Fraternal groups, secret societies and Dancing Ladies of Sellwood
Immigrants made up a large portion of Portland's population during the late Nineteenth Century, and most of the newcomers lived east of the Willamette River.
Scandinavians, Italians, Finns, Norwegians, Germans, and Greeks â€“ most were boys and men â€“ they all came to America to make their fortune, with plans then to return to their homeland where they could start a new family â€“ if they didn't already have a family waiting for their return.
In Portland, these men worked most of the jobs that Americans turned down: Boilermakers, bakers, woodworkers, papermakers, road construction. They labored in the many lumber mills along the river, or as repairmen and clerks on the expanding streetcar system.
Few of them spoke English well (some of them not at all), and they often had no family to spend the evening hours with once the work day was over, so where would they go? The answer is â€“ a local fraternal lodge, where men gathered to play instruments in a band, or enjoyed singing lively songs about the country they came from. They joined card groups, played pool, or started community projects that everyone could join in on and contribute to. It was a good way for male bonding.
In most of the ethnic fraternal organizations, you were actually required to speak that country's language to be a member; and Portland had its share of international societies. The Swedish Brotherhood was founded as early as 1888, and the Sons of Norway began gathering around 1910. Others, like the Ancient Order of the Hibernians or Knights of Columbus, organized to provide religious security, or a fellowship for men from their own nationality and background.
Sellwood and Westmoreland didn't have quite the influx of Italians, Germans, Asians, or the Jewish population that banded together in other sections of Portland. On the west side of the river, in what is now officially South Portland â€“ sections such as Dunthorpe â€“ Italians and people of the Jewish faith lived in crowded boarding houses. In the Brooklyn neighborhood, and portions of today's Hosford-Abernathy neighborhood, the streets were busy with a mixture of Greeks, Italians, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Asians, and other nationalities. The Loyal Orange Institution of America, which attracted mainly men who were of Scottish and Irish nationality, was one of the groups that held meetings every Monday at the Masonic Hall in Sellwood.
Fraternal organizations were started for a variety of reasons. Men and women looked to them for sociability, entertainment, or to unite on a project that would benefit their community. Heck, why not? There wasn't any television, or even radio yet, for people to spend their free time with. (Few people could afford radios as entertainment when it emerged in the early 1920s, and if you did own one, you could count on your living room being filled with drop-in guests of all ages from around your neighborhood on any night.)
At one time, Portland had close to 70 separate fraternal organizations that ladies and/or men could join, with several meetings taking place every night of the week. Surprisingly, Sellwood had close to 11 different societies; and if such groups weren't to your liking, you could join the Sellwood YMCA, be active in the school PTA, or you could attend a meeting of the Sellwood Board of Trade, or a Sellwood Commercial Club meeting. THE BEE, after its inception in 1906, wasn't shy about listing the many groups and organizations that were looking for members.
Sellwood had so many fraternal organizations and business groups looking for places to hold their meetings and lodge nights, that there weren't enough halls and vacant buildings available to accommodate them all. And, once a free space did become available, it was quickly rented almost every night.
The Sellwood Fire House at the corner on 13th and Tenino, built in 1896, hosted numerous get-togethers organized by the Ladies' Auxiliary Club of Sellwood. The open space on the second floor was used for fundraisers by the Ladies Club â€“ with the proceeds earmerked to purchase additional fire equipment, feed the fire-engine-drawing horses, and help pay for uniforms for the volunteer firefighters. Dances, holiday celebrations, fraternal meetings, and even City Council meetings were among the events for which that firehouse space was rented â€“ until the City of Portland incorporated the Sellwood firehouse into its newly-formed Portland Municipal Fire Department. By 1907, the Firemen's Dance Hall upstairs had been converted into living quarters for the firefighters, and the groups who had rented that space again had to look elsewhere for available assembly halls.
Sellwood business tycoons Alfred Griessen and William Strahlman came to the rescue by each building their own two-story structure along 13th Avenue. With the retail space below reserved for merchant shops, the second floor of both the Griessen and the Strahlman buildings could be rented for large parties, dances, musical events, and other occasions. Both men ensured that certain days would be scheduled specifically for local fraternal groups and organizations to use on "lodge night".
