Portland has seen its share of changes over the past 90 years: The opening of the St. Johns Bridge in 1931; the dedication of the Portland-Columbia Airport in 1949; and the election of Portland's first female Mayor — Dorothy McCullough Lee.
On a larger scale, Americans had to endure the grim days of The Great Depression, and watch as their young men went off to fight in the Second World War. Jan Elliott, our interview subject this month, who has lived most of her years in the Woodstock neighborhood, has witnessed many such pivotal events during her lifetime.
Jan's grandparents on her mother's side, Efraim and Hilma Liljeholm were the first of her family to settle here. The Portland Census reveals that the Liljeholms arrived from Sweden in the early 1900s.
Emigration from Europe to the United States was just reaching its peak by the 1920s, and Portland offered new opportunities for those looking for employment and affordable housing in their new land. Boarding houses and cheap apartments attracted to Southwest Portland many Norwegians, Italians, Swedes, Germans, and other Eastern Europeans, along with those escaping religious persecution.
But some of these seeking a new life in America found their way into Inner Southeast Portland, too — especially the Woodstock, Creston, Brooklyn, and Kenilworth neighborhoods, where space was more abundant — space they could use to grow their own food, and could start a garden, and where they could avoid the dirty streets and big city noise that came with living downtown. In a community like Woodstock, schools were close by, and shops were within easy walking distance.
The arriving Liljeholm family were both excited and apprehensive when they chose Woodstock as their new home. Efraim was an accomplished woodworker, and he built the new family home himself at 53rd and S.E. Holgate Boulevard. But he was not limited to building construction; Efraim also hand-made beautiful violins as a hobby, and a violin of his own for family gatherings.
Music was important in the Liljeholm household, and in the evenings and on holidays everyone gathered in the living room to play, sing, and dance to popular tunes they'd known in their homeland.
The Liljeholms went on to raise three children — Arthur, Ruth and Erma.
Efraim got a job as a janitor at Riverside School in the Dunthorpe neighborhood. It was his responsibility to keep the furnace stoked, clean the classrooms, and make repairs when needed. He even, at times, mowed the grass and trimmed the shrubs along the school building. Every student knew who Mr. Liljeholm was, and he knew the name of every child in the school. He even seemed to have more authority than the Principal in warning kids getting into mischief to mind their manners.
Meantime the matriarch of the family, Hilma, took a job cleaning houses for many of the influential families who lived in Portland's West Hills. The Henry L. Corbett family was one of her clients; Henry Corbett was a successful businessman, a civic leader, and a politician who served as an Acting Governor of Oregon. In 1914, a large two-story house of over 7,000 square feet was built in Dunthorpe for the Henry Corbett family. A servant's wing was added to the house, which Hilda may have used as a base of operations on the days she was there cleaning. The house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When she wasn't working in the community in cleaning jobs, Hilda busied herself raising her three children, and also working at the Church of Christ Scientist Church in Portland.
In those early years, the Liljeholms had to rely on the Woodstock streetcar for transportation. Few people could afford to buy or maintain a car; so when the occasion came to purchase a new automobile, that was a big event for family and friends. On the day Efraim brought home their first car, Hilma became the full-time chauffeur for the family. After driving her husband to his job at Riverview School in the morning, Hilda would take her granddaughter, Jan, to Franklin High School, and sometimes would also pick her up in the afternoon. Jan was one of the few students at the school who had such an automotive escort service, which gave her status among her friends.
Erma, who eventually was to be Jan's mother, and her siblings, enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere found in the Woodstock neighborhood in those early days. Erma attended Creston School, and later enrolled at Franklin High School, the same school that Jan would one day attend. With Portland's high schools filled to capacity, and the population in Inner Southeast Portland booming, a new high school was needed here, and that was to be Franklin.
