The Martinson family, and the Ruth Ashbrook Bakery
For many of us, the day doesn't begin until we visit one of our favorite coffee shops in Westmoreland.
But from the 1940s through the 1980s, the day for many residents began with something else – the aroma of cinnamon and fresh bread in the air, from the daily baking at the Ruth Ashbrook Bakery.
Harold Martinson was the man responsible for bringing those wonderful smells into Westmoreland – when he opened the Ruth Ashbrook Bakery, back in 1934, along Milwaukie Avenue at Henry Street, where Northwest Primary Care and its parking lot sit now, just north of the QFC Market.
Back then, the small bakery was operating adjacent to the "mom and pop" grocery store of William and Bertha Zinck.
The Zinck family arrived in Westmoreland in 1906, when William – anxious to show his entrepreneurial skills – experimented with opening one of the first confectionaries in the newly-established commercial district of Westmoreland. But it was not a success, and he soon abandoned his dream of operating a candy store. The following year he replaced it with a grocery store. This storefront was situated on Milwaukie Avenue, on the northwest corner of S.E. Henry. However, William continued to experiment – alternating between running a grocery store and trying to establish a bakery.
Fortunately, Mr. Zinck had a building big enough to sell bakery items and also to run a market. A plus: William and Bertha lived upstairs above their store, so commuting to work wasn't a problem.
Lacking baking skills, William decided to partner with Alex Gorr – and, together, they started the Midway Bakery in 1925 in the rear of the grocery store. The bakery advertised the baking of cakes for special occasions, as well as cookies and doughnuts; but again, this bakery only lasted about five years. Although his baking and candy ideas were not panning out, William Zinck finally realized that running the Moreland Grocery Store was where his true talents lay. William was such a prominent fixture behind the counter that housewives and children in the community referred to the little Westmoreland market as Zinck's. Not much was heard about the bakery in the start of the 1930's, but the grocery store was already well-established with local customers.
During the Great Depression, many stores closed in Sellwood and Westmoreland, since few owners could afford to keep extending their impoverished customers credit, or to keep the business going when sales were poor. William and Bertha had to run the grocery store by themselves, since they couldn't afford to hire additional help.
In 1934, two men – Harold Martinson, and Floyd Dixson – entered Zinck's Grocery with a proposal to rent a section of the store to open their own bakery. After negotiations, and plenty of handshaking, Martinson and Dixson established a wholesale bakery in the back of Zinck's Market, employing a sparse crew of from three to four workers.
It appears that since the day he was born, Harold Martinson ate, slept, and dreamed of being the owner of a baking company. Previously he'd worked at the Davidson Bakery, and then became plant supervisor with the Homestead Bakery.
The two partners chose the name "Ruth Ashbrook Bakery" – a brand that was started in 1919 by L.C. Stiles, who owned a commercial bakery in Seattle. The Pacific Coast Gazette claimed that that business ran sixteen wagons, and employed fourteen people, making and delivering fresh pastries in the Emerald City.
Home-cooked meals and mouthwatering desserts had long been considered the domain of women. How many of us fondly remember our mother's favorite recipe, or those wonderful cookies that grandma use to make? Marketing Companies learned that marketing their boxed products with names like Betty Crocker, Sara Lee, Mrs. Smith's Pies, or Aunt Jemima, enjoyed great success.
The name "Ruth Ashbrook" seemed to be synonymous with good old home baking, even though like those other trademarks, it was not the name of a real person – just a trade name dreamed up by the Stiles family.
What started out as a small-scale operation – packaging and selling wholesale sweets to just a few local businesses like Safeway and Franz Bakery – soon grew as a result of a host of other retailers wanting the Ashbrook Bakery to bake their own branded goodies.
Before long, the Ashbrook Bakery was cranking out over thirty different varieties of related baked goods – including coffee cake, streusel, butterhorns, cinnamon rolls, and a sweet cake called "Butterflies".
Martinson and Stiles perfected the process of manufacturing sweets from a customers' secret recipe, wrapping it in the customer's trademarked packaging, and delivering it to the customers' stores in a timely manner.
Once the bakery was in full production in Westmoreland, the Martinson family, headed by Harold and Mary, moved into a house on 18th Avenue at Lambert Street in the south end of Westmoreland, where they raised their two children, Jerry and Lerrene.
