Remembering Inner Southeast in the 1950s
If you remember old time Rock 'n Roll, or danced the jitterbug, or spent your teen years hanging out at the drive-in restaurants wearing men's top-siders (saddle shoes for girls), then you clearly grew up in the 1950's.
It was a time when cat eyeglasses, charm bracelets, and penny loafers were in style – and young folks might respond "see you later, alligator", or "what's your tale, nightingale", in casual conversation. Boys wore butch wax in their hair; girls had pony tails.
In Westmoreland, "Mile High Oxfords" were on sale for $9.99 at the Men's Toggery, near S.E. Claybourne and Milwaukie Avenue.
It was a new horizon for Americans who had weathered the strife and horrors of World War II and were now in a new decade with a sense of better days to come. Although there was optimism in the air, and that's what we best remember now, it was also a time that was under a nuclear shadow, and we'll recall that, as well, shortly.
New businesses in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood included radio-TV and record shops, embracing the new technology of this era. Everyone wanted a television at home, and if your parents could afford one they were on display at McKernan's Radio and Television Shop in Westmoreland. If they couldn't, you usually tried to invite yourself over to the home of a neighbor who owned one.
And early television seemed magic. Saturdays became family time, watching TV. Some of the leading TV programs were "I love Lucy", "Perry Mason", "The Lone Ranger", and "Gunsmoke". Families could have dinner in front of the "tube", using TV trays that could be purchased at Shaw's Furniture Store on Milwaukie Avenue. These metal fold up tables allowed people the ease of eating a hot meal from the comfort of their own living room, while watching their favorite show at the same time.
You could purchase a television set for between $200 and $300, but televisions then were entirely "black and white". Furniture stores advertised that most of their sets were equipped with two-knob controls, so that customers could easily tune their TV – there was no remote control in those days – but they didn't mention the inconvenience and expense of dealing with a television set that contained as many twenty-three vacuum tubes, all of which could burn out and need replacement. Today, people often just throw away a TV that stops working, and buy a new one. But back in the 1950s, if your set wasn't working, you were expected to pull all the tubes out from inside the set (taking care to chart where each one came from so you could put them back correctly), and take them carefully to either N-D Electric Radio and Appliance, or Bybee Radio and Electric, for testing on their tube testing machines. Then you could find and buy a replacement for any that were "burnt out". If the TV still didn't work, it had to be serviced by a technician at either of these stores. At least help was nearby.
Folks in Westmoreland were overjoyed when the Sellwood-Moreland Post Office opened after moving north from 13th Avenue Sellwood to two blocks south of Bybee Boulevard; it was less convenient to Sellwood residents but certainly more accessible to Westmorelanders. It wouldn't be until 1963 until it moved again to its current location at S.E. 16th Avenue and Bybee, where a house had to be demolished to make room for it.
But still, there lingered that shadow of nuclear war.
The term "Cold War" came into common use in the 1950s, after both the United States and the Soviet Union gained the capability to build quantities of atomic and hydrogen bombs. Tensions built between political leaders in both countries, and the threat of nuclear war was an ever-present concern for Americans. Civil defense and devising protection from nuclear fallout were major concerns, and evacuation plans were in place for Southeast Portland residents to be rushed down McLoughlin Boulevard (Highway 99E) to the town of Canby, if needed for immediate protection.Kenneth Pinnon was named the public relations officer by the National Civil Defense Administration, and he was expecting between 25 and 30 volunteers per neighborhood to help with evacuation plans. How they were planning on evacuating so many residents in such a small amount of time when an incoming bomb was enroute was never explained in detail. The government was counting on homeowners to build their own bomb shelter, and how-to booklets were available for those wanting to build one inthe basement or in the backyard. Few people ever went to the trouble of building an underground shelter, however.
But, with nuclear disaster on everyone's mind, at all elementary schools – including Llewellyn and Duniway – students were taught the "Duck and Cover" maneuver when air raid sirens around the city went off. Practice drills were common.
People in the Northwest at the time were relatively unaware of the treatment elsewhere in the country of people of color. In the American south, Blacks weren't even allowed into movie theaters that whites patronized, and public outdoor drinking fountains and restrooms were segregated by the color of your skin. Portlanders patted themselves on the back that their city was civilized and non-discriminating, but if you were an African American living in the Portland, there was de-facto discrimination, if it was not a matter of official policy – you could apparently only buy or rent a house in certain sections of the city. Few residents seemed to notice that the majority of young African Americans attending schools in Portland were enrolled at Jefferson High School.
