SOUTHEAST HISTORY: First, there was the 'Bank of Sellwood'
Westmoreland residents have many banks to choose from these days, including the long-standing U.S Bank and Wells Fargo Bank branches near Milwaukie Avenue and Bybee Boulevard. Unitus Credit Union has a new branch on Bybee between Milwaukie and 15th; and Bank of America occupies the space once belonging to Benjamin Franklin Savings and Loan, across from the QFC Market, which itself was once Kienow's. A new branch of Chase Bank is under construction just north of that, on the corner of Milwaukie and Tolman.
For people to the south, in Sellwood, relatively new banking options are Umpqua Bank near Bidwell and 13th, across from the Sellwood Library – and, further south, at Tacoma Street and 13th, the OnPoint Credit Union conducts business in a two-story brick building with warm brown colors.
Those two banking institutions in Sellwood are, as mentioned, relatively new. Surprisingly, Sellwood was first in the neighborhood to have a bank. But previous to that, back in 1905, Sellwood was a prosperous community without any bank at all. By then, in the already-established community, the Sellwood Ferry "John F. Caples" was making daily trips to Portland, via the landing on Spokane Street; a new elementary school, Llewellyn, was opening in Westmoreland; and an early iteration of the Sellwood Library offered a bevy of books available for everyone to read.
Residents of Sellwood in 1905 didn't need to travel to the west side of the Willamette to make an appointment with a dentist or a doctor; there were plenty of those in the neighborhood. There also was a variety of pharmacies, shoe shops, meat markets, barbershops, and ladies' dress shops to equal any that could be found in Downtown Portland. Yet, it was still necessary to travel a considerable distance to do any banking. When it came to saving money, people of Sellwood unwilling to make the trip either had to hide it under their mattress, or bury it in the back yard.
Some of Sellwood's most successful businessmen – like David M. Donaugh, an established attorney, and John W. Campbell, who opened one of the first general stores on Umatilla Street – were concerned that Sellwood lacked its own bank. Together with Sand and Gravel magnate J. Nickum, they formed the "Sellwood Board of Trade", with the goal of expanding the commercial district of Sellwood, and making it a more desirable community.
Through their involvement with the Sellwood Business Association they had accomplished much already: Lobbying City of Portland officials for street improvements, demanding adequate sewers, and a sufficient water system. Still, when any merchant needed additional capital, or they themselves needed to borrow money for any new business venture, they had to rely on the decisions made by banks – and the men who owned thme – on the WEST side of the Willamette River.
Those who lived in the West Hills, or who owned businesses downtown, controlled most of the money. It was this privileged group of men who decided what decisions were to be made, and what funds would be made available, concerning the development of all parts of the city.
Even those on the east side of the river who had accumulated considerable wealth through their own entrepreneurial skills were not accorded the same respect in business circles as those on the other side of the Willamette.
The members of the Sellwood Board of Trade took a stand – insisting on the opening of a bank in their community; and by golly, they wanted it as soon as possible.
Pressure for a bank situated in East Portland increased after the Lewis and Clark World Exposition ended in Northwest Portland on October 14, 1905. During the Expo's four- month run, over 1.5 million visitors from across the country and around the world came to enjoy the show, and admire the city; and the population of Portland nearly doubled overnight. Many who came here for the very first time were so enchanted with this part of the country that they decided to move here permanently, and many picked Sellwood to settle down in.
The members of the Sellwood Board of Trade knew now was the time to push hard for the opening of a community-owned bank.
With a capital investment of $30,000, the Board had a good start for a bank, but who would be the administrator? Sellwood needed a banker that was trustworthy, one who was willing to live in the neighborhood, and could relate to the merchants and people who lived east of the Willamette River.
The job search skipped bankers on the west side; but it ranged further than anyone had expected. Peter Hume, a 66-year-old founder of the Brownsville Bank, in the little hamlet of Brownsville, Oregon, south of Salem, was offered the job. Born on the Island of Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, Canada, Peter had settled in Brownsville, where he first partnered with Thomas Kay to establish the Brownsville Woolen Mills in 1873. Later, he helped start the Brownsville Bank – but then briefly left to live in Roseburg. But Peter returned to Brownsville – where he was again asked to be the bank's President.
Why Peter chose Sellwood for his next move, or how he happened to be chosen from such a considerable distance, are unknown. Peter was an outstanding member of the Brownsville "Mason" fraternity, so it's possible he was approached by fellow members in Sellwood during a state convention, at which all Mason Lodge Members in Oregon met and socialized. Or, he might have felt that he had fulfilled all he could do in Brownsville, and was looking afar for his next big challenge.At any rate, when Peter was formally invited to pay a visit to Sellwood, he must have been quite impressed by the community's leaders. Not only did he move here with his family – two sons, four daughters, and his wife – he also convinced his brother-in-law to buy and operate the Umatilla Meat Market on S.E. Umatilla Street – and he helped back him in the venture.
