Remembering the Oatfield House, 1903-2017
A few days before Christmas while driving north on Oatfield Road beyond Concord, I spotted a backhoe parked next to what remained of the historic Philip T. Oatfield House.
The upstairs bedroom — where the daughters of Philip and his wife, Dora Jane Thiessen, had once slept — was torn open, and I shuddered to see the living room's finely finished fireplace completely exposed to the elements. The day had finally come — and the house would be gone by the next afternoon.
Once a colonial-revival gem listed as a historic landmark by both the state and county, the place had been in poor condition for some time: A few spots in its wrap-around porch floors were rotted out and parts of its brick foundation were beginning to falter after close to 115 years of duty anchoring the structure. The house had been open to squatters, cats and other critters that found shelter there after the last owners' death — until a year ago when intervening hopes to save it by the family and new owners appeared to be exhausted.
In many ways the story of the Oatfield family is the story of our community. Set among trees and outbuildings that once included a barn, well house, a windmill, chicken house and sheds, the farmstead was the heartbeat of a 100-acre bequest to Philip Oatfield given with the "love and affection" of his parents, pioneers Michael and Minerva Thessing Oatfield, in exchange for a token $5. Built in 1903 for his bride, the structure was the oldest and only extant farmhouse on the 5-mile length of Oatfield Ridge between Milwaukie and I-205. In time, agricultural fields, orchards and timber stands acquired by Austrian immigrant Michael Oatfield starting in the mid-1860s would make way for post-WWII veterans and their families, who eventually surged into local suburbs starting in the 1950s.
Symbolically, demolition of the Oatfield House leaves a gaping hole in Oregon's immigrant, agricultural and suburban developmental history in the unincorporated area that links Portland and Oregon City.
Between the 1860s and the 1930s, two generations of Oatfields substantially influenced the formation, growth and well being of the Oak Grove/Milwaukie area. For more than a century, Philip's house stood as a silent witness to those contributions. Early on, Michael maintained clearance on the Territorial road that passed within a stone's throw of his massive bank barn at the southeast corner of Concord Road. Father and sons alike — together with mother Minerva, who was herself the daughter of the area's only doctor, a midwife and the mother of six — figured mightily in the clearing of fields, the expansion of agricultural markets, successful adaptation to changing modes of transport, the introduction of rural telephone service and the local safe water district. On the way, there were also hardships: twice in the 1880s Michael and Minerva's homes burned to the ground, the second time barely sparing their only baby daughter, Amanda. In 1890 the couple provided the land for the third District 28 School (now part of the Concord property). Sons Philip and John served on local high school and bank boards, farming together as the Oatfield Brothers well into the 1930s. Apples from their orchards were sold as far away as the East Coast.
The hearings officer who heard testimony both for and against demolition of the Philip T. Oatfield House perfectly summed up the reality of the situation: Attempts to reclaim the Oatfield House for its historical importance and meaning in the community were a good 10 years too late. He further commented that county ordinances drafted to guide his decision making as to the ultimate fate of this historic landmark were insufficiently clear to entirely missing-in-action.
Ironically, it appears that the Oatfield House's last and greatest community service may be to have sounded the alarm calling us to better attend and preserve the living history that surrounds us before it is further eroded by neglect or poorly executed infill development. From the experience of losing this landmark, several pre-emptive goals and calls to action have become clearer and more urgent:
1. Put in place county incentives to encourage the upkeep and maintenance of existing historic homes.
2. Review and revise county ordinances surrounding the preservation/demolition of historic properties to align more nearly with aspirations of the Clackamas County Comprehensive Plan.
3. Increase awareness and appreciation for the wealth of early housing stock that peppers the length and breadth of unincorporated Oak Lodge neighborhoods.
4. Brand/market the area as a place where vintage craftsman and mid-century housing can still be found.
Some have asked what measures were taken to stave off loss of the Philip T. Oatfield House after the property was sold to new owners. It's true that costs for stabilization, much less restoration of even the tightly constructed central core of the house would have been very high, and moving it to another location, near astronomical. Under time constraints — and to no avail — a small ad hoc team of volunteers contacted and briefed more than a dozen decision makers who might have helped to find alternative uses, locations or funding sources to safeguard the house. The place was photo documented throughout, and a condition report was prepared for the State Historic Preservation Office. Samples of woodwork and architectural details were removed and stored.
By the time an architect was recruited to complete an assessment, permission to go on the property was denied. A nomination to become one of Restore Oregon's Most Endangered Places in 2018 was drafted, then withdrawn when it became clear that the house would not remain that long. Given the Oatfield House's close proximity to the Concord School property and the strong likelihood of a future library there, several harbored hopes that a shored-up Oatfield House could become an historic annex to the library, perhaps a children's space, with community meeting rooms or headquarters for Friends of the Library.
In the end, however, the likelihood of discovering lead paint or the resurgence of latent cat odors (which made it hard to breathe even when the house was last occupied) dampened those hopes. None of the tasks the team took on added up to enough. Who knows what greater community awareness and 10 years of time to mobilize might have accomplished?
Las weekend, I drove by the site where the Oatfield House once stood. Somehow the presence of four sentinel sequoias that front the property — perhaps for more than a century — comforts me. The trees will forever remind me that others were here first, shaping the community, planting, harvesting and building it in anticipation of a future that would continue to unfold long after they were gone. New property owners have frequently said that the trees will remain in place. In the years ahead may the giant sequoias stand and hold steady to honor the Oatfield Family and the history of this place that we, too, call home.
Pat Culley Kennedy is a resident of Oak Grove.