John Andrew recalls his youth in Gresham, growing up in a house still being used

In Gresham’s early years, the annual Multnomah County Fair was a big occasion. Folks came to town by horse and cart from rural areas and then-far-away Portland to wander the grounds where the Gresham Town Fair shopping mall now sits.

But for John Andrew, as a youngster of about 11, the impending fair was announced by the arrival of the Indians.

“They opened the fair every year,” John said. “They came from Maupin or Madras, and one year they tethered their horses to the fruit trees in the orchard next to our house. They didn’t speak any English, and my mom told me, ‘John, don’t you go over there. They steal kids.’ Well, I had to go see what that was all about.”

Young John cautiously wandered toward the massive tepee pitched nearly in the family’s backyard. The open flap called to him, so he stuck his head through the opening and came face-to-face with what he referred to as a “squaw.”

“She had a bowl in her hand and motioned for me to come in,” he said. “I did and she offered me what I now know was jerky. I remember it was smoky and tasted really good. She was quite nice. But it took me a long time to tell my mom that I disobeyed her.”

John Andrew, 90, is a soft-spoken man, with sharp blue eyes and an even sharper memory of growing up on the berry fields and farmland that once dotted Gresham’s landscape. The nonagenarian is one of a dwindling number of folks who can reminisce about coming of age along with his hometown.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CARRIE DORN - Over the years, the tidy house has been a dress shop, body piercing studio and hair salon. It is now the home of Victorian House Antiques and Collectibles.

What makes John’s story unique is that the home of his youth still stands. The white clapboard sided building, located at 343 N. Main Ave., is now Victorian House Antiques and Collectibles. And although some of the aesthetic changes have altered the house he remembers, just gracing the door reminds him of the good old days of his childhood.

John was born July 6, 1922, on the family farm where Northeast Cleveland Avenue and Stark Street intersect. His father farmed 40 acres of strawberries on the land, which became an integral part of life for John and his five siblings.

“All of us kids picked strawberries,” he said. “We would get out of school in May and pick berries in the summer. When I was older, I had a morning paper route for The Oregonian newspaper. I’d come home from doing that, breakfast would be ready and then Dad would take us up to pick strawberries all day.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK -  John Andrew shows where a staircase used to be in his childhood home at 343 N. Main Ave. The 1912 Victorian was built by one of Gresham€sˇÃ„ôs earliest businessmen, Duane Ely.

In 1931, John’s family moved to a two-story Victorian home on Hood Avenue. The house boasted three bedrooms upstairs, a novelty at the time, and was slightly larger than most homes in the neighborhood. It was equipped with city water services and electric lights and also included an adjacent lot with fruit trees and a wood shed.

The house was owned by Duane Ely, one of Gresham’s earliest land developers and business owners. Ely, who lived in Oregon City, purchased plans and materials for the house through the Sears Roebuck Catalog in 1912, and had it built on Hood Avenue between Northeast Fourth and Fifth streets. John’s family paid Ely $12 a month for rent.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG ARCHIVES - Duane Ely purchased materials and plans for the Victorian home through the Sears Roebuck Catalog. It was originally built on Hood Avenue.

“My dad could have bought the house for $1,000 with the spare lot besides,” John said. “It was sort of a big deal because very few houses had three bedrooms upstairs. We also had a radio and phone. But nobody turned on the radio until Dad got home and turned on his programs. And you didn’t use the phone without permission. We had the ‘hoot and holler’ phone and knew the switchboard operator was down the street, so we had to be careful what we said.”

Simple but trying times

John remembers hanging out regularly in Ed Osborn’s blacksmith shop as a youngster. He recalls clearly the days Osborn, the only blacksmith in Gresham at the time, put new shoes on the farmers’ horses.

“I can still see him with a horse’s foot between his knees scraping it to put on a new shoe,” John said. “The farmers all knew what day to bring their horses in, so there would be long lines of farmers walking behind their team of horses without their plows. Every now and then, they would stop to rest from all the walking they had to do to get into town. The horses were used to that, so they never did get tired. But I was fascinated by the blacksmith process. I would stand for hours next to the forge. Ed was so patient. If I got in the way, he’d just say, ‘OK, John, you need to move now.’”