With a Bank President engaged, the next step for the Sellwood leaders was to create the bank itself. They found a suitable lot in Sellwood, and begin construction in 1906.
Peter Hume desired a bank building different in appearance from all the other shops in the commercial district. He wanted a structure that signified – in a glance – security, beauty, and confidence that money deposited in the bank would be well-invested, and would give customers a profitable return in interest.
The decision was made to acquire a 36 by 60 foot lot in the heart of Sellwood, at the southeast corner of Umatilla Street and 13th Avenue, beside the streetcar tracks. The firm of Gibson and Paradise was commissioned to construct an ornate two-story building. Skilled bricklayers were hired to create an exterior of light tan brick, in a unique pattern all its own. Large windows were set on the sides of the bank facing the two streets at the intersection, with multi-paned transom windows overhead. A hand-carved pediment over the double-glass entryway welcomed customers, and a continuous row of large "dental moulding" under the overhang of the roof showcased the building's architecture. The upper floors contained four offices and three residential apartments, which provided supplemental income for the bank.
A time-lock vault was installed in the building, and a hand-painted scene of Mt. Hood was commissioned for the front of the safe in the basement.
During construction, temporary quarters were set up to initiate banking transactions in the next block, in the Odd Fellows Hall on Tenino Street, across from the Sellwood Fire House (which is now SMILE Station).
On April 1, 1907, the bank was officially declared open for business. Peter's son Clair was the head cashier, and his daughter Alice was the bookkeeper. Some of Sellwood's most prominent businessmen were among the Directors on the Board charged with operating the bank. Peter Hume was President; David Donaugh, Vice President; John Campbell, Secretary; and J.M. Nickum and Theodore Nolf served as Directors at-large.
Early merchants locating on the south side of the new bank building were the Sellwood Barber Shop (a/k/a "Trites Barber Shop"), and the Sellwood Post Office. The Sellwood Commercial Club rented rooms above the bank for club activities and meetings for a time – until club members voted to have a private clubhouse built adjacent to the bank. Dr. John William Lehman also started his family dentistry business upstairs, renting one of the available offices on the second floor.
Residents were initially cautious about depositing their money in a bank they weren't familiar with, and business was slow – with only six to eight customers a day venturing into the bank lobby. But Peter Hume developed a reputation for honesty and affability, and began canvassing the neighborhood, attending community functions, joining local fraternal groups, and socializing at church get-togethers. Peter was also a lead figure in the start-up of the Sellwood Masons' Lodge. He was a speaker at local business clubs, and spent his free time visiting merchants in their shops along the commercial district.
It wasn't long before the community embraced the Hume family and their bank, and in the following years the Bank of Sellwood became the pride of the community. But, eight years after the bank opened, Peter Hume passed away – and the Sellwood bank once again found itself needing a leader. L.H. Alexander, who had originally been hired as an accountant, and had recently married Peter's daughter Alice, was selected by the Board to be the new President of the bank.
The influence of the Hume family in the Bank of Sellwood continued, as Alice was named the top bookkeeper, and Joseph Hume was elected Vice President of Operations.
As the population of the neighborhood grew, so did the bank. Big industries like the Oregon Water Power and Railway and the Eastside Lumber Mill had large payrolls, and the majority of the bank's new customers were employees of theirs, as were employees of the Oregon Worsted Mills, which began operation in 1919.
The working class wanted a bank they could depend on, one near where they lived, since traveling downtown by streetcar or boat to do their banking downtown would have been an all-day chore. With all of its amenities, and with the Bank of Sellwood close by, residents could now bank quickly, and spend more of their free time pursing leisure activities.
The danger of thieves and cheats always lurks in the banking business, and in 1911 a very sophisticated robbery was attempted by a lone man. After the bank had closed for the day, the would-be robber broke into the Sellwood Barbershop on the south side of the bank building. Once inside, he proceeded to the basement, which ran the length of the bank building. There he cut a hole through the bank floor, and used a ladder to climb up into the bank and hide under a desk – waiting until the bank clerk arrived in the morning to open the doors for business.
But the janitor was instead the first to arrive, and he was instantly bound and gagged, and thrown to the floor. The janitor, who was 72 years old, thought he was going to die; he was told to lie motionless for what seemed to him to be an eternity. Once the morning bookkeeper finally arrived, the intruder proved unable to surprise the clerk, and both men became embroiled in a struggle – until the bank employee was able to free himself and run to call the police. Fearful of being caught, the thief thenran off in a panic, but was soon caught by a local patrolman.
This was one of only a few attempts by burglars to steal money from the Bank of Sellwood, and all of them failed.
