parents and several of the children are buried in the family plot at Portland’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery.

We’ve recently come across a memoir by a Portlander who grew up a couple streets over about the same time as the young Sodens. Stay tuned for his observations, which will continue to help us bring this long lost landscape back to life.

A day in the life of Beaumont: June 1927

Here’s the final installment of Bessie Kramer’s Beaumont business district photos from the 1920s, and there’s so much to see. If you missed the earlier photos (including the great one of the houses at NE 40th and Failing), you can find them here and here.

This last one looks a bit like a Norman Rockwell painting: There’s so much going on. The view is looking north at the corner of NE 42nd and Fremont. From these same footprints today, we’d be looking at the edge of Pizzicato on the far left, and then Americana Frame and Silhouette. The building housing Tuk-Tuk, formerly known as Watson’s O-So-Good Restaurant and Sandwich Shop, hadn’t been built yet in the vacant lot behind the lineman on the pole. As noted in the earlier series, we think this was a sewer repair requiring deep trenching in front of 4223 and 4225 NE Fremont.

Click on the photo to enlarge for a good look yourself and then come back here for our take on what we see.

1-3-16-kirkland-photo WORK

 

4223 and 4225 NE Fremont, taken in June 1927. Courtesy of Bessie Kramer and Paul Kirkland Collection.

The other photos showed a display of fireworks for sale in the pharmacy window on the far right, hidden here behind the excavator, making us think this was late June or early July. Another one, shot from a different angle, indicated that the “Dutch Village” building across the street that now houses Gazelle hadn’t been built yet, which means this view is prior to 1928. Fremont Dry Goods doesn’t show up in the city directory until 1927, so by process of elimination, that’s our guess: late June or July 1927.

A man in a suit coat and fedora, who we think we saw down in the trench in an earlier photo, is taking a break here. Three boys are having a good look in the window at Mr. and Mrs. Witt’s Buy-Rite Grocery (did they have a fireworks display window too?). Two more, still on their bikes, are having a good look down the hole. A worker breaks up concrete, and another is at the levers of the excavator. A lineman is working on one of the omnipresent power poles. Everyone in this picture has a hat on.

We believe Bessie Kramer started out as a saleswoman and clerk here at Fremont Dry Goods, the middle store with the dresses and fabric in the window. According to the city directory of 1929 (the year after the new building had been built just across the street), Fremont Dry Goods disappears from its location in this photo and Beaumont Dry Goods appears in the space across the street occupied today by Shop Adorn. Hypothesis: Bessie moved the business across the street. A generation of Beaumont kids remembered Mrs. Kramer’s dry good store there on the south side of Fremont. They probably had more vivid memories of Mrs. Cox’s Variety Store, which was really a candy store, strategically located due east across from Beaumont School in the long narrow space now occupied by Daruma Sushi + Sake. What a great place for a candy business: literally a stone’s throw from the classrooms.

This great series of photos allows us to give AH readers a nudge: we’re always looking for pictures that might be in the family attic or afloat in an old shoebox. Street scene, family pose on the front porch, kids at Wilshire or near a school. We’re interested. Most of these photos from Bessie Kramer were originally very small: less than two inches by three inches. We’re able to scan them carefully and return them to you safely.

Beaumont 1927 Construction Photo Series

Four more tantalizing views of the Beaumont corner at 42nd and Fremont from the late 1920s (we think June 1927), all showing some major trenching and dirt-moving activity out in front of the shops on the north side of the street. All four are from the collection of Beaumont Dry Goods shopkeeper Bessie Kramer and her grandson Paul Kirkland. If you need help orienting yourself, we’ve placed current companion views to each of these at the bottom of this post.

You’ll recall from our earlier posts that Bessie Kramer ran the Beaumont Dry Goods and Book Shelf store in the 1930s, which—based on Polk City Directory records—we believe started out life as Fremont Dry Goods in 1927 here on the north side of Fremont, about where today’s Americana Frame shop is now, and later moved with a name and ownership change to the south side, where Shop Adorn is today, when construction of that building was finished in the fall of 1928.

Incidentally, we’re mapping the comings and goings of Beaumont’s various businesses over the years, and doing some homework on the Beaumont Market/Gazelle commercial building on the south side of Fremont at 41st (which is actually two buildings built seven years apart) so stay tuned for that. If you have photos or insights to contribute on the general topic of Beaumont business over the years, we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, have a good look at the images below which we believe were shot all about the same time (click on each one for a larger view), and when you’re done, come back here for some discussion.

Beaumont Construction 1

East view

Let’s start by orienting ourselves here. Look carefully at the address over the door of the shop to the left, which is Fremont Dry Goods, 1213 East Fremont Street North. You can’t quite see the business name in the upper left, but you’ll see it in the next photograph. It reads “Fremont Dry Goods.” After Portland’s Great Renumbering in 1931, that address became 4223 NE Fremont, today’s Americana Frame. Next door to the right, at today’s 4225 NE Fremont, is Fremont Pharmacy, home of ice cream, cigars, drugs and on this day lots of fireworks. The pharmacy business shown here, (which moved across the street in 1929 and became a neighborhood fixture in the shop occupied by today’s Gazelle) is known to us today as Silhouette, a tailoring shop. There are two more businesses out of frame to the left–Buy Rite Grocery and Beaumont Hardware–but we’ll get to those in a moment. Click here to keep reading…

Then and Now | Criticize this house

A brief pause from the Beaumont photos here on AH to make a deep dive into back copies of The Oregonian and other research into several stories we’re working on, and to learn more about the early Beaumont business district. Interesting stuff, so stay tuned.

It’s always easy for us to lose ourselves in the serendipity of research, especially during the quiet days at the end of the year.

While looking for other things, we’ve come across some small gems. Here’s one from September 2, 1928: It’s either an interesting approach to real estate advertising, or a clever form of early market research, or both. It also makes for a good Then and Now. Check it out:

9-2-1928 House criticism ad (1)

 

4404 NE Cesar Chavez Blvd

926 East 39th Street North is today’s 4404 NE Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, in northeast Portland’s Wilshire neighborhood.

Margaret Gray Montgomery took out several other classified advertisements during this period, including one that advertised her office being located at 910 East 40th Street North (4324 NE 40th). A site office in addition to the Porter Building address? Curiously, Margaret Gray Montgomery didn’t appear in city directories as a builder or otherwise connected to the real estate business, wasn’t listed as owner of this or the 40th Street property in construction or city records, and was invisible to the federal census of 1930 and 1940. For what it’s worth, the 11th floor of the Porter building (see bottom of ad) was a hot spot for real estate and mortgage companies in the late 1920s.

As a postscript with a story to tell: a three-line classified ad in the March 30, 1931 The Oregonian, sandwiched between other ads about house foreclosures and repossessed furniture, reports:

Crawford Range for sale, also dining room rug and Hoover; will sacrifice, leaving city tomorrow evening. Also equity in beautiful home, 926 E. 39th N.

Hmm.

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