Furniture factories and stores of early Southeast
From the establishment of the town of Sellwood in 1883 – that lasted only a few years, until Sellwood found it more economical to become part of Portland – to the flourishing neighborhoods of Inner Southeast Portland today, our communities have been dependent on the support of their commercial districts. Many shops and industries have come and gone – ones that helped shape our metropolis into what it is today.
From the Oregon Worsted Woolen Mills, which employed over 300 people from 1910 to the 1960s, to the Sellwood Wash Company that provided new job opportunities for women in the 1920s until the Great Depression, many varied and innovative businesses have contributed to the growth and success of our part of the Rose City.
In 1910, when the Oregon Water Power and Railway decided to build a major Streetcar repair center at S.E. 13th Avenue and Linn Street, Sellwood had already been growing by leaps and bounds. The construction of the Sellwood Car Barns, as they were called, started an upsurge in population and construction, and brought new residents into the area. Many of the early boarding houses and family homes still remain, from Sherrett Street south to Ochoco, still surviving – at least for now – the ongoing push for new houses to replace the vintage bungalows and four-square homes. Those early dwellings, built between 1890 and the 1940s, are an important part of the heritage of all the neighorhoods of Inner Southeast.
Many of those who live in Southeast Portland today are part of the second and third generations of early residents who labored for much of their working lives at the Eastside Lumber Mill, at the foot of Spokane and Tacoma Streets, before there was a Sellwood Bridge. It was such an important business here -- until its closure around the time the bridge was built.
From the start of the 1960s, until well into this 21st Century, Sellwood has experienced a surge of renewed interest for residents and businesses alike. Both before and after the turn of the 21st Century, S.E. 13th Avenue was the region's "Antique Row", with every other house or commercial building along the street offering an antique shop or home décor store. With much of the antique business later shifting to online sales, a wider range of restaurants and businesses have replaced many of them on that street..
These are some of the businesses and districts that have been important to Inner Southeasat. But did you know that Westmoreland and Sellwood also hosted thriving furniture factories and furniture stores at one time? (And of course until recently, Woodstock was home to The Joinery, which continues the tradition of fine handcrafted furniture – albeit, now from the St. Johns neighborhood.)
In the early years, when Sellwood was still growing along the waterfront of the Willamette River, the sound of pounding hammers and the whine of band-saws could be heard echoing across the nascent community, coming from the lumber mill in the village of Willsburg.
And, located near the intersection of Tacoma Street and McLoughlin Boulevard in Southeast Portland, was the Shindler Furniture Manufacturing Company. It was here that Gabriel Shindler and his partner F.S. Chadbourne started manufacturing chamber suites, chairs, tables, and school furniture in their factory.
In 1877, Shindler and Chadbourne had purchased the furniture factory previously owned by Donly, Beard, and Powers, which had struggled for five years. Early furniture was simple and rather plain, and usually made of Oak to last a lifetime; but fancy store-bought chairs and tables in the last part of the 19th Century were just too expensive for the average household to afford.
So Gabriel Shindler decided to aim higher, for a market that had money – and to mass-produce furniture made from Northwest Oak, Maple, and Ash, catering to the upscale tier of Portland's residents on the west side of Portland, those he believed could afford to buy it. He also produced large quantities of office furniture that for stores, banks, schools, houses, hotels, and churches. He believed that prosperous businesses in Portland would need a lot of furniture, available in a timely manner.
For the elite on the west side, there were extravagantly-made chiffoniers, sideboards, scrolled hand-carved chairs, bedroom sets and parlor suite tables, sofas, and elegant furnishings previously only available on the East Coast or in San Francisco. Shindler specialized in custom orders, and customers were encouraged to browse in their showroom. Custom mantels, fancy doors, and metal screens and grilles made from copper or brass were also available – things that normally had to be ordered from a coppersmith or a metal expert.
Shindler made sure he had skilled artisans and wood carvers on his staff to turn out quality products for his clientele. No order was too big or small for the Shindler Furniture Company! In 1878, his factory built six hundred school desks, ordered by a school in Washington State; and, in the same year, he provided furnishings for the opening of two new hotels – one in The Dalles, and the other in Lewiston, Idaho.
By 1890, this factory boasted of an experienced workforce of over forty craftsmen, comprised mostly of cabinet makers, varnishers, and wood-turners. These workers made anywhere from two to three dollars a day – very good pay, during this era.
