William G. Bohn was one of many builders active during the eastside’s booming home construction period of the 1920s. A confluence of factors—a stronger economy, a matured infrastructure of streets and services, plus market demand—meant customers were buying, so builders were building.
Bohn had already had a long career in the lumber business when he and partners launched the W.G. Bohn Investment Company in 1923 to ride the wave of new home construction. We can’t quite picture him as the man behind the hammer, but he was the person who brought all the pieces together: finance, lumber, plans, permits.
Born in Winona, Minnesota in 1862, son of a prominent lumber milling family which eventually ran one of the largest lumber and sash production facilities in St. Paul, Minnesota. During his early years, Bohn worked in a variety of positions in the family business. He married Edna “Millie” Shepherd in Winona in July 1883 and the couple had a son—William Shepherd Bohn—in June 1884. The 1900 Census shows them living in Superior, Wisconsin, but by 1901, the Bohns were in Portland and William G. had branched out on his own, incorporating as the Bohn Lumber Company, a logging and lumber business, where he was president and general manager. The census also shows the Bohns had three other children, none who survived their young years.
About this time, many wood products companies had “cut out” the available timber supply in the upper Midwest and were relocating further west. Several of Bohn’s family members came to Oregon with him: his brother George and brother-in-law Charles Shepherd, nephews and nieces. The 1910 census shows a large and extended family all living in a large house (now gone) near SE 50th and Division, including a 15-year-old “servant” named Edith Rother. The family had evidently accumulated wealth during its time in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Bohn’s new lumber business appears to have been successful. This was a boom period for Portland real estate development and home construction when operators in the wood products business made small fortunes speculating on land and on providing wood for new home construction.
But this must have also been a challenging time for Bohn: In 1911 his 27-year-old son William S. Bohn, who was an assistant manager in the company, died. And Willliam G.’s brother George—who was also involved in the company—was convicted of embezzlement and died in prison soon after. A slowing economy and a pandemic toward the end of the 19-teens further complicated the homebuilding business. In the 1920 Census, at age 58, he and Millie were renting a small house on SE Clay, and William was listed as a lumber dealer.
In the summer of 1923 Bohn partnered with builder J.S. Larsen to build two homes in the Rose City Park neighborhood. That fall, he joined with several other men to incorporate the Bohn Investment Company. Homebuilding activity in Portland was exploding and Bohn was ready to ride the wave.
From The Oregonian, October 14, 1922.
Late in 1923, Bohn launched three homebuilding projects, and more followed in 1924 and 1925. The table below includes every project mentioned in the newspapers during these years, but is likely not a comprehensive list.
|4035 & 4025 NE 68th||Oregonian Ad||8-1-1923||Built with J.S. Larsen|
|5220 SE 40th||Pacific Builder & Engineer||November 1923||Built for owner J.E. Weew|
|4815 NE 8th||Pacific Builder & Engineer||November 1923||Built for owner E.H. Carpenter|
|2624 NE 40th||Oregonian Ad||12-16-1923||To cost $5,500|
|3834 NE 22nd||Oregonian Ad||12-16-1923||Built for B. Beeman, to cost $4,000|
|3906 NE 16th||Oregonian Ad||12-16-1923||To cost $4,000|
|3906 NE 18th||Permit||3-5-1924||Where William and Millie lived until 1929. Very similar design to 3934 NE 18th|
|3934 NE 18th||Permit||4-1924 to 12-1926||Bohn took two years to comply with the inspector’s request for basement piers to stabilize the house.|
|3924 SE Brooklyn||Oregonian Ad||7-27-1924||For J.B. Amerman to cost $5,000|
|2728 NE Hancock||Oregonian Ad||2-1-1925||For L.G. Pentecost, to cost $5,000|
|918 N. Lombard||Oregonian Ad||4-19-1925||A one-story building to cost $10,000 for Stephen Drumeff.|
|3946 NE 18th||Permit||3-20-1928||In W.G. Bohn’s name, not Bohn Investment Co. William and Millie lived here in 1929.|
A reference in The Pacific Builder and Engineer, a construction trade journal, from November 1923 associated the Bohn Investment Company as builder with architect William B. Patterson of Portland. Bohn and Patterson worked together on a large commercial garage on Foster Road. Patterson was a partner with A.E. Doyle in the firm of Doyle, Patterson and Beach from 1907-1916, and later in his own solo practice. It’s possible Patterson designed other projects for Bohn, though another reference in Pacific Builder and Engineer lists Bohn as architect and builder for the bungalows he built on NE 18th Avenue.
A review of the building inspection history of at least one of his projects indicates Bohn was not particularly responsive to an inspector who raised questions about the structural integrity of one house. Over the course of two years, Bohn received multiple notices to correct the work, which he refused to do until the inspector tracked him down in-person and threatened to shut him down completely. Bohn eventually complied, but was not able to sell that house during that time.
Millie and William Bohn lived at 3906 NE 18th from 1923-1927 and then moved four houses north into a smaller bungalow he built at 3946 NE 18th. Millie died in that house on March 3, 1929. William disappears from Oregon directories in 1929 and does not appear in the 1930 Census, and no further business activity occurred for the Bohn Investment Company after 1929. Bohn reappears in documents running a wholesale lumber business in Seattle in 1935. He died in Skagit, Washington on March 8, 1940 at age 78.