One of John’s chores as a young boy was to cut and stack wood in the shed for heating and cooking purposes. Laying in all that wood for winter was arduous and meant time away from more exciting adventures.

“I got all the kids in the neighborhood to help me,” he said, laughing. “I probably stacked thousands of cords of wood over time, but my mother always made a big pot of beans to feed all those kids. And they all wanted to help because they wanted those beans.”

Gresham was a growing community in the 1930s, but as the country sank deeper into the Great Depression, work for John’s father as a floor cover installer became harder to find. John remembers his father bartering with other local businesses for furniture or medical services for his young family and expecting his three sons to help with family finances. John and his brothers had paper routes as youngsters, and John eventually worked for W.R. Hicks and Kidder Hardware.

But the Depression also brought out a spirit of camaraderie and compassion among neighbors, who not only took care of each other but strangers in need.

“We had a lot of ‘tramps’ who came to our house looking for something to eat,” John said. “I found out later they were World War I veterans who had no place to go. Most of them were wounded; they had no money. My mother always gave them something to eat, but not until they did some work around the house first. They’d pull weeds or pick apples up off the ground, but they never came in the house.”

The worries of his parents were mostly shielded from John and his siblings, producing what he called a “loving and fun childhood.” Warm summer days were spent swimming in Johnson Creek, a bit of a hike from home at the time, with a rest generally taken near the landmark fountain that once stood at the entrance to the city on Main and Powell. In September 1937, that same fountain marked John’s only brush with celebrity so close to home.

“(President) Franklin Roosevelt came through Gresham and stopped at the fountain,” John recalled. “He was in an open touring car, smoking a cigar like he always did. He was on his way up to Timberline Lodge for the dedication, and I got a really good look at him because I was probably about 50 feet away from the car. They didn’t have all the security around the president like they do now.”

Leaving home

John graduated from Gresham High School in 1940. In 1941, he enlisted in the Navy, serving in Cuba before being assigned to a squadron charged with the experimental use of jet airplanes in Brunswick, Maine. After his discharge in 1945, he married his sweetie, Laverne, who had traveled to the East Coast to attend her twin sister’s wedding in Rhode Island three months earlier. The two pairs of newlyweds then embarked on a cross-country trip back to the Northwest in a 1936 Oldsmobile.

“It took us a while,” John said, “flat tires and all. The engine quit in Wyoming, so we had to find a place to stay while they overhauled it. It was quite an adventure and something Laverne probably never expected, but even after that, she stayed with me for 56 years.”

The couple raised two daughters and a son in Gresham while John worked for Peterson Plumbing. Eventually they moved to Southeast Portland, where John founded Andrew Heating and Air Conditioning.

“I figured I’d learned enough to go out on my own,” he said, “so I opened my own business out of the trunk of my car. I carried all the tools I’d need for service calls and worked that way until I found a shop. I owned the business for 40 years. Then I retired and my kids took over.”

In the late 1990s, Gresham businessmen Frank and Billy Hartner bought the little Victorian house and moved it to its current location on Main Avenue. The dual stoves used to heat and cook in the house were removed, as was the inside staircase. Vacant for some time, it eventually become home to a dress shop, a body piercing studio and hair salon. Last year, it reopened as Victorian House Antiques and Collectibles.

John brought Laverne to Gresham to see the house in 2002, shortly before she died, and he continues to make periodic visits to the house to reminisce.

But one memory leaves no doubt that the tidy little building is indeed the home of his childhood.

“My older brother had a .30-06 gun he couldn’t take with him when he left home,” John explained, laughing. “I was probably 14 at the time. My younger brother and I wanted to see how it worked, so we took it upstairs to our bedroom. Well, the gun went off and the bullet went through the side of our house and into the house next door. It’s all covered up now, but if somebody ever takes that wall apart, they’ll find that bullet hole.”

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