Shindler's partner Chadbourne was considered one of the largest furniture dealers in San Francisco, but Chadbourne began to lose interest in the Willsburg furniture business venture, especially since it appeared to be, for him, a small-time investment. Documents gathered from the Milwaukie Museum reveal that in 1882, after being paid $1,000 by Shindler for his portion of the land that the Furniture Factory stood on, Chadbourne returned to San Francisco. Further evidence of the end of the partnership was that Gabriel Shindler then installed his sons, Daniel A. and Dodd D., respectively, as Superintendent and Secretary of the Shindler Furniture Company.
For the next thirteen years, the Shindler Furniture Factory supplied furniture to the growing population and businesses of Portland and its surrounding communities. But, in 1895, the profits had disappeared, and it all came to a halt when the Shindler Furniture Factory went into to receivership – caused by a mounting debt caused by a financial panic of that time, and also by the influx of custom-made furniture from the East, flooding the markets on the West Coast and sold at a cheaper price than it could be produced in Oregon. So Gabriel Shindler retired to his vacation home in Long Beach, Washington, and the glory days of the Shindler Furniture Factory were in the past.
Meanwhile, in the community of Sellwood, George Albers began producing and selling chairs and tables from his new Sellwood Furniture Company at the foot of Umatilla Street. When the town of Sellwood had been established in 1883, real estate agent T. E. Woods wanted to reserve the river waterfront exclusively for industrial use – so he helped Albers set up his furniture factory there, and also convinced S.W. Brown to build a small saw and planing mill nearby.
Albers then could order wood directly and conveniently from Brown's sawmill, and save on the cost of transporting lumber to his factory. He only had to be concerned with the cost of shipping his furniture out by boat to his customers.
Since the Sellwood Furniture Company didn't produce furnishings as elaborate as those of the Shindler Company, its work crew produced simply-made chairs and tables – items that tended to be more suitable and affordable for the general public. Most wage-earner homes didn't have electricity or running water, then, and people often sat on benches, stools, or handmade furniture created from scraps of left-over lumber.
As living standards improved, people became able to buy a dining table, bed, or a chair or two. Experienced craftsmen at the Sellwood Furniture Company not only earned good wages, but were themselves able to buy goods from the factory floor at a discount. At other times, they'd be allowed to take home discarded slabs of wood from the company inventory, so they themselves could fashion their own fiddle-backed chair – or an ornate carved desk for their own personal use.
At the time, Portland had few fire regulations to combat fire hazards in the workplace. Dry wood stacked around the wooden factory shacks at the Sellwood Furniture Factory ignited on one memorable evening, and the building and its contents burned to the ground. Only two years after having become one of Sellwood's most promising businesses, the Sellwood Furniture Factory had met its end.
Members of the Sellwood Trade Board (a business association) were faced with the problem of how to replace the loss of the Shindler and the Sellwood furniture businesses – and the townspeople became even more nervous about the future of Sellwood when the Brown sawmill temporarily closed; but Jasper Young and Nils Sorenson took over that failing business and began building a profitable industry on the waterfront under the name of the Sorenson and Young Lumber Mill.
But disaster struck again when a major flood on the Willamette River occurred in 1894, closing every sawmill operating along the river. The entire Northwest was faced with a considerable shortage of lumber until the sawmills could recover from the damage inflicted on them by the flood. The Sorenson and Young Lumber Mill struggled to replace its lost machinery, but by 1900 it was forced to close because of not having enough capital available to finance rebuilding.
In 1903, John P. Miller purchased the damaged property of the Sorenson and Young Lumber Mill, and opened up the "Eastside Lumber Mill", employing 165 men, all of whom lived close to the mill.
Prior to that, on May 2, 1902, a grand celebration in Sellwood was held for the proprietors of the Portland Woolen Mills, which was now occupying the old Shindler grounds, and which was on the lookout to hire men and women for the start of this new manufacturing business.
A surge of young families moved to Westmoreland and Sellwood to operate the Spindle machines at the Oregon Worsted Company, or man the saws at the Eastside Lumber Mill. Settling in, the newcomers needed to furnish the new homes they had bought with modern furniture and amenities. The working middle class wanted the luxuries found in many elite homes on the west side of the river – especially furniture.
It was by this time normal to have furnishings bought that were appropriate to the different rooms of the house: "Hall trees" were used to hang umbrellas and outdoor wear in the entryway, while armoires were useful in the bedroom for hanging clothes – since few homes had large-enough closets available.
