Inner Southeast experiences the Great Depression
In recent years, Portland and other cities in the Northwest have experienced an increase of homeless camps, graffiti-marked buildings, and a shortage of housing deemed "affordable".
It's enough to remind some old-timers of the Great Depression that swept the nation between 1930 and 1939 – except that the Depression was actually very much worse.
Many historians tell us that the collapse of the stock market on October of 1929 marked the start of the Great Depression; but in fact, the timber industry in Oregon was experiencing a slow economy as early as the year before. Most of the lumber that was cut and manufactured in Oregon mills was generally shipped south to California; but by the end of 1929, orders were down by over half.
The Eastside Lumber Mill where the east end of the Sellwood Bridge is now continued to struggle, laying off the majority of its workers because of the lack of new accounts. Once the premier employer in Sellwood in the early 1900's, when families settled in the area to be near their jobs, these same loyal workers were now rendered destitute now that the company didn't have any work for them.
The Lumber Company itself had also been decimated when fire had broken out in the mill on three different occasions – causing machinery, buildings, and lumber that couldn't be replaced to be lost in the flames. By 1935 the Eastside Mill ceased operations altogether, and only the Oregon Door Company remained as a profitable major local business through the last years of the Depression.
The Peerless Laundry Company was the next big industry to feel the effects of the downward economy. Established by Jay "Doc" Dannell in the early 1920's, the wet wash company had been a perfect employment opportunity for young ladies who lived in the vicinity, and a salvation for older gentlemen who drove the delivery trucks and were no longer able to handle the hard labor at the lumber company just down the hill.
During the good times, the laundry company drew a payroll of nearly $70,000 annually. Dannell closed it in 1932, though, because housewives were forced by the economy to save money by doing their own laundry at home. The Peerless Company in Sellwood was consolidated with Dannell's other laundry firm downtown, and the resulting vacant building was later occupied by the Sellwood Motor Service business.
Everyone had to make do with what they had, and to find creative ways to survive. Since there weren't any federal programs available for unemployment aid then, charity organizations, churches, and the city and state had to be called upon to provide food, medical care, and even shelter for those less fortunate. Programs were set up to offer free warm meals for those living outdoors, or who were temporarily out of work. Many times, these soup or bread lines as they were called, stretched for blocks. More than 19 million Americans were without a means of supporting themselves or their own family.
Life continued, whether or not people had a means of support, family members who were sick, and any food for the evening meal. THE BEE, which began in 1906, kept spirits high with positive articles, news about birthdays, anniversaries, marriages, trips, and babies being delivered into the world. Anything to keep readers' minds off of the hard times they were in.
Weekly front-page headlines encouraged readers to support their local storekeepers and business. For the next ten years the editor of the newspaper would consistently push the message of "home boosting", which included announcements like "appreciate your neighborhood store" – or, to the businessman, "give that job to your neighbor". But anyone who drove down 13th Avenue during the 30's could see for themselves that there were a lot of vacant stores.
Westmoreland and Sellwood were close communities. Small grocery owners lived near their place of business; so, when their neighbors or friends couldn't pay for the groceries they bought, they were given credit. As more and more customers couldn't pay their accounts, eventually the store owners didn't have enough income to buy more food, and many shops had to close their doors forever.
From the article "Hard Times" in the "Oregon History Project", author William G. Robbins revealed that over 40,000 people in Oregon were on relief, and 24,000 householders were registered with the Portland Employment Bureau. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated President in 1933 he was already faced with an uphill battle to stop the free fall, and get the economy back on its feet and rolling.
New government agencies were created by the Roosevelt Administration to provide work and support for the less fortunate families. Oregon reveled in the benefit of newly-created programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Work Progress Administrations (WPA). Westmoreland benefitted immensely from these relief programs – they helped build McLoughlin Boulevard, improved the golfing greens at Eastmoreland Golf Course, and hired lads in the neighborhood to work on the establishment of a new Westmoreland Park (the first project in the future park was the WPA-built Westmoreland Casting Pond).
