Local family's history revealed in old photo albums
Several times a year the editor of THE BEE receives the following question from the new owner of a vintage home in Inner Southeast Portland: "Are there any photographs of my old house?"
Unfortunately, the answer is usually no. Most personal photos focus on people, pets, and events, with only glimpses of the house in the background. Consequently, those photos go with the seller when they move. If you can locate and contact the previous owners or their descendants, you might get lucky, and they may have photos to share with you. Occasionally a previous resident might knock on your front door, introduce themselves, and ask if they can take a walk through their old home. This is a golden opportunity to ask how the house has changed, discover the purpose of some intriguing feature, and hear anecdotes about family life in the house (of course you should exercise caution when you invite a stranger into your home, so do use personal judgment).
Through the efforts of the SMILE History Committee, that neighborhood association now has a collection of approximately 200 historical images of the area, including a few of buildings and homes. Some are original photos donated to SMILE; others were purchased at estate sales or secondhand stores, and some have been loaned by their owners to be copied for research purposes only, and returned. Fellow historian Dana Beck and I are always on the lookout for additional images, but we also direct the inquirer to collections at the Oregon Historical Society in downtown Portland, the Architectural Heritage Center on Southeast Grand Avenue, and the City of Portland Archives and Records Department near Portland State University. Recently I was fortunate enough to examine several photo albums that were given to a couple when they purchased their house in 1989. The descendant had neither lived in the house nor the neighborhood, had no personal attachment to the photos, and offered them to the new owners. While most of the photos show generations of Boston bull terriers and family trips in the 1920s and '30s, there are some of the family property over three generations – from the late 1800s to the early 1940s.Fortunately the photos are black and white (many color photos from the 1950s through the 1970s turn gray, and then fade to nothing), and although they are glued onto black paper in scrapbooks, they are in excellent condition and the details are sharp.
The images of most interest are of what could be called the "Taggesell Block". This is the property between S.E. Henry and Duke Streets, and between Milwaukie Avenue and S.E. 15th, behind the QFC Market. It is within the Tolman Tract – a larger subdivision that was filed with the Multnomah County surveyor's office in 1882. The Taggesells owned all of Block 25, which was divided into nine separate house lots. The first members of the Taggesell family to occupy Block 25 were Ernst and Anna, a married couple who initially lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Ernst worked in the railroad yards. They eventually had seven sons and one daughter, but started their family before they moved to S.E. Henry Street, because at least one of their sons regularly attended the Brooklyn School reunions. They reportedly built the two-story vernacular farmhouse at 1514 S.E. Henry Street in 1888 where they raised their eight children.
In 1888 the area was still a rural outpost on the County Road (now Milwaukie Avenue) that began three miles away in East Portland, passed through the City of Milwaukie, and terminated at Oregon City. The area was inching slowly from its early settlement era of the 1840s to becoming an early 20th Century streetcar suburb; but that modern form of transportation would not arrive for another four years. The Taggesell family was self-sufficient, with a cow, vegetable garden, and fruit trees, which may have been a remnant of the orchards of Alfred Lewellyn, from which the Tolman Tract was subtracted. Houses were scattered, and the Crystal Springs Stock Farm of W.S. Ladd occupied all of the land to the east of the County Road. It would not be subdivided as Westmoreland for another twenty years. As they reached school age, the Taggesell children probably attended the Midway School at the corner of Milwaukie Avenue and Ellis Street (today, a parking lot). Although the Sellwood subdivision had opened the same year as the Tolman Tract and a public school was established there in 1885, Midway School had been operating since 1867, and would have been more convenient for the Taggesell children.
Being raised in a sparsely-populated place, the family members had to repair or invent the necessities of everyday life. As their father had worked in the train yards, three of his eight sons who were mechanically inclined became fascinated with that futuristic mode of transportation, the automobile – which first arrived on the west side of Portland in 1899. Rudy Taggesell entered the auto sales business by 1918, and eventually had a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership. Victor was a skilled mechanic and became the foreman of a repair shop. Walter began his career in 1914 as a Ford repairman, was drafted into the Army toward the end of World War I, returned unscathed and resumed his career, retiring at the age of 72. The current owners of Walt's house commented that he'd used the tie rods from his old cars as garden stakes, and some of them are still in use. The oldest of the brothers, Carl, became a plumber. Albert had also served in the First World War, but was not as fortunate as his brother Walt. He suffered lung damage during a German gas attack, and spent many years living with his parents and sister in the Taggesell home. A small glassed-in porch was added to the back of the house where it was hoped the sunny space would ease his breathing. Later, he moved to the drier climate of Mosier, in the Columbia Gorge. The sole sister Annie, did not marry, but also remained at the Taggesell home, taking care of her parents until their deaths in 1928 and 1932. She then continued to live there on her own, and passed away in 1978, at the age of 90, at the end of a day of gardening.