In 1957, Oregon initiated the State Fair Housing Act, to keep real estate agents from discriminating against people of color; but some neighborhoods seemed to discourage selling property to African Americans. The State of Oregon passed a statute in 1953 making it illegal for restaurants or hotels to turn away a person based on their race, but that still didn't then bring an end to practices that amounted to de-facto racism.
Native Americans even fared worse. In 1954, Congress terminated 109 Native American Tribes, of which there were 62 in Oregon. All of the Tribes lost the land they held, money they were entitled to, and also a large part of their culture. It would take decades before they could raise the money for legal action and win back in court some of the Tribal land they'd owned and the needed financial support that was promised from treaties signed by Congress and tribal leaders decades before.
On a lighter note, going to the Drive-In movies was a great family treat, and the public became enthralled with movie stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, and Marilyn Monroe. Inner Southeast had a smattering of Drive-Ins which included the Super 99 in Oak Grove on McLoughlin Blvd, Sandy Drive In at 92nd and N.E. Sandy Boulevard, the Powell Drive-In at S.E. 90th and Powell. A Drive-In movie meant an evening of entertainment, and if you didn't bring your own food, then popcorn, candy, coffee, and ice-cold drinks could be purchased at the snack shack which was usually situated in the middle of the parking area. Swings and a slide were set up under the movie screen for restless children to play on before dark and the screen lit up for the show.
Dick Clark's Saturday network TV show, American Bandstand, was no less popular in Inner Southeast than anywhere else – enticing local teenagers into copying the dance steps they saw on TV, and spending hard-earned allowances on buying hit songs on 45-r.p.m. records, initially for for as little as 25 cents at the Westmoreland Monarch Drugstore on the corner of Bybee Boulevard and S.E. Milwaukie Avenue. For those in Sellwood, Livingston's Pharmacy at Umatilla and S.E. 13th Avenue was the hot spot for records, as well as soda pops and teen magazines. By the end of the 1950s, those 45s were selling better than ever, but now usually cost close to a dollar.At least one of your friends in that era would have a plastic portable record player with a big spindle for playing 45s, to provide hours of fun. Teenagers still socialized at Dell and Dollies on Tacoma Street after the movie was over at Moyer's Sellwood Movie theaters, but Drive-In movies for teens had become the new cool place to go.
Cleveland and Franklin High Students hurried home after school to hear the latest hits on KISN from Elvis Presley, "Don't Be Cruel", or Buddy Holly and the Crickets with, "That'll Be the Day". Other jukebox hits played at Cleveland High's cafeteria included, "Bye Bye Love" by the Everly Brothers, and the romantic tune "I Only Have Eyes for You" by the Flamingos. February 3, 1959, was a day of profound sorrow for teens in Inner Southeast, and nationally, with the shocking news that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens ("Donna"), and J.P. Richardson, the Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace") had all died, while touring, in a private plane crash near Mason City, Iowa.
Friday night football and basketball games attracted hordes of young people who came to cheer for the home team. All of the students who attended the games were just as excited for their school team to win as they were to attend the dance right after the final whistle was blown. Dances were held in the school gym or cafeteria, and the opposing fans and players were just as anxious to show up and meet a pretty girl or get to dance with her on the polished gym floor.
If there wasn't a dance that night, the next stop for teenagers was any of the many drive-in restaurants in the neighborhood. Teens flocked to their favorite – like the Tik-Tok on Burnside and N.E. Sandy, or Yaw's Top Notch on N.E. 40th. Perennial favorites among students included the Speck Drive-In at 50th and S.E. Foster, and Rutherford's Triple XXX Burger joint on S.E. 82nd Avenue.
Adults looking to socialize could stop in at a tavern down the street. The Cozy Tavern and the Black Cat offered pool games and shuffleboard, along with sandwiches and cocktails. The Penguin Pub on 17th Avenue at Tacoma offered Taco Tuesdays and a bottle of beer, while the Yukon Tavern was a well-visited establishment in Westmoreland. A neon sign beckoned thirsty drivers to stop in at the Lutz Tavern at 46th and S.E. Woodstock Boulevard. Other taverns in the area included the Ship Ahoy, on S,E. Gladstone Street, and Lucky's Tavern along S.E. Powell Boulevard at 21st.
For housewives, a dazzling array of modern goods and appliances were available in department stores to help save time with household tasks. Washers and dryers and electric refrigerators could be bought on payment plans, even though many households in Inner Southeast still stuck with the old-style ice box for a while. But pop-up toasters, plastic two-tone can openers that sat on top of the counter, and hair dryers were some of the new modern conveniences for the home in the 1950's.