Several early issues of THE BEE announced the establishment of the City View Odd Fellows Fellowship on November 19th, 1907 â€“ which met for the first time at Strahlman's Hall. But club members were somehow persuaded to hold subsequent assemblies at an unpretentious structure that locals referred to as the "Mordhorst Barn", at the corner of 13th and Spokane â€“ but which more officially was named W. H. Killbuck's Carpenter and Cabinet Shop. Three months later, the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons Lodge of Sellwood, No. 131, announced the formation of its own local lodge, and also chose to meet in the upstairs portion of Killbuck's Shop.
By day, the busy sounds of hammers and saws from Killbuck's down below could be heard throughout the neighborhood â€“ replaced in the evenings by the banging of the wooden gravel calling the fraternal meetings to order upstairs.
The accommodations on the second floor of that building weren't perfect, but both groups agreed to remodel the upstairs from funds they collected. By 1917, however, the City View Odd Fellows had moved their headquarters down the street to Wall's Hall, a large ballroom above the F.H. Wall Hardware Store. It wasn't until the early 1940's that the Odd Fellows found a permanent home above the former Andrew Robertson General Store, across from the Sellwood Fire Station, on the north side of Tenino Street.
Meanwhile, the Sellwood Free Masons continued to enjoy their newly-remodeled building on Spokane Street until they raised enough money to build a new two-story brick building of their own in Westmoreland. By 1930, a new Masonic building was standing at Milwaukie Avenue and S.E. Ogden Street.
Other organizations â€“ such as the Woodmen of the World, and the Knights of Pythias â€“ were starting to attract as members laborers and men in blue-collar jobs. Couples were encouraged to join, and most of the meetings revolved around the hazards of the men's jobs â€“ and who would take care of the children in the family, or their spouse, if they suddenly passed away. These meetings apparently were not rollicking â€“ but, importantly, such organizations marked the start of Life Insurance, and retirement benefits for workers.
Working conditions in the 19th and early 20th Centuries were harsh. Any man could easily lose an arm or leg working around the giant saw blades at the Eastside Lumber Mill. And how many times did articles appear in the local newspaper that someone had fallen off a moving streetcar, or disappeared in the Willamette River while walking on one of the logjams floating in the water. People died at an earlier age, then, than they do now; and it was not uncommon for children to die from many diseases which are now easily avereted by vaccination.
Even the ladies of the house faced hazards. They were the first to nurse the children when they came down with the flu, scarlet fever, mumps, measles, or whooping cough, and they worked around woodstoves and kerosene lamps which could easily set a house afire.
So, it was not hard to convince husbands and wives to join a local group that offered a family membership which would guarantee money for an unexpected death or a retirement benefit. Social Security benefits weren't signed into law until 1935.
The Modern Brotherhood of America Sellwood Lodge No. 950, United Artisan Multnomah Assembly No. 5, and even the ladies group of the City View Rebekahs No.178, and the Order of the Eastern Star Sellwood Chapter No.92, were just a few of the organizations that offered at least a small return upon a death, or if a handicap was caused by working conditions.
That Sellwood Artisan Lodge was formed in the early 1900s, dedicated to providing for families in case either the husband or the wife died at an early age. If one of the members died, their survivors were entitled to $2,000; and those who lived to be 70 could start to withdraw a small percentage of their dues for the next ten years. A strict physical examination was required to be accepted into the Artisan Lodge. It wasn't surprising when H.E. Sellwood â€“ one of Sellwood's most successful real estate agents, and now a successful insurance man â€“ was elected President of the Sellwood Chapter of the Artisan Group.
Men who were worn out from working 10 to 12 hours a day enjoyed the musical entertainment provided at the Artisan Lodge between lectures and political speeches. Women bored with their daily household chores happily joined the organization to partake of the weekly singing and dancing. Concerts and musical events were so common that the elected officials in the club included positions for a junior conductor, and a musician. Other positions included Master of Ceremonies, and a master artisan. A 1913 Fraternal Directory in THE BEE listed the meetingplace for the Sellwood Artisans as the Assembly Hall on 13th and Spokane, in the Griessen building.
