The history behind Sellwood's 'American at Heart'
Joan Blomberg faced a frightening decision in 1967. With only seven dollars and fifty cents in her pocket, she took the leap, and decided to pursue a new career.
With her trifling investment, she became a door to door Avon representative – and, from her proceeds in that business, she purchased woodworking equipment that would later be used to remodel her house, repurpose furniture, and eventually even get into the antique business.
It's not easy to look back on our childhood and try to pinpoint exactly what inspired us to choose the career path we followed. Some of us know at an early age what profession we want to pursue – be it an astronaut, singer, nurse, or doctor – but others don't begin even to think about it until they graduate from high school, or head off to college.
But, for Joan, I believe she was one who knew at an early age. While only seven or eight, Joan's favorite pastime was visiting retail stores. A favorite was the Sellwood Five and Dime store on S.E. 13th Avenue at Umatilla Street. There she spent hours patrolling the aisles, looking at the assortment of merchandise – from biscuit cutters to paper dolls, miniature soaps to purses, and cheap jewelry. "I couldn't afford to buy anything," smiled Joan in our recent interview. "But I liked to just walk up and down the aisles to admire all of the treasures."
What was even more impressive to a young girl like Joanie was the unique cashier system at the Five and Ten. The financial office was located on the second floor balcony of the building, and Joan watched in amazement as a customer's cash or check was placed in a canister on the ground floor, and whisked upstairs on a wire to the cashier. A receipt for the customer's purchase was placed back into the canister, and after its equally fast return trip downstairs, it was handed to the departing customer.
Thirty years later, Joan would open her own version of a variety store in Sellwood – the "American at Heart" shop – but, with a grander style and wider appeal, even though it was located only 50 yards from the former location of that same Sellwood Five and Dime store that she remembered as a child.
Joan was raised by her parents, Earl and Rose Scofield, in Sellwood in the 1940s and 50s. When Joan's father, Earl Scofield, was discharged from the Navy, he married Rose Webber – and, with her father lacking much money to find a house to rent, Joan's grandmother Elizabeth graciously offered to let the couple and their daughter stay with her in her small bungalow near S.E. Bidwell and 13th Avenue. Although Joan didn't know too much about the struggles her grandparents had gone through to get into this country, she did know that her grandmother had escaped from Hungry in 1915, during the unrest in Europe which led to World War I.
Like many other immigrants who ventured halfway around the world for a new life in the United States of America, Elizabeth had been briefly interned at Ellis Island in New York, and after that she eventually made her way to Portland, where she settled and started a family. After the children grew up and left home, her husband died, and Elizabeth found Sellwood to be a peaceful place to retire. These were the carefree times in Sellwood, explained Joan – when electric buses traveled down 13th Avenue, children hiked the "monkey trail" down to Oaks Bottom and Oaks Park, and young people spent their lazy summer days in the Sellwood Pool.
But, for the Scofields, times remained tight; they had little left over to spend on luxuries such as a bicycle or scooter for Joan. Rarely did she get the chance to see movies at the Moreland Theater, either; or to buy sodas at one of the local confectionaries, as her other friends did.But, what little money the family did have was earned by her father – as a welder for the Pacific Chain Company in Scappoose. Most of his days would be spent at his job, and then there was the time spent traveling to and from work, leaving him limited time to spend with his family at home.
One of Joan's biggest thrills during childhood was taking part in the Meier and Frank Christmas Parade in Downtown Portland. Young Joanie, dressed up as Little Bo Peep, marched in a costume obtained from the Sellwood Community Center; and her parents bought her a pull-along sheep toy to follow behind her over the entire parade route. "Gosh, I wish I had that toy sheep today! I loved that little toy," she recalled recently to THE BEE.
During the 1950s, Portland's Christmas Parade also included a visit to Santaland at that big department store downtown. The parade was held on the day after Thanksgiving, and those who were invited to be part of the celebration had to walk the three miles of the parade route. That was quite a trek for a young girl her age, but Joan's memories of the event were of the presents she received – more so than how tired her feet were after the parade.
