Animals and critters of Sellwood and Westmoreland
No, the critters of Sellwood and Westmoreland were not all dogs and cats. We're talking here about some of the more exotic animals that have shared their lives with folks in Inner Southeast Portland: Monkeys and Cheetahs and Parrots – Oh My.
Ever since the arrival of the first Europeans to our treasured part of the country, and going back further to times when Native Americans possessed the land, wildlife has been an important part of life here. The Clackamas People who hunted, fished, collected berries and roots, and lived around the northern tributaries of the Willamette River, were dependent upon the supply of salmon and trout that they hauled from the river – especially near the falls of Oregon City.
Arrowheads, broken pottery, and small artifacts collected along the beach at Oaks Park by curious residents prowling the shoreline, suggest that Indian encampments may have been common there long before the nation's oldest continuously-operating amusement park was built in 1905.
When new settlers began building farms and houses, and starting fruit orchards south of what we now know as Sellwood, they too were fishing the Willamette River for their evening meal. In the 1920's and 30's fishing provided sport as hundreds floated out onto the Willamette River with lures and lines when fishing season was declared open.
In the early spring, those enthusiasts would find their favorite spots along the riverbank, or they'd row out onto the chilly waters of the north-flowing Willamette to make their catch. An annual fishing derby was begun by Peter Leipzig, owner of Sellwood's Leipzig Café, who encouraged fishermen to bring their largest catches to be weighed on his 100 pound scale.
Gigantic salmon snared from the river were flung onto a safety line and hauled up the hill at Spokane Street to the café at 13th Avenue, where it still stands today. The winners were crowned and fetéd with prizes, free beer, and a hearty hurrah.
Sections of Westmoreland and Sellwood were in early days a wilderness of dense forest and underbrush, until the Eastside Lumber Company began cutting down some of the fine timber to process at the Lumber Mill. Cougars, coyotes, deer, and I'm pretty sure skunks, were scattered along the forestland in this part of Southeast Portland – but the arrival of the first incoming settlers from the East chased many of them off.
In 1882, the Sellwood Real Estate Company purchased 360 acres of pristine fir trees, and began clearing the land to make way for buildable lots, and houses for prospective buyers. As some of us can testify, if indeed they were once scarce here, the coyotes and skunks have certainly returned.
Roaming cows that trampled crops – and horses, dogs, and foxes – became a nuisance to some landowners, as they did to Sellwood's early farmers, who were trying to build a "respectable town". Residents were so insistent on the need to rid the area of the wild animals who ate their gardens or blundered haphazardly through their prize flowers, that they called upon city leaders to find a solution. Not the City of Portland mind you, but the City of Sellwood – where Mayor Raymond Bean and his five elected City Council members quickly enacted a law and sent the Sheriff off to make sure that foxes and stray dogs were impounded or killed.
Further, an ordinance was written that dairymen were required to build fences to keep meandering cows from destroying personal property, and off the main roads and railroad tracks. Citizens who didn't comply with this law were assessed a hefty fine.
Once the statutes were enacted, and the local sheriff had rid the neighborhood of unruly critters and locked up any surly men along the way, the residents of Sellwood were able to settle down and enjoy a well-respected community – with their own domesticated pets!
As many Westmoreland and Sellwood neighbors know, Oaks Bottom, a section of wetland with a large seasonal pond just below the Sellwood Ridge, has long been home to many birds and reptiles. Tree frogs, beavers, skunks, red winged blackbirds, the occasional eagle, and ospreys have all roamed its land, flown through its sky, and fed from the water and reeds of this 168-acre wildlife refuge. In 1988, Portland Parks and Recreation declared Oaks Bottom to be Portland's first Urban Wildlife Refuge.
Visitors to Oaks Bottom can view some 129 species of birds there; but shoppers who stopped in at Moreland Hardware on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue during the 1960's and 70's came face to face with another type of feathered friend: The parrots of Henry Braunsten. Henry was an avid collector of parrots, and he brought his pets to work with him. Westmoreland residents Gordon and Donna Merseth are among those who can testify that during a visit to the store they were sometimes greeted by dive-bombing Braunsten parrots.
Usually the parrots were perched on the shoulders of the proprietor or his relatives, as they went about the store filling orders or guiding customers to desired products. But on more than one occasion, consumers left not only with their purchase, but also with a small white messy memento from the "Braunsten birds of prey".
Returning in our narrative to a much earlier time, however, the Volunteer Sellwood Fire Department in 1907 received five professionally trained horses for the fire house near the corner of 13th Avenue and S.E. Umatilla Street. Before the arrival of this fine team of stallions, Sellwood's early firefighters were young men specifically selected from the neighborhood – chosen for their strength, agility, endurance, and their ability to drag along a heavy hose wagon on foot while running to a fire.
They also had to pump water by hand from a steam engine, and scale burning buildings on their wooden ladder. So, when a team of firefighting horses was first introduced to the crewmembers, it was a welcome sight. A team of firefighting horses could handle the heavy work of these emergencies more efficiently and faster than men on foot.
Five or six horses were kept on hand at the station at all times, and it became the responsibility of the hired crew to feed, exercise, and train them throughout the year. The horses became a favorite among the local citizens – hundreds of them turned out to watch the galloping horses race through the streets of Sellwood when the alarm was sounded.
Once the fire was contained and the emergency was over, the horses needed to be watered and walked back to the fire station. Energetic young boys competed for the honor of leading the exhausted horses back.