Black's Home Furnishers in Sellwood offered a new concept in cleaning the house: A "Tank Cleaning Outfit" (known now as a vacuum cleaner) which, with the flip of a switch and boasting easy-to-roll wheels now allowed an easier way of cleaning the floors – although the early machines were pretty heavy to lug from room to room. These machines included up to nine attachments – among them an adjustable spray gun, a venetian blind cleaner, an eight-foot floor hose, two wands, a floor and wall brush, a dusting brush, a de-mothing container (used to sterilize against moths), up to twelve dust bags, and a suction duster.
Christmas was an exciting time for small children, because parents were encouraged by TV ads to buy advertised toys. Parents wanted their kids to have the clothes and toys they'd never had when they were young. A visit to Brill's Dry Goods store on S.E. 13th Avenue or Grahams Five Ten and Twenty-five cent Store on Milwaukie Avenue presented a large variety children's merchandise: Tonka Toy trucks, train sets, Erector sets, tinker toys, and electronic race-car sets were preferred by boys. Hula Hoops, jump ropes, Barbie Dolls, and metal kitchen sets were a favorite of girls on Christmas morning.
Youngsters like David Hopkins who lived on Tenino Street in Sellwood lived every hour of the day on the bicycle he'd received from his parents. Indeed, almost every boy in Inner Southeast in the 1950s had a two-wheeler of some kind – not only for fun and mobility, but to use in a job delivering newspapers, or picking up groceries for their moms. Also, of course, for weekend excursions and adventures and any other trip that seemed interesting to a young boy.
When summer arrived, the dads continued a tradition of their parents and grandparents – fishing the Willamette River. Baseball games at Sellwood Park drew large crowds; and the amusement rides at Oaks Park, perhaps including picnicking there with the family, could be a day of fun.
The start of spring always included a visit to Staff Jennings Boat Shop at the west end of the Sellwood Bridge. Here men could have their lawn mowers tuned up or repaired, or could window-shop a speed boat they might own someday. Independence Day, July 4th, was a special day, as neighbors either made an evening of it at the fireworks show at Oaks Park, or else gathered along Sellwood Boulevard to watch the evening's fireworks display from afar. Of course, children who grew up in Inner Southeast fondly remember swimming at the Sellwood Pool. With so many kids paying daily admission to what was Portland's first public outdoor swimming pool, someone passing by might think there were more bodies than water in it.
Automobiles were a very important part of society in the 1950s, and almost everyone owned one to get to work or for pleasure drives in the Columbia Gorge or for weekend jaunts to the Oregon Coast. Portland had over two hundred service stations within the city limits then, as listed in the city directory; and it seemed like there was one on almost every neighborhood corner. Along Woodstock Boulevard, drivers had an option of stopping in at the Moreland Heights Mobile Service, Woodstock Signal Station, or at the Red Star of Carl's Texaco Station.
Gas stations were known as "service stations" then – and the reason was that gas attendants not only filled your tank with gasoline, but they also checked the oil and water levels in your car, added air to your tires if they were low, washed your windshield, and handed you a few strips of green stamps along with your receipt. And if you saved those S&H Green Stamps and pasted them in booklets, you could trade them in small appliances, furniture, or an assortment of accessories for your home at the local Green Stamp store.
Tacoma Street, from 17th Avenue to the Sellwood Bridge, was the hot spot for motorists during the 1950's. Those on that strip who serviced vehicles were Montgomery's Service Station, Hudson Oil and Gas, and Hatcher's Chevron, as well as the Riverside Gas Station near the Bridge entrance.
Barbershops had been as prevalent in the 1920s as coffee shops and medicinal marijuana shops are today – but by the start of the 1950s, men didn't visit barbershops as much as they once did. Those old barber shops were being replaced by ladies' beauty shops. Many beauty shops occupied old storefronts that once hosted a barber shop. There was the Community Beauty Shop, the Sellwood Beauty Shop, Sara Jayne's Beauty Shop on Milwaukie Avenue, and Mildred Ann's or Lota's Beauty Shops on the corner of S.E. Bybee and Milwaukie.
We've tried to convey here not only the good things that are associated with the 1950s, but some of the bad things as well. Certainly, racial discrimination and fears of nuclear war were among the bad things. But memory tends to blur the traumas and amplify the good times; and many who grew up during the 1950s in Inner Southeast Portland today look back on it as a time of opportunity, of new expectations, of prosperity, and the origins of the "American Dream".
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