Sellwood business and residential history: 13th Avenue, Part Two
In the June issue of THE BEE, I told you about the start of the commercial district along 13th Avenue in Sellwood, focusing on the section north of Tacoma Street. Now, in part two, we do a smart about-face, and tell the history of merchants and shopkeepers and residents who were such a vital part of the Sellwood community south of Tacoma Street.
For the twenty years between 1880 and 1900, Umatilla Street had been the main street of Sellwood's commercial district. For those living and working in Sellwood, trade and transportation were still very reliant on the nearby Willamette River.
Goods and supplies were distributed to merchants by boat, which docked at the base of Umatilla Street. Farmers hauled crops to the west side of the river where ocean-going vessels docked; or they could use the rough Milwaukie Road for travel north to East Portland – but this was nothing more than a dirt path, inaccessible during wet winter days. The river was still the way to go.
However, as rails were laid, merchant shops and small storefronts began slow but steady growth along the streetcar line along 13th Avenue. Shopkeepers boasted about the services they could offer locally that previously could only be found in Downtown Portland – south to the town of Milwaukie, or along the commercial district on Grand Avenue.
Although at first they were unfazed by the occasional resident or small storefront being built along 13th Avenue, certainly by the turn of the century the Umatilla Street shopkeepers were noticing the ascendance of 13th Avenue, and the decline of Umatilla.
Enter J. P. Zirngiebel, who arrived in the Northwest in the late 1890's, when business was booming on the streets of Downtown Portland. Painted signs hung outside almost every merchant's store in Portland's busy business district. Signs could also be found overhead at retail shops, and painted large on the sides of five and six story buildings.
Painted signs were long a popular form of advertising – even before ads in newspapers became common. Zirngiebel learned that craft well, and soon amassed a fortune painting signs, and he went on to hire additional professional signmakers to create signs of all sorts around the city, sent out from his office on Stark Street.
Using the capital he earned in sign-making, Zirngiebel ventured into the real estate business, and he built a two-story structure on the northeast corner of 13th and Umatilla in Sellwood. The upper section was used as doctors' and dentists' offices, while other rooms were available for boarders. The Zirngiebel family lived temporarily upstairs also, until their own grand house was finished. Additional rooms were used as a music studio, which filled the hallways with piano music and elegant singing. Some of the first merchants in the new building included the Elite Dressmaking Parlor, Sellwood Pharmacy, and J.M. Canfield's Dry Goods Store.
One of the well-known merchants who occupied the corner was Berlin Davis, who opened his shoe shop in 1910, and became a cornerstone of the neighborhood for the next 35 years.
High quality shoes and boots were a rarity here during the 1890s – a luxury that only those with considerable money could afford. Most shoes were "straight-fitted", and could be worn on either foot. Finally, cobblers realized that a left-footed shoe and a right-footed shoe were a much more comfortable fit! By 1899, machines were invented to mass-produce shoes, and at last customers could have a wider range to choose from.
Berlin Davis benefitted from the hundreds of different styles and brands of shoes shipped from the East Coast which he made available for sale in his Sellwood store. Weekly ads in THE BEE kept ladies informed of the latest trends in adult and children's shoes. Close-fitted top leather boots were a favorite during this era, and even today such boots have had a resurgence among ladies' fashions around the world.
When the Depression Era began, most small independent storekeepers couldn't afford to stay open. The Sellwood Shoe Store survived through the 1940's – until the iconic, and only recently-demolished, Black Cat Tavern took over the space once reserved for small merchants. Piano music and ladies' fashions were replaced with a bar, accompanied by music from the juke box, and shuffleboard tournaments. Most people soon forgot that The Black Cat originally started out as a café that served breakfast and lunch with hot black coffee, and was located on the opposite side of 13th Avenue. Today, a modern high-rise apartment house, with retail space on the ground floor, stands on the corner of Umatilla and S.E. 13th.
Following Zirgniebel's lead, W.H. Morehouse opened a two-story Hardware and Grocery one block north, on the northeast corner of 13th Avenue and Tenino Street. The second floor of the building was a home for the Order of the Odd Fellows, City View Lodge – a fraternal organization where weekly political meetings, gatherings for neighborhood events and meetings, and rip-roaring Saturday night dances were held.
Theodore Nolf opened the first general store along the 13th Avenue commercial district south of Tacoma Street, with his elegant residence situated next door. The business complex lasted about twenty years and is no longer there, but the Nolf bungalow, with its low pitched roof, large front porch, and decorative woodwork is one of the few residential homes still standing in the business district on 13th south of Tacoma that hasn't been replaced by condos or mixed use commercial development. The Mia Bella Beauty Salon and Sellwood Floral Company now occupy the Nolf Estate, across from today's "SMILE Station". More about SMILE Station coming up.
At the start of the Twentieth Century, Sellwood residents still used wood stoves for cooking and heating their homes. Electricity was available to most households, but the cost of hiring a professional to wire an established home for electricity was more than most people could afford at the time. So, home fires were common – from chimney fires, or when oil lamps used for lighting accidently tipped over.
