A family century: Margaret Cutsforth, and a life leading from Riddle to Sellwood
If you were a woman living in the Northwest in 1914, there were limited options to obtain a higher education and establish a career.
In that year, over a hundred years ago, once a woman graduated from high school, usually her only choices were to become a housewife and mother – or to seek a wage as a factory worker, seamstress – or possibly a teacher, nurse, or secretary, if she was qualified.
But one liberated woman of the time, Margaret Crosby, who came from a prominent family in Riddle, Oregon, was one of just a handful of women who were accepted into the University of Oregon that year.
Over the next four years – through teachers and classes, books, and interaction with other students, she began shaping her life. She began to believe that women should participate in events in which they weren't expected to excel, and should support projects that protected the environment or strengthened the community.
As we said, Margaret Crosby had grown up in the town of Riddle, a few miles south of Roseburg. That community, located in Cow Creek Valley, was surrounded by lush fields of hay and grain in the spring, and plenty of livestock and fruit orchards during the rest of the season.
There had been many outdoor activities to keep Margaret and her brother and sister occupied while their parents were running the household. Her father, David Crosby, was the proprietor of the Riddle Hotel for some 28 years, and sometimes the children were assigned to various chores at the hotel. The town was named by Margaret's grandfather John B., in honor of his father William H. Riddle, in 1893 – and, at an early age, Margaret understood never to "disgrace the family name".
Her Grandfather John was quite the entrepreneur – allowing the Oregon and California Railroad access to his land, as the railway was expanding south to Northern California in 1883. But that expansion occurred in fits and starts.
Access to a railroad was deemed vital in many small rural towns by the turn of the 20th Century – especially farming communities down the Willamette Valley. Many of the sharecroppers had previously been dependent on steamboats to ship their products to market. Transportation by river had been their only option, other than a long trek by horse-drawn wagon up the Willamette Valley to Portland. Steamboat travel was slow and unreliable, and sometimes farmers had to wait days or even weeks before a ferry or vessel appeared. A railway offered faster service, cheaper rates, and scheduled departing and arrival times for shipment of seasonal crops.
The first railroad built south across Oregon to California almost didn't get finished. When the "Oregon and California Railway" finished laying tracks to Roseburg in 1872, the citizens of Riddle anxiously awaited its expected extension into their community; but construction came to a standstill as the company became mired in debt during the financial panic of 1873. It would be another nine years before the completion of the rails to Myrtle Point and then on to Riddle.
When that great day arrived, and the whistle of the steam engine announced the arrival of the railroad, both sides of the tracks in Riddle were lined with cheering townsfolk, ready to board the train and for wagon loads of products to be shipped out.
Unlike the big towns of Portland, Astoria, even Eugene, life in the village of Riddle was still rather bucolic. A particularly intriguing family photo shown to me by Margaret's grandson, Tom Cutsforth, reveals what life was like for young people in the valley then. In the picture, Margaret Crosby, in her early teens, is in a leather riding skirt, a long sleeved jacket, high boots, and a scooped hat, while walking on a bushy hillside with a rifle in her hand.
When I asked about that photo, Tom commented, "It wasn't uncommon for a group of fifteen boys and girls to go camping together outdoors, sometimes for days. They would just bring along their guns and fishing poles." Cow Creek Valley was rich with deer, the creeks full of fish, and the hills were covered with blackberry bushes. It was probably on one of these expeditions that Margaret started a friendship with her future husband, Lee Vernon Cutsforth – but, for the time being, attending college had a higher priority in her life.
When she arrived at the University of Oregon campus for her freshman year, Margaret had to have realized that most sports activities were geared for men. Ladies' track, tennis, and basketball were the standard events offered for women, and since they weren't allowed to stay overnight unchaperoned, most games played between ladies' teams were held near the University grounds.
Competition between college teams at that time had the feel of an intramural contest, and games against distant colleges were uncommon. With a full load of classes on her schedule, Margaret nonetheless decided to join the ladies' basketball and field hockey teams. Only six girls were pictured taking part on the U. of O. women's basketball team in 1915. The following year Margaret increased involvement with campus activities – becoming President of the University's Women's Athletic Association.