Erma was one of the first students to attend Franklin High School, which opened in 1917. Its dramatic "Colonial Revival" brick building was, and is, situated at 54th and S.E. Woodward Street. In the June 27th, 1915, issue of The Oregonian, Erma Liljeholm was listed as being on the Honor Roll of Creston School.
Barely out of High School, Erma — only 17 at the time — married John G. Mejdell. John was a tall, handsome red-haired man with freckles, and who was twelve years her senior. While Emma's daughter Jan doesn't remember exactly how her parents first met, it was common for young people to attend the many social events offered around the city. Monthly dances were prominent in every neighborhood, and the Midsummer Scandinavian Festival — held, even then, in Oaks Park — or possibly one of the many local church functions, were ideal places for young people to meet each other. Up to this point, John had had quite the storybook life: Born into a Norwegian family, he lived in a home next to the Royal Palace in Oslo, Norway. But, while he was still in his teen years, his mother died — and, when his father remarried, John didn't care to live with his father and new stepmother, and he ran away at the age of 16 to be a sailor.
He found the salt spray of the ocean on his lips, the wind in his face, and the day-to-day challenges aboard ship, were more to his liking. And it was the Clipper Ship route from England to Australia and New Zealand, where he found himself — but when the captain of his ship decided to spend most of his time just sailing around northern Australia that John decided it was time to move on to another profession.
Once he sailed into Seattle, John said good-bye to his life aboard ship. Jan who heard the many stories of her father's adventures, shares why he quit the sea: "My dad had just seen enough of Australian life, and he'd tasted more than enough of its cuisine! He once told me, 'When I settled in America, I swore never to eat lamb again'."
So Jan's father and mother, John and Erma, were married on July 23, 1921, and they eventually settled at 5313 S.E. 45th Avenue in the Woodstock neighborhood. After marrying Erma Liljeholm, John forever traded in his adventuring to become an auto mechanic at the Portland Gas and Coke Company. Erma and John would eventually have three children — Jan, Harry, and Elizabeth.
Jan, growing up on 45th Avenue, says she and her father John became inseparable. He shared his passion for baseball with her, and their evenings in the summer were filled with a trips on the streetcar to Vaughn Street, to watch the Portland minor league baseball team. When the father-daughter duo were not in the grandstands or fishing, weekends at the movie theater were a favorite pastime for them.
"I'd always enjoyed movies, and my dad and I went to the picture shows at the Oregon Theater on Division Street, or the 'Ames and Bob White' on Foster Road," remarks Jan. "The old Woodstock Theater, at 46th and S.E. Woodstock Boulevard, mainly hosted live vaudeville shows — and was open from 1912 to 1917. A new two-story Spanish-style building was built by H.J. Schwanberg, the local druggist, in 1923. That became the new Woodstock Theater, and it lasted about seven years; and once it closed its doors, Foster Road became the popular place for most Woodstock movie enthusiasts."
In the 1930's, Woodstock had two major schools — Our Lady of Sorrows' Catholic School, and the Woodstock Elementary Public School, which had students from first grade to eighth. Jan was a student at the old two-story wooden Woodstock School, back before it caught fire — the blaze destroyed the second floor, and caused the entire school building to be replaced. (There is a pulic photographic display about that disaster in the lobby of today's Woodstock School.)
When Jan attended class there, the Art and Science classes were upstairs, and the "home rooms" were downstairs. Jan, who was an avid reader, spent most of her time on the second floor in the library. Miss Lena Wallace was the librarian, and she and Miss Albrig were, for Jan, two of the most memorable teachers during her time there
Widespread prosperity in the mid-1920s made it easier for residents in Woodstock to shop locally, instead of having to make the trip downtown to the big department stores. Automobiles and paved streets led to the expansion of the commercial district along Woodstock Boulevard, then extending from Ray Putnam's Cleaners at 44th Avenue to the Polyfair Hardware store at 47th. And, like other neighborhoods, Woodstock enjoyed having everything close at hand — barber shops, confectionaries, pharmacies, and doctors' offices — as well as their own fire department and Post Office.