The community desperately needed a fire station, and in 1895 the City of Portland donated a vacant lot on the southeast corner of 13th and Tenino to use for one. City officials also provided a used pumper and fire bell, but a fire station building and other firefighting apparatus was left up to the local residents to arrange.
The Sellwood Volunteer Fire Department was established, and ten to twelve strong men were called upon to haul the heavy fire apparatus through the unpaved streets of the neighborhood whenever the fire bell was rung.
With the help of the Sellwood Ladies Auxiliary, money was raised to construct a two-story wooden false-front Volunteer Fire House in 1896. The station provided cover and care for four horses, which replaced those husky men in pulling the fire-fighting apparatus. By then the new fire station was equipped with two fire engines and a twenty- foot-long fire hose – and had living quarters for a few volunteers to live in. The upstairs was used as a waiting and card room for firefighters, with space for storage of fire equipment, and there was a dance hall for rent on the weekends to help finance the firefighting.
Horses replaced men in propelling the fire engines – and then, in 1920, internal combustion engines began take over that burden. Fire Station 20 became the name of what was now officially a PF&R facility. By 1959, Fire Station 20 was relocated to a modern one-story building at 22nd and S.E. Bybee in Westmoreland, where it still is today – and the old fire station building in Sellwood became the Girls and Boys Club.
By 1990, the Boys and Girls Club had moved out into a new block-sized facility of its own on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue, a couple of block south of Bybee Boulevard, which only now has been levelled to construct a full-block-size apartment building.At the time that the Boys and Girls Club moved out of the former Sellwood fire station, an organization called the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE) – which began as a "business booster club", and later became the city's first "neighborhood association" – stepped up to purchase and remodel that old Station 20 building on the southeast corner of 13th and Tenino, and gave it the name "SMILE Station". It's used today for community meetings. It can today can be rented for meetings of all sorts, wedding receptions, and other special events.
But, back to the turn of the last century! Sellwood was growing so rapidly then, that by 1907 Peter Hume and a few associates had opened the first bank in Southeast Portland. Their attractive building with yellow brick and fancy dentil blocks along the roof line still stands on the southwest corner of Umatilla and 13th. Few neighborhoods could boast of having their own financial institution; until this bank opened, most people who lived in Sellwood had to travel to the west side of the river for business transactions – or at least south to the town of Milwaukie, south of Sellwood.
In 1925, the first Sellwood Bridge opened. Until then, Spokane Street was used as the landing for a ferry crossing the Willamette, and Tacoma Street just dead-ended at the river. Now, with the new bridge connected to Tacoma Street, a new commercial district was taking shape along Tacoma, which rapidly became the main thoroughfare for autos in the 1920's.
Fearing erosion of its customer base, the Bank of Sellwood moved its operation north into a two-story brick building on the northwest corner of Tacoma and 13th, hoping to get new customers in this newly-prominent location. Its former bank building became a Grocery store run by C.L. May, and housed a succession of other merchants over the following 90 years.
When the Portland's World Fair, the Lewis and Clark Exposition, opened in 1905 in Northwest Portland, thousands of people flocked to the Rose City; and after the fair was over, many who'd come from the East Coast and from around the nation to visit, decided to settle here – and many of those chose in the cute little community of Sellwood.
That was partly due to the new trolley system. The owners of the "Oregon Water Power and Railway" profited by transporting visitors to the fairgrounds and to other points of interest around the city; and they also built a trolley park attraction under the Sellwood bluff at Oaks Bottom, laying tracks from the Hawthorne Bridge past their new Oaks Amusement Park and around south Sellwood to Golf Junction just north of the Waverley Golf Club. Over 30,000 people visited the new Oaks Amusement Park in its first year, and the trolley company decided that an interurban and streetcar garage was needed near 13th Avenue.
The resulting six-bay interurban "car barns" were finished in 1909, prompting many workers to move into the community, and with them came a need for grocery stores and living quarters. Flats and apartments quickly sprang up around the area, providing temporary housing for the workers, and small grocery stores opened nearby for their convenience.
Addie Curtis opened a grocery store near the street car barns, anticipating patronage from the workers living in that section of town. Roy Clifford built a quaint two-story grocery with an old-west-style false front that still stands in the neighborhood today. The Clifford family lived above their tiny store, while Roy spent endless hours stocking the shelves and filling customer orders. "Roy's Cash and Carry" was still serving the community well into the 1950's, but by then its name had changed to the "Blue and White Store".
For meals and lunches, local workers relied on McClincy's Restaurant, which served hot meals; and Dell's Café was a regular breakfast stop for those going to work, or going home from work. At one time, there was a small ticket shed at the end of the trolley line at Golf Junction in Sellwood, where waiting customers could purchase passage south to Oregon City, or sportsmen could travel by rail to prime fishing spots on the Clackamas River, and travelers could buy tickets for a trip to Gresham and Damascus. The ticket office also sold snacks and goodies for passengers waiting patiently for the arrival of their interurban train.