Attendance in many organizations waned when the Great Depression arrived, and workingmen lost their jobs. Many couldn't pay the yearly fees, and dropped out, or just didn't show up to weekly meetings. Many leaders did encourage members who couldn't afford the dues to continue being a member until times got better; but the embarrassment of not being able to support their own family was too much to bear in public, and many men silently withdrew their membership.
In those lean times, many fraternal organizations folded, or combined their clubs with other brotherhoods in the next district. Some of these groups did survive, however, and are still with us today.But there was another kind of fraternal organization represented in Inner Southeast Portland in parallel with these workers' groups we've been exploring, and to tell their tale we need to stop right here, and go back seventy years before the onset of the Great Depression.
In 1866, after the American Civil War ended, many soldiers who fought for the Union cause formed the first Veterans Organization: The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was established by and for the soldiers of that war, and provided a place to gather and recall days of glory, or share with other veterans tales of the battles in which they had fought.
And not long after that, many women's groups formed to aid these veterans as they grew older; and to assist their wives, children, and other family members in need of financial and moral support. According to the website of the "Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic", in 1881 an organization called The Loyal Ladies League was established as an auxiliary to the GAR. By 1910, active membership involved over 60,000 members, who volunteered their services in 29 states; that group later became known as The Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Sellwood hosted two chapters in the neighborhood: The Blackmar Circle No.20 Ladies of the GAR; and the A.J. Smith Post No.26 Ladies of the GAR. The Ladies of Blackmar were so named after U.S military officer Wilmon Whilldin Blackmar, who received his country's highest award for bravery during combat â€“ the U.S. Medal of Honor. Blackmar was also Commander-In-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1904 and 1905.
As for A.J. Smith: Andrew Jackson Smith was promoted to major general of the Federal Volunteers during his stint for the Union in the Civil War. He was prominent in many battles against the Confederacy in Mississippi and Alabama, and was presented the Medal of Honor for his distinguished service during the war. The Ladies of the A.J. Smith Post were named in his honor.
Both of the local Ladies Auxiliaries were active in the community â€“ inviting veterans as guest speakers to talk to the Sellwood School students, and visiting with ailing veterans in the hospital. One of their greatest achievements was installing a monument to commemorate the unknown dead of the Civil War, at the entrance to the historic Milwaukie Cemetery just south of Garthwick. On May 30th, 1911, the monument was placed there with many in attendance.
An historic quilt made by either or both the Ladies of Blackmar and A.J. Smith was donated by Sellwood resident Gerrie Carlson to the SMILE History Committee in 2011, and it now lies in the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center in Tillamook. Eileen Fitzsimons' article in the August 2011 issue of THE BEE recalled events related to the historic quilt made by the Ladies of the GAR.
Returning to 1868, May 30th was declared "National Decoration Day" to pay tribute to the men and women who had died while in military service. Both ladies' groups were influential in leading a parade of school children dressed in their best Sunday outfits from Sellwood Primary School over to the Milwaukie cemetery, where flowers were laid on the graves of the solders. Decoration Day is now observed as Memorial Day, and is officially a national holiday on the last Monday in May.While the workingmen's lodges experienced hard times in the 1930s depression, a decade later, World War II proved to be a trying time for the fellowship around the Civil War and World War I veterans, and membership dwindled as the majority of able-bodied men volunteered for military duty.
When WWII ended, and our country declared victory on both the European and Japanese fronts, most returning veterans didn't care to join the organizations they once belonged to. Men of the military came back with a new sense of freedom. Military leaders had used the game of baseball to improve morale during interludes between battles, and once G.I.'s arrived back home they wanted to join baseball clubs in their neighborhoods, or try their skill at other sports.
Fraternal organizations did experience a temporary increase in membership, but the young people supported groups they could associate with. The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Veterans were groups that they were passionate about joining and helping.