Completion of Highway 99E (now McLoughlin Blvd.) connecting downtown Portland to the outskirts of Milwaukie in 1935 was accomplished using federal and state funds, following guidelines set down by the WPA. Most of the intense labor was done by men using nothing but hand tools with very little assistance from heavy machinery.
Administrators at the Oregon Department of Transportation were planning on building a new regional headquarters near Highway 99E. WPA workers were again called upon to construct this historic, rustic building, still located just south of the Springwater Corridor Overpass.
A few of the major regional construction projects by the WPA were the development of the Rocky Butte Scenic Drive, the building of a new municipal airport near Marine Drive, and the Grand Coulee Dam along the Columbia River. Unemployed men were hired to build Timberline Lodge, and its impressive wrought-iron gate was crafted by artisans at the Eckles Iron Shop on Boise Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
The Iron shop hired workers who had been laid off, and trained them to learn the craft of making ornamental door handles, keyholes, straps, hinges, and other hardware used in government buildings across the state. The WPA programs infused a new self-confidence in men who had felt they did not have the talent to learn another trade.
For young men new to the workforce, the Civilian Conservation Corps was available. The CCC used these ambitious and eager youngsters to work for the Forestry Department – building roads, carving out hiking trails, constructing shelters, and learning how work as a team in finishing a mountaintop fire lookout station. During the summer, these young warriors were used in battling forest fires that occur every year in the Northwest.
While most of the men were busy with new jobs created for them by The New Deal Programs, life in the small communities struggled on. Entertainment was an important part of everyday life; playing cards, attending weekly dances, and listening to the radio, were many of the pastimes that Inner Southeast residents enjoyed, even though many were still struggling to find a job or even put food on the table.
The local movie theaters were crowded, during the weekends, with children and housewives who welcomed a change from dreary home chores. As many businesses struggled to stay afloat, Harry Moyer was one of the few entrepreneurs to start a new company. In 1937 he erected a modern theater with shops and apartments in the complex. It was the new Sellwood Theater along Tacoma Street. The Sellwood Theater would become a memorable gathering place for teens into the 1940's, 50's, and well into the 1960's, until it was closed, the seats and screen were removed, and the popular Columbia Sportswear Outlet Store moved in.
Knowing that few families could afford admission to the skating rink at Oaks Park, park owner Edward Bollinger reduced prices at the rink and started the Junior Roller Skating Club on Sunday afternoons. Revenue increased as more children ventured to the skating rink and Oaks Park witnessed the largest group of active roller skaters ever.
One of President Roosevelt's key programs was the Federal Art Project, created to hire unemployed artisans to paint public murals. Over 4,000 murals were painted on the walls of schools, hospitals, and government buildings.
If you came across any historical murals while standing in line at a Post Office it was likely painted by a professional artist commissioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury. In 1934 the Section Painting and Sculpture Project was created by the Treasury Department to paint murals depicting themes of local historical interest.
The East Portland Post Office's "Post Rider" mural was completed by artist Paul Grellert in 1936, and it is a wonderful example of the many paintings that can still be found in various postal buildings.
By 1939, the American economy was slowly recovering, as jobs became more abundant and consumers began spending more freely. The Great War was already underway in Europe, but the United States tried to stay neutral and out of it – until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in November of 1941 pulled us into it, and the war economy that resulted completed the economic recovery.Over 100 new high-class homes were built in Eastmoreland and around Reed College, and new shops and storefronts began opening along Bybee Boulevard and on S.E. 13th Avenue.
As the 1930's – one of the worst of times – came to a close, members of the Westmoreland Community Club, the Sellwood Commercial Club, and the Sellwood Board of Trade were proudly able to claim that the Sellwood Bank never closed during the Depression; and THE BEE never ceased publication.