But, as Jan Mejdell candidly points out, by the start of the 1930's vendors were still delivering goods to households by horse and buggy — and, by then, prosperity had ended, and the Great Depression had begun. Italians from the Brooklyn neighborhood paraded by Woodstock homes with carts of vegetables and fruits offered for sale for dinner; the snorting of horses and the creaking of wagons could be heard blocks away when the ice delivery wagon was on the way, or the milkman's horses were drawing the wagon on his early-morning runs.
"We had a junk man who looked kind of scraggly," recalls Jan, "And my mom always threatened me that, if I didn't behave myself, she would sell me to the junk man."
Jan remembers that Efraim and Hilma did most of their shopping at the Hubel Grocery Store, about six blocks from their home. Items bought there could be charged to their account; and at the end of the month, when Jan's father got paid, he would go to the store to pay off the monthly bill. That store was run by Mrs. Hubel and her daughter: "We would bring our flour sacks to the store, and the girls behind the counter would fill them with flour from a wide-mouth barrel," remarks Jan. Often these cotton flour sacks weighed between 50 to 100 pounds, and it took a "good husky boy" to deliver them back to customers.
"The Dry Goods store was on the same block as Hubel's, and my mom and I would 'buy yardage' there for whatever occasion it was needed. The candy store was across the street," says Jan. The Portland City Directory of the time listed Hubel's Grocery at the corner of 55th and Woodstock, on the south side of the street. M.B. Cantor's Dry Goods Store and A.P Howison Confectionary were located a block east on 56th.
Warm and fresh baked bread was always sold out, early in the morning, at the Woodstock Bakery — but, as Jan reflects, "We couldn't afford to go to a bakery — and anyway, why would we? Since my mom and grandmother were such great cooks, and liked to bake!" Jan also looked forward to her mom's buttermilk cookies, which she still swears were the best in Portland.
During the Holidays, Jan and her family would spend Christmas Eve at the Liljeholm household with her uncle and aunt, along with plenty of Scandinavian cookies. The Christmas Tree was decorated with bright paper chains, and strings of dried cranberries. Erma played the piano, and had taught her daughter Jan how to play — so, during the Holidays, family members gathered around the piano to sing traditional Swedish songs of the season, and other favorites. Christmas presents were few during the Depression; but on the occasions when they had a little extra money, John and Erma would buy something special. "One year I was really excited when I received a Shirley Temple doll for Christmas. My sister got the doll dirty, and then broke it when she threw it down the stairs. I never forgave her for that," frowns Jan.
The Great Depression between October of 1929 and the beginning of World War II was a time Jan remembers well. Thousands of men were out of work, or had been laid off, and many of them resorted to begging for food from door to door. Men would traipse through the alleys of Woodstock — and would knock on the back door of the Mejdell home, asking for a sandwich. "My mom would usually make a sandwich for them; but you have to remember, we didn't have much money or food either, so sometimes my mom had to tell them we didn't have anything to spare. "They always came to the back door; never the front. I remember an elderly gentleman who said to my mom, "M'am, could you spare a bite for a poor old man?"
To earn extra money, Erma Mejdell would iron clothes for the people who lived in the Dunthorpe area. These customers would bring the clothes they wanted to be ironed and drop them off at their house in Woodstock — coming back a few days later to pick up what they had left with Jan's mom for ironing.
And, to help support his growing family, John took a side job as a chauffeur for Charles F. Adams, who was then President of the First National Bank in Portland. When Jan turned 16, she hired on with Mr. Adams as a maid, and spent the summers working at the Adams Mansion. That house was situated at 23rd and N.W. Flanders, and it was Jan's first time engaging with people of considerable wealth. She says that she wasn't impressed.
Her duties as maid included walking the Adams' dog — a Boston Terrier; changing and washing the bedsheets; and serving meals (which involved learning which side of the table from which to serve food). All of the Adams' servants had to eat downstairs in the kitchen. The Adams also had a private nurse who did the cooking for the family.