To supplement her tuition, Margaret hired on as a teacher at the Riddle Normal (elementary) School during her freshman year. Teachers were in great demand, and every year small rural communities across America struggled to find new teachers for their classrooms. When they found and hired one, it was even harder to get them to stay for the following school year. The only requirements to be hired as a teacher was a high school diploma – and that you were single. The people in small towns went to great lengths to keep eligible bachelors away from their young school instructors.
But back to Margaret's summer break in 1915: She and some family members embarked on a journey that seemed almost unbelievable at the time. Her grandmother, aunt, and cousins decided it was a good time to see the world. They embarked on a trip to the opening of the Panama Pacific International Exposition down in California.
The State of California advertised heavily in newspapers, journals, and magazines encouraging people from around the nation to get away from the cold and chill of the Midwest and East, and enjoy the warmth and sunshine of the Golden State. The Exposition was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, and also to showcase the cities of San Diego and San Francisco – hopefully to duplicate the success of the City of Portland in 1905 with its Lewis and Clark Exposition. It was such advertising that likely induced the family into this memorable trip to California.
The opening of the Panama Canal was a major accomplishment for the United States. Travel by steamship and luxury liner from the east had previously taken months, going "around the horn" at the bottom of South America – and the opening of the Canal shortened the journey considerably.
On June 16th, 1915, in a touring car with a covered top and cloth tires, the family clan – four ladies, a young boy, and with cousin Julius Riddle as the chauffeur, butler, mechanic, as well as the only grown man on the journey – set off for California.
To appreciate the difficulty of their journey, you must realize how extremely hard it was then to travel by car from Riddle, Oregon, to San Francisco. There wasn't any state highway connecting Oregon to California; roads were unpaved, and gas stations were few and far between. A few gas stations could be found in big cities like Portland, Eugene, and Sacramento; but in smaller communities it would be a challenge locate any at all.
Cousin Julius, when their car ran short, had to scour local hardware stores for a can of gasoline, or inquire from farmers along the route if they had any extra petrol. Alcohol from a tavern could supposedly also be used in a pinch.
As the driver and auto mechanic, Julius would spend the majority of the month-long trip changing and repairing cloth tires on dirt or muddy roads, and replacing parts that fell off the vehicle because of the condition of the roads. Sometimes a visit to the local hardware store in the next town or even a blacksmith shop was required during the tedious trip. The travelers kept a diary of the daily activities, and – as written – most of the hours on the road were spent repairing and patching those bicycle-sized cloth tires.
Mechanical work on the engine was also very time consuming, and with all of the long stoppages, the ladies of the party had plenty of time to write in that daily diary.
As for lodging? Happily, the diary reveals that most of the overnight stays were in comfortable settings. During the hiatus in California, the ladies stayed in places like the St. Francis Hotel in Sacramento, the Imperial at San Jose, or the luxurious Hotel St. Cecil in San Francisco – but, their stays in the small towns of Delta, Chico, Taft, and Red Bluff were more difficult and mostly undocumented.
Indeed, if your car broke down and you couldn't reach a town that had a boarding house, you had to bed down in a farmer's haystack, or sleep in a schoolyard – which prompted making sure that you had plenty of blankets and pillows on your journey. By the way, there wasn't road maintenance, either, so if a tree fell across the road, you had to have a saw on hand, to cut it up and remove it. A box of tools to fix car breakdowns was, of course, essential.
This was a carload of determined and confident women, since the idea of four ladies taking off on a whirlwind trip down the west coast without the escort of a large contingent of men along was not then socially acceptable. As for the possibility of being harassed by unruly men or menaced by bears or other wildlife, if they were sleeping outside – we know Margaret Crosby was good with a rifle, and probably kept it nearby.
Well, they finally arrived. And the group had an extraordinary time in their week in San Francisco, and later their four days in San Diego – and, before they started back to Oregon and Riddle, they even made an additional stop across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. Somewhere on the trip the ladies bought tickets to hear the world-famous music conductor John Philip Sousa in concert (whose favorite place to hold concerts, by the way, was at Oaks Park in Sellwood).
The tour finally arrived back in Riddle on July 20th, 2015. For the next three years, Margaret continued her studies at the University of Oregon. In 1917, when America became involved in the "European War" (now known as World War I), many male students left college and volunteered to serve overseas. Margaret had become closer with Lee Cutsforth, an older man by four years who worked for the railroad in Riddle as a signal-man. When he was drafted into the military, both Lee and Margaret corresponded regularly by mail.
