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.
“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.