In the 1920s, business was booming in Sellwood as well as the newer district of Westmoreland. The businesses along 13th Avenue had increased tenfold, and the opening of the original Sellwood Bridge in 1925 made access to the businesses in both halves of the neighborhood easier. Travel by gas-powered cars and trucks was becoming the most common means of getting around, and Milwaukie Avenue and Tacoma Street were replacing the former commercial district down Umatilla Street. Bank officials figured it was time to move – and, what better place to move to, than the white brick building on the northwest corner of 13th Avenue and Tacoma Street (where OnPoint Credit Union is now). It proved to be a most beneficial move.
But the Bank of Sellwood's true test came in 1929, when the New York Stock Exchange crashed, rippling across businesses throughout the nation, and throwing the country and the world into the "Great Depression".
Some banks around the U.S. had unwisely invested too much money from their reserves in the stock market, and suddenly did not have the funds needed to support loans, and to pay interest owed to their customers.
On top of that, the farming industry in the Midwest heartland was simultaneously hit with drought, causing crop failure, and creating the "dust bowl"; and many farmers couldn't repay their loans to their local banks.
Rumors of bank shortages abounded nationally and locally, and panic set in; customers hurried to their own banks in hopes of withdrawing their savings before the banks ran out of cash. Just one day after the Wall Street crash, bank officials everywhere were faced with long lines of people, queued up and down the street and around the corner, waiting for the banks to open. For those banks who had enough cash on hand to satisfy their panicky customers, it was just a long day at the office – while the less-provident banks were forced to close for good, never to open again.
By the end of 1932, over a quarter of the labor force was unemployed and some 9,000 banks in the United States had closed, taking their customers' savings and investments with them. In Downtown Portland, the Hibernia Bank – the city's sixth-largest bank – had closed, and U.S. National Bank and the First National Bank were rumored to be on shaky financial ground.
At that time, the lobby of the Bank of Sellwood might have looked like a scene from Bailey's Savings and Loan in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" – with customers demanding to cash out their accounts. But the bank continued to meet all such demands.
On March 6th, 1932, newly-elected President Franklin D Roosevelt declared a nationwide "banking holiday", and all banks still open were ordered temporarily closed. The "Emergency Banking Act" was hastily approved by Congress, and all banks were evaluated to see if they were solvent enough to open back up. Those allowed to reopen were newly-backed by the just-created "Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation" (FDIC), a government agency that still insures bank deposits, and that ended the national panic.
Once the bank holiday was over, Bank of Sellwood President L.H. Alexander boasted to the public that the bank was on firm ground. An advertisement was wisely placed in the local newspapers, stating that the Bank of Sellwood had passed their audit by financial regulators, and now was accepting additional deposits from satisfied customers.
They'd passed the test, but the strain of the banking panic was too much for Lewis and Alice Alexander. Though they had paid back every depositor, they both decided they no longer wanted the responsibility of running a bank full-time any more, and it was time to sell.
In 1938 the Alexanders were bought out by the Trans-American Company, an affiliate of the First National Bank of Portland; and the name was soon changed to the "Moreland-Sellwood Bank" to better associate itself with the community. On July 21st, 1946, officials of the First National decided to build a new, modern bank in Westmoreland (across from today's Relish Gastropub, on Milwaukie Avenue). Their innovations included a drive-by bank window, and a large parking lot – since busy residents now relied on cars for all their shopping and banking.
In 1952, the "Moreland-Sellwood Bank" became a dedicated branch of the First National Bank Group, which included over 66 banking facilities in Oregon. Eventually the Moreland-Sellwood Bank was again renamed – first becoming the First Interstate Bank in the 1980s, and later a branch of Wells Fargo Bank, which it remains today.
However, returning to the original bank at 13th and Umatilla, when the Bank of Sellwood had made its initial move north two blocks to Tacoma Street in 1925, new businesses began moving into its former building. Some of them were a grocery store, a bike shop, and a variety of antique stores. Dentists and doctors new to the neighborhood continued to rent those upstairs offices, and other upstairs renters included everything from furniture refinishers and a portrait studio to a real estate office – and even a little local sandwich shop once called The Black Cat Café, which later moved kitty-corner and became the Black Cat Tavern (it was recently replaced by a large apartment building).The iconic Sellwood ("Trites") Barber Shop, which began cutting hair in 1907, remained a tenant in that former bank building for over 60 years. Most recently, the building has hosted a desk-rental service for the convenience of the area's many home businesspeople.
But today, much as it was back in 1907, the first "Bank of Sellwood" building, at Umatilla and S.E. 13th, still stands as one of the most impressive buildings on S.E. 13th Avenue: A piece of living history, available to anyone who has yet to visit it.
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