Sellwood house finally yields its mysterious past
The house at 1735 S.E. Nehalem (originally numbered 685) has intrigued me for many years, because it just "didn't fit" in its surroundings. It is located east of S.E. 17th Avenue, just beyond a commercial building. At 2,566 square feet it is much larger than its neighbors, which range in size between 1,200 and 1,400 square feet. Until 2006, when its owners of forty years added a duplex to the property, the house sat on a 100 by 100 foot lot. It also was situated toward the back of its lot, while most of the other houses in the vicinity, on 50 by 100 foot lots, were much closer to the sidewalk. To my eye, the large house seemed deliberately withdrawn from its neighbors, half-screened from the street by two groups of tall Douglas Fir trees.
The structure entered the Multnomah County tax rolls in 1912, and its City of Portland plumbing inspection was completed on January 10, 1913. It was classified as a residence, the owner of record being "G. Churchman". Searching old City Directories for individuals with the last name of Churchman, yielded George, a carpenter; a second George, presumably a son; and Gertrude, a nurse – all living on Spokane Street. Since I knew when the plumbing was approved, I scrolled through back issues of THE BEE on microfilm at the Sellwood Branch Library, and finally found a one-line clue in a November, 1912, issue: "Miss Churchman is erecting a large residence at 685 Nehalem Avenue." Apparently the prosperous, yet unmarried, Miss Churchman was building a large new home for her extended family.
I then checked Miss Churchman's employment history: Between 1901 and 1913 she was listed as a nurse, initially living in downtown Portland. It was not uncommon in the early 20th Century for people to hire "private duty" nurses to care for them at home, following an illness or surgery. I also noted that in 1905 and 1906 she was a nurse at the Portland Maternity Hospital and Nursing Home on N.W. Overton Street. By 1906, the Churchman family – George Sr., George Jr., and a daughter named Jane who was employed as a stenographer – were all living in Sellwood. The household probably included George Senior's wife Janette, who died in 1908 and was buried in the Milwaukie Pioneer Cemetery. George himself died at the end of 1912, but by then was living with a married daughter on S.E. 77th Street. It is not known if he performed any of the work on Gertrude's house which was almost finished at the time of his death.
A conversation and walk through the house with one of the current owners revealed an unusual bedroom arrangement. Although some remodeling took place in the 1960s through the 1990s, the main bedroom was a very large rectangular room, about 20 feet long. At the end of this room there was a small adjacent room, separated by a curved archway, and beyond that was a bathroom.
Portland City Directory entries for the years 1914-1918 revealed that Gertrude, then a registered nurse, used the second floor of her residence as a "Children's Nursery". The owner had been told by a long-time neighbor that the house had been a "baby home". However, it was not known if that referred to children who were recuperating from an illness, or perhaps even orphans awaiting adoption. I could find no licensing records that would provide a definite answer. The current owner of the house, who was as mystified as I was, said she would continue her inquiries, and we agreed to remain in contact.
I continued to search for additional information on Gertrude Churchman, and gleaned a few more facts. It appeared that toward the end of World War I, Gertrude closed her nursery and left Sellwood, as did her brother George, and sister Jane who married and moved to Southern Oregon. Gertrude herself married a man named Alex William Easton, and they lived in Gresham.
At the time of her death in August, 1925, she was listed as a "housewife". Obituaries at the time were brief, and no mention was made of her career as a nurse. In addition to her husband, she was survived by a daughter – Helen Jane Easton. However, as she was 54 at the time of her death, Helen Jane would have been born after 1918, when Gertrude was no longer listed by her maiden name. It is not impossible to have a child at age 47, but seems more likely that Helen Jane was actually her stepdaughter. Her husband Alex died just a few years later, in 1932, at age 56.
Tracing the occupants of the house indicated that after Gertrude left it was lived in by a retired Army officer. Then, from the mid-1920s and continuing for the next 30 years, the tenants were a series of renters with an almost yearly turnover.
Finally in 1958 Rose M. and Robert M. McQuiggin purchased the house, in which they raised six children. The McQuiggins lived there until they sold it to the current owners in 1979.
Recently I again contacted the current owners to share what I had learned about Gertrude Churchman. In exchange, I was provided with new information which seems to have solved the mystery. The owner had had a conversation with a friend who was a professional midwife. She explained that at the beginning of the Twentieth Century women did not go to a hospital to give birth. They were usually attended by a midwife, occasionally a doctor, who came to their home, where they afterwards recovered. If they did not live in their own home, they could go to a baby home or nursery. Although Dr. John Sellwood owned and operated the hospital he had built on S.E. Harney Street in 1910, and by this time he was also training nurses at an adjacent building, his was primarily a surgical facility.
It appears that an establishment such as the one operated by Gertrude filled a need, especially if the mother-to-be was living in a boarding house (apartment buildings were a novelty in Portland at the time, and there were none in Sellwood). Lacking the privacy of her own home, the Children's Nursery on Nehalem Street provided a quiet place to give birth and recuperate afterwards, attended by an experienced nurse. Not all married couples lived in their own home or had relatives to assist them. In fact there was a plea in THE BEE at the time for more boarding houses in Sellwood to accommodate married men who worked in the local mills.
* * * * * * *
Historical follow-up to earlier BEE stories
In January, February, and March of 2018, I wrote articles on an organization known as the "Mantle Club". It was a popular men's membership club in the 1930's, organized at a national level by an elusive character named Hugh G. Monjar. He later went to prison after being convicted of what is now classified as a pyramid scheme. However, my research on the Club in Portland indicated its purpose was more benign – its members were focused on networking, friendship, and intercity sports teams for men aged from 21 to 40.
I made a plea at the time for information from anyone whose relatives had been members of the organization. I recently had a phone conversation with Edith Fox Robins, now in her mid-90's. She said that her father, Russel Fox, was one of a group of Mantle Club members who operated a co-operative grocery store in the Lents area. They purchased the groceries, stocked the shelves, and on Friday nights opened the store to Mantle Club members. The volunteers helped Club members provide food for their families during those very hard economic times. I also had written about an ascent of Mt. Hood by 400 Club members in 1936. According to Mildred, she and her twin sister, then age 8, and another sister made a similar climb with their father. In 1934, "Ripley's Believe it Or Not" credited them with being the youngest climbers to make the ascent.
Turning to a different story, in the May BEE fellow historical writer Dana Beck offered a history of Bertie Lou's Café at S.E. 17th and Spokane Streets. One of the questions he had yet to find an answer to was just when the original name, Bertie Lew, had changed to Bertie Lou. Delving into some notes, I discovered that it was Bertie Lews' Sandwich Shop until November 1945, at which time the Sellwood diner was sold by its then-owners, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph G. Manning. The name was subsequently changed to Bertie Lou's by the next owner, Howard Hall. The Mannings moved on to operate a restaurant at S.E. 13th and Tacoma, and later THE BEE at the time announced that Mr. Manning was traveling to New Jersey to train as a Wurlitzer jukebox salesman. Finally, it should be noted that the house behind Bertie Lou's is much older than it appears. County tax records indicate it was built in 1891, and was occupied in 1914 by R.M. Gatewood, who had a small real estate office on S.E. Umatilla Street. The café was constructed in the raised basement of the house in 1926.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)