When he became old enough, young Jerry was introduced to the fine art of pastry-making. Jerry began accompanying his dad to the bakery, where Harold wanted to ensure his son learned all of the ins and outs of the baking business. Most boys back then got excited when they received their first bicycle, baseball glove, model plane, or basketball. But Jerry was joyful at being given a rolling pin and a ball of dough by his dad! Jerry Martinson explains, "My dad sat me down in front of a pastry table, plopped a ball of dough on the counter, and gave me a rolling pin. And, like any other kid, I just started playing around with it."
Jerry attended St. Agatha's Primary School, and when he was not spending time with dough and rolling pins, he joined the boys around the neighborhood in various sports activities. On the weekends, or after school, you could find Jerry hanging out with his buddies, playing pick-up ball at the Sellwood Community Center. School games that he participated in at St Agatha's took place in the old gymnasium located upstairs above the cafeteria.
When school was out for the summer, the Martinson family headed to the Oregon Coast. They usually rented a cabin for four to five weeks at Rockaway, or found a cute cottage at Manhattan Beach up the road.
Rockaway was the happening place to be during the 1950's – tourists came to swim in the natatorium, go bowling, or ride the bumper cars. There were many activities to keep a young eight-year-old boy busy all summer there. To earn extra cash for salt water taffy, Jerry set up bowling pins at the Rockaway Bowling Alley. The huge natatorium was located near the bowling venue; and when he wasn't working or exploring the sandy beaches, you could find him spending many an afternoon in the pool.
By spending the summer in the small resort town, Jerry soon began to be known by everyone in the community – from the Postal Clerk to the ice cream vendor down the street. Even the Rockaway Police Department knew the Westmoreland lad. In fact, they gave little eight-year-old Jerry a sheriff's badge and cap that he often wore down in the busy commercial district, letting the visitors who passed by him that he was the law.
A favorite pastime for him as a junior sheriff was scrutinizing the vacationers, to see if they resembled any of the faces on the "wanted" posters at the police headquarters. He took his (unpaid) job seriously.
And each morning, Jerry would wait for the local Franz delivery truck to stop and pick him up. The driver delivered bread up and down Highway 101, and somehow Jerry talked him into being his helper. The driver, Durwood Jagger, had a route along the North Coast delivering Franz Bread products to all of the small grocery stores. Jerry thought it was fun stacking the bread on store shelves, and unloading the wooden boxes filled with bread from the back of the truck. For donating all this time and effort, he usually only received a piece of candy or stick of gum. One day, feeling generous, the driver gave Jerry a bag of candy for being such a great helper. Jerry got sick after he ate the whole bag at one sitting!
His father Harold, busy all week in the summer at the Bakery in Westmoreland, would drive down from Portland on the weekends after work to join his family in Rockaway.
After he started high school, Jerry began spending more time at the Bakery on Milwaukie Avenue to supplement his income. He began to understand how the bakery business was changing from those early years, when everything was done manually. In the early days, just completing a single order of cinnamon rolls for a client might require between ten and fifteen people. Indeed, at the height of its production, the Ashbrook Bakery had to rely on 135 employees working three shifts to fill each day's orders.
But as times changed, new and modern machines were installed to speed up the production time and increase the output. When the baked goods were finished, customers could pick them up, or company drivers in blue-colored Ashbrook Bakery vans would deliver them.
The machinery didn't immediately reduce the payroll – it increased efficiency. Over the years, workers were assigned various positions as rollers, wrappers, cutters, and deliverymen. Jerry began to learn how each section of the bakery operated. The process was time-consuming, and required a lot of workers to complete the final product. By 1960, new machines replaced the previous ones to further increase the output of the bakery.
Stores now long-gone once lined the busy streets of Westmoreland when Jerry began attending Central Catholic High School. Kienows' on S.E. Duke Street (now QFC) and the Piggly Wiggly on S.E. Tacoma Street were just a couple of the grocery stores he visited. More obscure food markets in Westmoreland included Retteman's Meat Market – and the Friendly Grocery, which was where the Silver Lining woman's consignment shop is now.
According to Jerry, Bertie Lou's in Sellwood had the best hamburgers in town; and the owner at the time, Betty Shaw, was always entertaining to the customers who stopped by – but not always very welcoming. One time, he remembers, while he sat at the counter enjoying his meal, one of the other patrons wanted to substitute an item on the menu. Betty responded by throwing a set of utensils at the customer, and told him to get out! "From then on, I learned to keep my mouth shut when Betty was on duty," remarked Jerry.