By 1924, both Art and Walt Taggesell had married, and – sharing a set of house plans – each built himself a new home on the family block. Walt's faced S.E. 15th Avenue at the corner of Duke Street, and Art's house was on the opposite of the block, on Henry Street next to the original family home. Both lived in their houses for the rest of their lives. Art and his wife had one child, Donna, who inherited her parents' home after her father's death in 1976. Donna, in turn, the third generation of Taggesells to live on the "family block", and stayed in her childhood home with her husband until her death in this new millennium. While four of the Taggesell offspring remained attached to the family home site, the others scattered to different east side neighborhoods. However, at least one of the brothers, Victor, remained nearby in Westmoreland, and remained in close contact with his siblings on Block 25. Joan and Fred Coates purchased the home of Walt Taggesell at 15th snd Duke in 1986, and use its extra lot – which extends north to the corner of Henry Street – for outdoor recreation, and vegetable and fruit gardening. Some years ago Fred constructed a large greenhouse out of discarded storm windows, and while they no longer raise chickens, their use of the property is similar to that of the Taggesells in the late 19th Century. In the 1970's, for several years before they purchased Walt's house, the Coates and their children lived in a rental on S.E. 15th, just across the street. Walt had been a widower since 1960, and had no children. Fred and Joan helped him maintain the raspberry patch behind his house, and as they got to know him, Walt shared many stories about his family. He stated that his parents owned the property that extended from their block to the edge of the western bluff (now 13th Avenue). When the land (now the site of Llewellyn School) was being cleared, one of the Taggesell boys climbed up the tall Douglas fir trees and "rode" them to the ground as they were felled. The land on which Walt's house was built retained some of its original fruit trees and, until quite recently, the Coates continued to maintain a single ancient pear tree that produced "about one piece of fruit" per year. The Taggesell family had a cow, and one of the boys was responsible for taking it to graze on land to the west, and presumably to milk it twice daily. According to Walt, his parents also owned a fruit farm in eastern Multnomah County.
It took a few years before the Coates discovered a clever hidden feature of their new home. Since it was built by Walt during Prohibition, he'd made sure he had a place to stash his illegal liquor supply. The new owners finally realized that a built-in china cupboard could be accessed from the basement steps! On the dining nook side, the hinged cupboard shelves provided access to a storage space with ample room for a few bottles.
One of Walt's quirks was to make sure that the first words he said on the first day of every month were, "rabbit, rabbit". This was to insure good luck until the beginning of the next month, he explained. If he forgot, he would say the word backwards when he remembered! After he explained the importance of this custom to the Coates, he reminded them of it by opening his front door early in the morning of the first day of each month with a "bang" – loud enough that the Coates family across the street would awaken, open their door or a window, and respond, even if they were barely conscious. They had assumed this unusual custom was Walt's invention, but when I checked online, I discovered it was a common, if archaic, tradition. Considering the dreary effect of the current coronavirus shutdown, maybe this harmless ritual should be reinstated!
After World War II, the Taggesells sold their four lots on Milwaukie Avenue for the construction of a new Kienow's grocery store, which opened in late 1946. The sale included an additional two lots behind the store for a customer parking lot. Now the QFC Market occupies the space.
In spite of all the nearby commercial development, it is remarkable that the old Taggesell home has survived for 132 years, and continues to serve as a single family residence. In the company of two other Taggesell homes, it forms a unique, historic, and green reminder of how the earliest residents lived in this part of the neighborhood. Many thanks to Joan and Fred Coates for sharing their photographs, and the oral history that they've collected from the Taggesell family. And don't forget, on the first of every month: Rabbit, rabbit!
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