Every child in the Sellwood area at the time had a favorite store from which to buy penny candy – be it the Soder Brothers convenience store across from the Sellwood Pool, Bartos Confectionary at S.E. 17th Avenue at Tacoma, or Harpers Confectionary next to the Moreland Theater on Milwaukie Avenue, just north of Bybee.
Farley's grocery store at 13th and S.E. Miller Street was where Joan spent what little she had earned from babysitting. Later, when she was old enough, one of her first jobs included selling the then-weekly BEE newspaper door to door. An annual subscription cost customers $3.50 per year then, and the money she earned in this job usually went to purchasing chewy walnut caramels at Farley's customer counter.
Her visits to Farley's ceased when she unexpectedly received roller skates as a Christmas present from her parents. The Oaks Park Skating Rink became her new destination – a place to skate, and to socialize with new friends. Of course, during breaks from skating, she would deploy her nickels and dimes at the Oaks' snack counter for candy, popcorn, and refreshments.
School days were spent at St. Agatha's Catholic School, from which she graduated in 1956. And, while she wasn't involved then with many sleepovers or shared time with other girls in after-school activities, nowadays she does gather for monthly afternoon luncheons with past St. Agatha classmates.
As we sat for our interview in the rocking chairs that grace the outside entryway of her American at Heart store, Joan excitedly recalled other notable events in the neighborhood. . .
McKernan's Radio and Television Shop put a television set in their display window, and the store owner made sure it was turned on, to attract potential buyers walking by. Few people could afford a TV set then, and most anyone passing by would stop to watch the show being broadcast. "Their window display attracted a lot of residents," recalled Joan with a chuckle.
After graduating high school from St. Mary's of the Valley, Joan enlisted in the Navy, where she was a yeoman and ran the print room at the Naval Weapons Station Annex in Charleston, South Carolina. This was around the time of the start of the Vietnam War in 1964, and also around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the U.S. and the Soviet Union locked in a "Cold War", hostilities escalated when the Russians attempted to set up a nuclear missile base in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy countered by establishing a military blockade around the island, and ordered the Soviet Union to dismantle and remove all the missiles, which they eventually with reluctance did.
The Naval Weapons Annex, which was in charge of handling guided missiles, was in total lockdown during the entire Cuban Missile Crisis, Joan explained, and none of the soldiers was permitted to leave the base until the emergency was over.
In 1969, Joan stepped into a new chapter of her life. She met her future husband, Ron Blomberg; and, after their honeymoon, they moved to the State of Washington, where Ron worked in the engineering department at Freightliner Trucks. Together they rented a dilapidated pioneer barn and house in Felida, an unincorporated community on the outskirts of Vancouver, Washington. The rent was seventy-five dollars a month.
One of the unique features of that house was the dirt basement underneath it – it was filled with three to four feet heaps of dead flies which had accumulated there over the years. The couple had the house jacked up, the flies removed, and a new foundation poured. Using Joan's wood-crafting equipment, walls were torn down, windows were replaced, and the salvageable wood inside the house was sandpapered, stained, and polished. The sales she'd made from her Avon business helped pay for the remodeling bills.
In the refurbished home, Blomberg family life centered on raising son Patrick and stepson John, and it was during this time that Joan began collecting furniture, lamps, rugs, and other antique household goods that she could resell at annual collectors' shows. Her first antiques business, called Country Living Antiques, was begun with the large inventory of furniture she'd accumulated at the farmhouse until she was ready to set up a booth at the Christmas bazaars, the summertime antique events, and at indoor mall shows across the Northwest
On the weekends, Joan was away from the farmhouse attending shows or buying additional antiques at garage and estate sales in the area – and during the weekdays she tended to the garden, fixed meals for the boys, cut back the thickets of blackberry bushes, and raised calves. She was definitely a décor lady during the day, and a hustling and herding cowgirl in the evening.