While furniture showrooms had become more accessible to the public, residents on the east side of town still had to travel by streetcar to view new beds, dressers, dining tables, and sofas for their homes. And, once a large piece of furniture was bought – such as a china cabinet, or a piano – the customer usually had to pay extra to have it shipped to their home and delivered inside. The arrival of a furniture delivery truck or wagon in the neighborhood certainly attracted a crowd of curious neighbors and young children.
Sellwood resident Harry Black established the Sellwood Furniture Company at 13th and Lexington in 1910. At this point, local residents didn't have to spend their busy weekends downtown shopping for household goods; shopping locally was becoming much easier. Harry advertised extensively in the THE BEE to attract customers – and oil stoves, bedroom sets, and dining tables tended to be his most-advertised products. One such ad suggested that smart housewives could buy a three-drawer princess dresser with an oval mirror and curved drawers, adorned with elegant carvings, for only $18.50.
Meantime, the Benton Furniture Company, near the corner of 13th Avenue and Umatilla, offered used and affordable furnishings for the working person, along with a "fine line of lawn mowers and oil stoves". Other businesses, like the T.F. Bridges Hardware and Furniture Store, offered complete home furnishings – but their advertisements for paints, wallpaper, and builders' supplies suggested that they were actually more of a hardware store than a true furniture emporium.
Living near a furniture business could have made many residents feel uneasy, actually, as it seems the City of Portland in those days had its share of harrowing fires. It wasn't uncommon to read how a shop full of wooden chairs, carpets, rugs, sawdust, varnish cleaners, and/or other flammable products had caught fire, and threatened to burn down an entire neighborhood.
On a Friday morning – September 6th, 1918 – Sellwood witnessed one such disastrous fire. Passengers waiting for the streetcar to arrive on 13th Avenue noticed smoke coming from the rear room of the Sellwood Furniture Company. Luckily, the Sellwood Fire Station was only one block down the street, and arrived within a few minutes. But, without a pump on hand, and with low water pressure from the hydrants, the spreading flames led the Fire Chief to call on six other fire stations to help.
Fire trucks and emergency vehicles responded from as far away as 35th and S.E. Belmont, and an old horse-drawn rig (the last of Portland's horse brigade) from the Woodstock neighborhood galloped in to help battle the flames. After the fire was contained, fearless spectators spent hours carrying the damaged stock from the charred building to a vacant store two blocks away. Evidently not many people worried about breathing dangerous fumes and smoke after a fire in those days.Harry Black decided not to reopen his Sellwood Furniture Store; either he was discouraged by the delays encountered in rebuilding, or else he just found a cheaper place to rent. He opened his new business, Black's Furniture Store, in Lents, at 92nd and S.E. Foster Road – although he and his wife continued to live in Sellwood.
However, by the following year, there was again a new furniture store in Sellwood, and a new owner – Charles Shaw – who unveiled his brand-new "Chas. Shaw Furniture Store", complete with a plate glass storefront.
For the next 30 years, Chas. Shaw was a successful furniture store on the southeast corner of 13th and S.E. Tacoma Street, luring motorists and commuters passing through the busy intersection.
By 1949 when the Shaw Furniture Store moved to Westmoreland, Charles' sons Robert and Kenneth had taken over the reins of "Chas. Shaw Furniture", and the store became a regular shopping destination until its final liquidation sale on January 30th, 1980, brought down the final curtain on the venerable business. That development led to Sellwood's pioneer furniture store owner, Harry Black, deciding to return from Lents to introduce "Black's In Sellwood" to the public – on the very same corner of 13th and Tacoma, but this time with his son Donald Black in control.
However, we have not yet been thorough covering this topic – because rom the 1920s through the 1950s, residents had other choices for new and used furniture in addition to Shaw's and Black's furniture stores. Just a few of these were Harvey's Furniture Exchange on 13th Avenue in Sellwood, in what is now Spencer's Antiques – and the Ideal Furniture Company, run by Frank Busch along 17th Avenue.And as we conclude our discussion, we must point out that there still is a furniture store open in Sellwood to this day – it's been in business for a quarter century now, and it has a familiar name: Sellwood Furniture. It's on S.E. 17th Avenue at Umatilla Street, adjacent to the railroad tracks and the Springwater Trail. These days you can buy furniture at a wide variety of stores around Portland…but nothing really beats "shopping local", does it?
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