In her senior year at the Eugene campus, Margaret continued her sporting activities, and also became an active thespian – earning the lead role in the spring production of "Cyrano De Bergerac". Upon graduation, Margaret's high grade-point-average and involvement with campus projects earned her enough credit to qualify as Phi Beta Kappa inductee.
Unfortunately, the University of Oregon wasn't designated for a PBK chapter until 1923, so she missed out on the chance to be selected. However, once the Phi Beta Kappa Society was established at the University, Board Members decided to review honor students who might have missed induction prior to 1923, and presented the award to them. After five years, Margaret was presented a pin and certificate as a Phi Beta Kappa member.
Meantime, Lee Cutsforth was still working as a wirecutter with the Army, and never was sent abroad during the conflict; but his letter-writing must have sparked a love interest. Following her graduation, and after Lee was discharged from military service, Margaret accepted his proposal, and on August 12th, 1919, they were married.
Lee resumed his old job at the Southern Pacific Railroad, and most of his time was spent in the field, traveling the Willamette Valley Route from Portland south to Ashland and other parts of Oregon. To save money, and avoid being separated for days on end, Margaret joined Lee, and they lived together on a railcar traveling from project to project along the Southern Pacific tracks. Whatever job Lee was assigned, the train would haul their single car to the desired location, where it was placed on a side track, to become their home until they moved on to the next railroad assignment.
On an emergency stop at the town of Albany, Margaret was rushed to the Albany Hospital where David Cutsforth was born – one of three children the couple would have.
Wanting a stable education for his family, and a steady home life, Lee Cutsforth bought a small bungalow on Miller Street in Sellwood in 1921, where he was able to take the streetcar down to the Brooklyn Railyard shops.
Lee was allowed by Southern Pacific to ride the train anywhere free of charge, so most of the family vacations were taken by rail. It wasn't until 1932 that family members convinced Lee to buy his first car; and vacations were thereafter never the same.
Three years later, with a growing family, the Cutsfort's enlarged their little house on Miller Street, adding an upper floor for the boys David and Curt. Their sister Verna had a room downstairs, away from her rowdy brothers. David and Curt became track champions at Sellwood School, and later starred on the Washington High track squad.
David began caddying at the Waverley Golf Club, working as a looper. The caddy shack was located near the old clubhouse at 11th and S.E. Ochoco, where the young caddies waited patiently – playing cards, or brushing up on their putting skills – until a call from the main clubhouse, 300 yards away, requested a caddy.
In 1941, the United States was faced with another impending World War. While Lee was too old to be drafted into the conflict, both of his boys – David and Curtis – answered the call for their nation. Both were commissioned Ensigns in the Naval Reserve, with David becoming a lieutenant on a P.T. boat in the South Pacific. Their mother Margaret also contributed to the cause, starting a victory garden in the backyard, where she grew vegetable and fruits to support the family, and also was selected as an Air Raid Warden, making sure the neighbors complied with war restrictions in her section of Sellwood.
When the boys returned after the war was over, they married and started their own families – getting together with Lee and Margaret at Christmas or for summer visits.
Tom and CeCe Cutsforth, grandchildren to Margaret and Lee, know many of the fascinating family stories. CeCe has collected hundreds of photos, and added important texts for family members to review, while Tom has spent endless hours listening to the tales told to him by their father David, and their Uncle Curt Cutsforth.
During his teenage years Tom happily recalls visiting Sellwood Park. Just like his father, Tom spent hot summer days splashing around the Sellwood Pool with its unheated water, and buying candy and snacks at the Soders Brothers candy store on the northeast corner of Miller and S.E. 7th. Weekends at Oaks Park were also on the schedule, with its dazzling Roller Coaster and Mystic Fun House. As Tom fondly recalls, "Where else could you spend all day, and buy a drink and a hot dog for only a quarter?"
In their retirement, Lee and Margaret spent time growing dahlias in the back yard or catching fish on the Willamette. In 1968, while catching a 10 lb. spring chinook off the docks in Sellwood, Lee was stricken and passed away, enjoying his fishing passion to the end.
Margaret, still living in the house in which she had raised her family since 1921, passed away in 1976.
At the end of family's history album, CeCe Cutsforth summarized why family is so special to her. And she reflected, in her closing lines: "Only years later did I come to understand that the Women's Athletic Association my grandmother led in 1915 may have made it easier for her great granddaughter to participate in University of Oregon sports in 2007!"