Taverns and bars tend to survive in both good times and bad. The southern section of 13th Avenue early on had a variety of entertainment and services for men. Stephen Gall's pool hall was a late-night hangout in 1920 near Tenino Street, as was Otto Stuben's Pocket Billiards just down the block. The Cozy Tavern (now the "American at Heart" store) replaced "Woolworth's Sweet Shop", which for many years had been the place for families to enjoy ice cream sodas, or for men to buy cigars – and right next door they could pick up their mail at the Post Office.
The first Post Office was located in Edwin Corners Grocery on Umatilla Street, up from where a river sternwheeler would dock to bring the local mail to residents. When a new Postmaster was assigned to the station, it was headquartered near the Bank of Sellwood on Umatilla Street. By 1914, it was relocated onto 13th Avenue at Tenino. This new location offered convenience for city carriers, who could ride the streetcar service from downtown, where the mail was sorted, to where they would be making their daily local mail deliveries.
On Saturdays, most chairs were filled at the barbershops along 13th south of Tacoma. You could choose between a Democratic barber or a Republican barber, and as you can imagine, many heated discussions took place as hair was snipped. A few of the barbershops there were "Roberts and Smith", "W.F. Stewart's", "Disbro and Pierce", and of course the longtime community supporter and barber Edwin. S. Trites, who was the top "tonsorial artist" in Sellwood for nearly 40 years.
When the population of Sellwood reached nearly 5,000, Charles Ballard decided to start a local newspaper, which he called the "Sellwood Bee". On October 6, 1906, the first edition was distributed to the neighborhood. According to the report in THE BEE in an article on the newspaper's 100th anniversary by Eileen G. Fitzsimons, Charles, as owner and editor, began printing the paper in the back yard of a grocery store on Umatilla Street. Within the next five years the Sellwood newspaper and its printing press were operating in a tiny storefront just north of Tenino Street on 13th. Besides printing a local newspaper, Ballard would offer business card printing and newspaper advertising, and the small office also served as a lost and found depot.
The newspaper was known at various times not only as the Sellwood Bee, but also the Milwaukie Bee and the Sellwood-Moreland Bee, before becoming just THE BEE in 1991, when it expanded its distribution to include most of Inner Southeast Portland.
The newspaper was long published in a still-existing building on the southwest corner of Tacoma and 13th under the Pry family's ownership until 1989, when the Prys moved its offices to N.W. Hoyt Street, consolidating all their newspapers under one roof – shortly before they sold the whole lot of them, and retired. In 1991 John Dillin, a resident of Tualatin and an educator in Beaverton, bought THE BEE, made it a free widely-distributed monthly newspaper and, using new computer technology, ran it from his own home. In 2000 it was bought by Robert B. Pamplin to begin a group of newspapers that today includes the Portland Tribune and 22 other local Oregon newspapers – and for the past two decades it has been operated by its current editor from his own home in Westmoreland. But I digress. Returning to the 1940s and 1950s, the Sellwood commercial district along 13th appeared to be losing appeal for shoppers and consumers. Westmoreland businesses along Milwaukie Avenue were offering shops and stores that seemed more exciting and appealing to young families and the public. Shops that prospered along 13th Avenue for years began moving their businesses north into Westmoreland.
T.R. Dunn, who sold cars, and the Hall Engineering Company, which offered auto repair and sold used cars, reopened in newly constructed buildings at Bybee and Milwaukie, where the U.S. Bank is now. Sellwood's longtime furniture dealers Ken and Bob Shaw, of the Sellwood Furniture Company, decided Westmoreland was more consumer-friendly, and moved their entire inventory up near Dunn's Auto Sales.
Thirteenth Avenue became more of a service district, with shops that included Sellwood Metal Finishers, Lloyd Wilson Floor Contractor, L and M Machinery – and even the Gospel Mission – all occupying buildings that once contained candy confectionaries, meat markets, mom and pop grocery stores, and movie theaters.
By the start of the 1960's the commercial district on 13th was showing signs of its age. Most independent grocers had retired and closed up, and many of the once-busy shops south of Tacoma were vacant storefronts for a number of years. A major concern among new families moving to the area at that time was that Sellwood seemed like a rough neighborhood, and might not be a desirable place to raise children.
With cheap rent available for storefronts all along 13th Avenue, antique dealers and second-hand shops moved in, offering second-hand furniture and vintage clothes and treasures for shoppers.
However, things never stay the same. By the start of the 21st Century, Sellwood had risen from the ashes so to speak, and high-rise condos atop storefronts were a new addition to the neighborhood. New construction now reminds many of us of the early 1900's, when "streetcar structures" were rapidly built along the streetcar rails. The "Black Cat Tavaern" was demolished and replaced by the "Madison at Sellwood" mixed-use apartment building, and the old car barns were converted into condos, along with the old L and M building property at 13th and Marion Street.
While Old Sellwood supported just one bank, people now have many to choose from, On Point Credit Union, KeyBank, and Umpqua Bank about six blocks north of Tacoma, all now crowd the commercial district. Ladies' beauty parlors have taken over what was once the man's domain of barber shops on every corner in the 1920's, and restaurants and coffee shops can be found all over the neighborhood.
Thirteenth Avenue, both north and south of Tacoma Street, has certainly seen many changes, and many changes of fortune, since the first streetcar rumbled down its streets over a century ago.