Bowling alleys began showing up in commercial districts, and pool tables were a draw in local taverns for ex-servicemen who preferred having a few beers and socializing with their buddies than attending Board Meetings of the fraternal organizations and lodges. The American Legion did see a considerable increase in membership, servicemen liked to gather there to hobnob, and recall their overseas adventures and mishaps.
Men's Lodges, like the Loyal Order of Moose and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, were more appealing to the younger men because they offered a variety of recreational sports, bowling groups, basketball and handball courts, and swimming pools. Banquet dinners in these large halls with polished wooden ballroom floors were popular, where members could bring their wives or dates to dance to live music on the weekends. And, some say, some of the older members could retreat to a guarded back room where card games and gambling machines provided entertainment, and a large stylized bar served up plenty of alcohol for those who enjoyed indulging in spirits.
But. Hands down, Sellwood's most upbeat fraternal organization was the "Ladies Lavender Club". This group was organized in 1917, when young men were being sent overseas to fight during the First World War. The ladies of the community wanted to better the lives of these young soldiers by writing letters, and sending over socks and blankets and such. The first meeting initially drew only 15 members, but before long they numbered over 100 members.
Unlike most of the men's lodges, which relied on quirky initiations and secret handshakes, requirements for the Lavender Club were simply that you had to be 50 or older, female, and had to be able to dance the Virginia Reel. Ladies who joined were expected to participate in Red Cross work, to make thingss for the Sunshine Division of the Portland Police, and to indulge in "hijinks", which included the group's annual "Easter Hat Parade".
While it wasn't apparent what type of "hijinks" the group's founders had expected of their members, club meetings seemed full of fun and pep, with plenty of hot tea and sugar cookies and snacks on hand. A writer for the Oregonian wrote about these ladies in the March 28th, 1915, issue, confirming that, "The Lavender Club is composed of women not less than 50 years of age, who have few amusements to brighten their lives." Apparently the Oregonian reporter wasn't invited to any of the group's dances, parties, or the Annual Easter Hat Parade, or he might have written a more complimentary story.
Meetings of the Lavender Club were held at the Sellwood Community Center, and typically included musical solos, recitals, and songs â€“ usually sung by Sellwood School students, or adults in the local area who sang as a hobby. Often music students from Mrs. Eugenie Brown's School of Music were invited to perform at these monthly meetings, and piano recitals were given by pupils of Elsie Wood and Mrs. Tina Rader's Piano Studio.
During such musical performances, the Lavender Ladies kept themselves busy knitting, sewing, and making garments for various causes taken up by the club. Boisterous fun might include members reciting one of their favorite quotes during roll call, and of course the afternoon sessions always closed with the dancing of the Virginia Reel. By 1929 ladies were no longer required to bring their own tea cup and spoon to the meetings, as now lunch became a highlight at all meetings. But, much like the men's lodges at the start of the Twentieth Century, after 1929 new inductees for the Lavender Club were hard to find, and the club eventually faded away.
When the 1960s and 1970s arrived, people were consumed with cars, outdoor sports, and shopping malls â€“ all proved more attractive than nightly meetings. Television shows and drive-in movies took precedence over lodges and fraternal organizations â€“ of which only a handful still exist today. But the buildings built by the Masons and Odd Fellows are still here for ourselves and future generations to enjoy.
Architectural historian Eric Wheeler, who guides hundreds of visitors to the Pacific Northwest, and leads Positively PNW Walking Tours, has pointed out during appearances at Portland's Architectural Heritage Center that there are at least 26 Ancient Free and Accepted Mason buildings from the historic past still standing in Portland. And an additional eight historic structures can also be found in the areas that were dedicated by The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, back when they were the largest fraternal organization in the United States.
I can truthfully say that I really don't miss any long-winded lodge meetings of the past. But it sure would have been fun to have watched the ladies of the Lavender Club dancing the Virginia Reel at the end of their meetings, and seeing all of them lined up and reciting their club's motto: "Tall or short, dark or fair, we've lost our figure, and we don't care."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.