Using her creative skills and resourcefulness, Joan would saddle-up her Volkswagen Bus and head out to the nearest farm auction to buy a calf or two. The passenger seat had to be removed to make room for the livestock, and Joan boasted that both calf and driver arrived back at the Felida farmhouse safely, with no unfortunate incidents inside or out. Blomberg calves were raised in the pasture at their farm, and later sold profitably. A picture of one of her favorite bovines, Jeremy, can be found at the entrance to the bathroom door in her "American at Heart" store to this day.
But, on one occasion, there was an unfortunate incident. Joan had been asked by a neighbor to look after one of his prize bulls while he left for the weekend, and Joan figured it should be as simple as babysitting children during her early Sellwood days. Joan wasn't counting on the bull getting loose in the farmer's field, which it did. When she attempted to retrieve the stray animal and herd it back home, the bull had other ideas, and Joan ended up being dragged through blackberry bushes before the bull finally started back towards its barn. The Blombergs slowly ended their calf-raising career after that.
After fourteen years, the constant strain and demand of setting up and breaking down at trade shows, and traveling hither and yon, became tiresome – and Joan began looking for a store in which to showcase her home décor. In 1986 she found the perfect spot – a small brick storefront with 1,000 square feet of space for rent, which used to host a wicker shop, in the heart of the Sellwood's antique district. It was located at a reasonable commute from her Washington home, where she and Ron still live.
This structure, at the corner of S.E. Tenino and 13th Avenue, built in 1910 during the streetcar era, was distinguished by its history of past owners. For six years, Archie G. Woolworth ran a confectionary on this corner, until he decided that moving to the Brooklyn neighborhood would attract him more customers. F.H. Maulding and J.G. Noble were next to take over the Sellwood candy store, and it became widely known by every child in the community as the Sellwood Sweet Shop. Everything from candy to ice cream, cool refreshments to sandwiches, and even greeting cards, could be bought at the Sweet Shop. Fine cigars and tobacco were also available for the older patrons.
But time marches on, and once soft drinks could be bottled and ice cream sold in pints and quart containers, shoppers began to get them at the corner grocery store, and fewer and fewer people paid a visit to the neighborhood candy shop. Hard liquor and mixed drinks replaced candy and soft drinks, and taverns and cocktail bars began showing up in the community. In 1943, the Cozy Club Bar opened up for business in the Sellwood Sweet Shop's space, and later it was renamed the Cozy Tavern.
Times continued to change, and by the 1960s small markets and grocery stores along 13th Avenue were being replaced by antique shops, second hand stores, and furniture refinishing establishments. It wasn't long before 13th Avenue was crowned the "Antique Row" of Portland.
By the 1980s, the barstools, cheap beer, and rowdy customers of the Cozy Tavern were replaced by wicker furniture, bamboo bedroom sets, and hanging rattan chairs. And in 1986 the wicker store gave way to Joan's "American at Heart" store, which still stands there today.
Joan had been a rental tenant in the building for a decade; but in 1996 she was able to buy the entire building, allowing her to display additional merchandise upstairs, after the upstairs tenant – a massage parlor – moved across the Willamette River. She next expanded her business into the rest of the downstairs, when her ground-floor tenant one day just up and disappeared. She knocked down the wall between the two storefronts to give herself more floor space and easier access to the upstairs section of the store.
Today, shoppers can find objects in "American at Heart" that can't be found in other parts of Portland. Her store is stacked with arcane memorabilia – tavern signs from Virginia; porcelain eggs from Texas; cinnamon-scented rose hips; and canning crocks and Shaker furniture – many such items usually only available in the east.
You can even try luscious walnut caramels in her shop – in remembrance of the candies she once bought at Farley's Grocery in Sellwood in her childhood.
If you have never been to the "American at Heart" store, take a stroll down 13th Avenue to Tenino Street, and stop at the storefront where the American flag is flying. You'll know Joan right away – she'll be the lady waving from the front of her store, sitting in a high back rocker, with an infectious laugh that you'll always remember.
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