During his sophomore year, Jerry played on the Central Catholic football team. Ducktails, greased hair, and suede shoes were just a few of the fashionable styles that high schoolers were sporting during the late 1950s.
Back at the Ashbrook Bakery – after serving the community for over forty years, William and Bertha Zinck decided it was time to call it quits in the grocery business. As the bakery's sales were still increasing, Harold bought the two-story wooden structure from the Zincks, with plans to update the bakery.
With the wholesale baking business booming, Harold needed additional space and new machinery for the mass production needed to keep up with the additional orders. Just a few of the companies they contracted with by this time were the Associated Grocers in Seattle, the Oroweat Company, Franz U.S. Bakers, and the Hostess Cakes and Williams Bakery in Eugene. According to Bakers Weekly, in an article by Edward R. Lucas, by the mid 1960's the bakery was operating in a plant of 20,000 square feet, with a crew of about 50 employees. Martinson also leased additional space near 21st and S.E. Ochoco Street, where fruit pies and doughnuts were made and shipped out to clients. .
The Ashbrook Bakery's first major setback occurred in April of 1969, when Harold Martinson suddenly passed away. Looking to secure the future of the company for his family before his death, Harold had bought out his then-partner LeConie Stiles, and had placed his children Jerry and Lerrene in charge of the company, to continue its success.
Reminiscing about his late father, Jerry said that Harold spent a lot of time sitting at a large wooden desk going over accounts near a round metal stove. Harold, during his busy days at the bakery, even found time to climb Mt. Hood, Jerry recalls.
Operating the Ruth Ashbrook Bakery was quite a challenge for Jerry Martinson – he was only 27 years old when his father died. But, under the experienced direction of the General Manger, Lawrence Fields, and the leadership and dedication of Jo Wilmarth, the Office Manager and the person in charge of the payroll, the Ashbrook Bakery continued to be an icon in the neighborhood. Lawrence stayed with the company for 43 years, and Jo Wilmarth contributed over 40 years of service.
By 1981, the company had purchased the Arden Mayfair Milk Plant, which produced the fillings for their fruit pies and other sweet treats.
Because of his love of sports, Jerry and the Ashbrook Bakery sponsored many Little League baseball teams in Westmoreland and Sellwood. He even invited old school chums, like Gary Elliott from Cleveland High, to play with him on the slow-pitch team supported by the bakery. Gary helped organize an AAU basketball team that both men were able to participate in during the evenings. Jerry remembers that the team even included a few ex-Portland Trailblazers who'd retired from the NBA. More than that, Darnell Valentine, who was a three-time Academic All-American and spent 4½ years with the Blazers, was once a part of the Ashbrook basketball team!
When he was not enjoying his own desserts from Ruth Ashbrook, Jerry recalls that the Westmoreland Pharmacy, on the northeast corner of Bybee Boulevard and Milwaukie Avenue, had the best sodas; and "Dells and Dolls" on Tacoma Street had fantastic milk shakes. In his spare time he enjoyed taking in the latest movies down the street at the Moreland Theater. It was there where one of his friends, who worked at the theater concession stand, introduced him to a cute young lady named Susan Day – and, just as in some of the films they watched together there, they got hitched, and continued to live close by in the neighborhood.
Together, Susan and Jerry raised five boys – Mark, Christopher, David, Jeffrey, and Mathew – all of whom were active in the community in their own adventures.
By the start of the 1990s, the wholesale baking business had taken a new direction. Companies that ordered baked products from the Ashbrook Bakery began building their own bakeries, and producing their own baked products. Companies like Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Albertsons began hiring and training their own employees for these bakeries. They no longer needed to place orders with wholesalers like Ashbrook Bakery.
At the same time, most of the manufacturing equipment at the Ashbrook Bakery by then needed to be replaced; and the building needed upgrading. The Martinson family decided that it was time to sell.
Oregon Health Sciences University bought the property, and tore down the aging Ashbrook Bakery – replacing it with a state-of-the-art local clinic. Later, OHSU closed that clinic, and the facility is currently occupied by Northwest Primary Care of Milwaukie.
The days of buying a dozen eggs or a quart of milk at Zinck's Grocery Store are long gone, as are the heavenly smells throughout the Westmoreland business district of the baking at Ruth Ashbrook's.
But, since what goes around comes around, who knows? Possibly another large bakery will appear somewhere in Inner Southeast Portland; and the smells emanating from it will bring back fond memories of Ruth Ashbrook's – so much a part of Westmoreland for a large part of the Twentieth Century.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.