Dogs also played an important role in the efficiency of a well-run fire station at that time – keeping the team of horses calm and under control during a calamity. These canines were bred and trained specifically to run ahead of the steam pumpers or ladder wagons to clear a path for the oncoming team of horses. Dalmatians were chosen specifically over other breeds; but when they weren't available other breeds were chosen for the work. When the last team of firefighting horses was retired in the 1920's, so too were these heroic canines. But now you know how Dalmatians became symbolic of firefighting.
Loading and unloading fire hoses, and training and caring for the horses and dogs, was a big part of the job for volunteers and paid firefighters. In 1910, Sellwood Fire Captain David Stokes took it a big step further, when he and his crew elected to care for a baby bear cub found abandoned in the forest. One of the forest rangers dropped off the singed bear cub at the fire station, and the crew members took turns feeding it, and named it Alice. THE BEE at the time reported that little Alice was drinking down over nine dollars of milk a month – at a time when the cost of a bottle of milk was between 5 and 10 cents each.
Mysteriously, THE BEE never later revealed what happened to Alice – if she were released back into the wild, or graduated to being featured in the national campaign against forest fires. Enquiring minds wonder – could Smokey Bear actually have been a lady bear named Alice…?
But Sellwood's most famous celebrity animal was – and still remains, in memory – the tame cheetah of Dr. George Nickelsen. Schoolchildren sometimes glimpsed the fast cat on their way to school. Chewie the cheetah was kept in a fenced yard behind the doctor's office at 13th and Sherrett. Though there were no reports of any students losing a finger, or in some other way being attacked by the African mammal – in fact, cheetahs are one of the tamer wild cats – local residents attending Sellwood School during this era might remember the time Chewie jumped the fence and roamed the streets before Dr. Nickelsen caught up with him.
Joan Blomberg, owner of today's "American at Heart" antique store, at 13th and S.E. Tenino, recalls visiting the elaborate house of Dr. Nickelsen in her childhood years. It was furnished like an African hut, with grass mats on the floor, deer heads adorning the walls, and a stool made from an elephant's foot. And, Chewie could often be found lounging across the sofa inside. Those who lived in the area at that time still remember the sight of Dr. Nickelsen driving his red convertible down the streets of Sellwood with Chewy proudly sitting on the back seat.
Since its inception in 1905, Oaks Amusement Park has offered family entertainment that has included everything from roller coasters to a carousel of leaping animals; trapeze acts to a contortionist; and balloon ascensions – along with one of the first airplane landings before a crowd of spectators, back in 1915.
Animal acts were also a huge draw at The Oaks during the 1920's. Monkeys roamed the boardwalk, and lions and bears paced in cages where passing spectators could view them from afar. An ostrich farm and an aquarium also appeared along the grounds at one time.
In 1909, a couple was married inside a cage with two lions there, apparently without mishap – and as late as 1950, an elephant on roller skates was a highlight at evening events. The practice of harboring wild animals ended when management found it cumbersome to care for the amusement park animals during the winter months. Caretakers experimented with keeping the monkeys on Ross Island when the park was closed during the winter; but eventually the lions, monkeys, and bears were turned over either to a local zoo, or an entertainment promoter, or a circus.
And, what young girl who grew up in the 40's didn't dream of owning her own pony? Judie and Pennie Quinlin, who lived on a farm in Southeast's Lents neighborhood, did have such aspirations. Both of the girls spent their early childhood raising rabbits and chickens, but they were always wistfully hoping for the opportunity to ride a pony every day.
One of the more popular events at Oaks Park for small children at that time was called "The Missouri Mule Rides", in which for only a dime city boys and girls could ride a pony and envision themselves in "country America". Once the season came to an end, though, the horses were sold – or, preferentially, were passed out to people who could care for them during the winter.
When the Quinlin girls heard their father say that Oaks Amusement Park was giving away free ponies, they begged him to pick up one for them. The whole family, including the next-door children, hopped into the family car for the long journey from Lents to Sellwood – but when they arrived, all of the ponies had been claimed. The only available animal still without a home was a donkey named Clara Belle.
Mr. Quinlin knew this would be a good time for the girls to learn the responsibility of caring for a larger animal – but the Quinlin family didn't have a truck or trailer. The neighborhood kids were all squeezed in the front seat, and Clara Belle sat in the back with Pennie and Judie beside her for the return trip.
For the rest of the winter Clara Belle the donkey spent her days on the Quinlin farm in Lents until the summer began, when Clara Belle was to resume her part in the "Missouri Mule Ride". Clara Belle riding in the back seat of the car made such an impression on the family that, in 2008, Judie Quinlin (now Judie Bunch) published a coloring book featuring the girls' favorite friend, Clara Belle, and that memorable ride.
And of course, there are the wild birds. Just like the pioneers a hundred years and more ago, residents can glimpse the return of the Great Blue Heron to Oaks Bottom Refuge – or feed the Canadian Geese at Westmoreland Park. (We must point out, though, that feeding the geese, who are not really wild anymore, is discouraged by the Parks Department; it just gives the birds extra incentive to stay in Portland instead of migrating, and to create messes in the park.)
Animals remain part of the experience of Inner Southeast Portland. The cackle of hens can be heard here and there in the early morning hours even today, as families once more are raising their own chickens. (Fewer of those are being raised for dinne, than there used to be, though.)
Family cats and dogs along Sellwood Waterfront Park have replaced the wild foxes and braying billygoats of Annie's goat farm – both of which were once part of the scene in Sellwood. But Clara Belle, Chewie, and the rest, remain in memory – as part of the colorful history of Inner Southeast Portland.