World War II brought the Great Depression to an end with all the wartime military spending, and brought new prosperity to the City of Portland. Shipbuilding became a major industry here; companies like the Commercial Iron Company, the Albina Shipyards, and Henry Kaiser's Oregon Shipbuilding Company in St. Johns, all began producing large quantities of military ships for the American war effort. Thousands of people from around the country were drawn to these well-paying jobs in Portland, and many of them moved to Inner Southeast neighborhoods like Woodstock. Jan found that she could make more money than she had as a maid just by working as an office clerk, which helped her to raise enough money to attend Reed College.
Workers living outside North Portland had to rely on city buses or Portland's streetcar system to travel to and from the shipyards. In Woodstock, the streetcar service was ended by the 1940s due to low ridership, so employees like Jan then had to rely on second-hand buses purchased by the shipyard companies to haul commuting employees to their destination. "These old green buses with smoke belching out of the exhaust pipes took us out to the shipyards," remarks Jan, "And we had to walk from wherever they dropped us off quite a ways to our jobs."
Not only that, but the long ride to the shipyards was particularly uncomfortable — because there was no padding or cushions on the bus seats.
Working for the Engineering Department of a shipbuilding company on the east side of the Willamette River, Jan was an office clerk, which included typing and writing out repetitious supply orders — and, at other times, operating the office telephone switchboard. Occasionally work was stopped and everyone gathered for the christening of one of the new Liberty Ships that had just been completed and were ready to head across the sea to one of the war fronts. Welders, pipefitters, and office staff turned out for these great celebrations.
"Yes, some bigwig's wife would be asked to break a bottle of champagne across the bow of the ship during the dedication," commented Jan wryly, "And we would wait while it took her six or seven tries to break that bottle against the ship. Then we would clap and cheer like crazy."
With few small-order diners or coffee shops anywhere near where Jan worked, she and most of the rest of the office staff had to pack their own lunches, and bring their own beverages to work. While office duties were often tedious and boring for a Reed College student, as Jan already was, the pay was excellent and helped finance her education.
After World War II had ended in 1945, and all the wartime jobs had ended, Jan hired on at the Pope and Talbot Steamship Company; at about that time a cousin of John Mejdell in Europe had contacted him asking if he could come to America and learn about the building of steamships. "My dad didn't want anything to do with his family, so my dad's cousin became kind of my responsibility," recalls Jan: "He came over as part of the U.S. Lend Lease program, and my dad's cousin was thrilled to be shown what a real American town looked like."
Jan was also still pursuing her studies at Reed College, where she eventually found her future husband, Robert Elliott. They were both working at Reed in the coffee shop and book store, and she later discovered that he had served in the U.S. Army Air Force during the war. They married and started their own family, moving to the coast at Astoria, where Robert worked at the Paramount Optical Lab.
Astoria in the 1960s was full of surprises — that was when the new Astoria-Megler Bridge was being built. Jan spent much of her time raising her children, and reuniting with her father, who took numerous trips to the coast to visit her and her family. "My parents finally were able to afford to buy a vacation home in Ocean Park, Washington, and we spent a lot of time there digging for clams!"
Much has changed in Woodstock across the last ninety years. Cars and delivery trucks jam Woodstock Boulevard where once only the hoofbeats of horses drawing delivery wagons and the ringing of the Woodstock Streetcar bell could be heard. People today do their grocery shopping at New Seasons or Safeway, stopping for lunch at one of the many restaurants or food carts, or perhaps enjoying the afternoon at a local coffee shop.
But, in many ways, life in the residential district of the community is really not all that different. Bungalows, four-square houses, and a variety of small and large craftsman houses still line the streets, with green lawns, blooming flowers, and native shrubs out front. Children still walk to Woodstock School, or to Woodstock Park for baseball or to kick around a soccer ball. Scooters, now boasting motors, coexist with bicycles.
Having seen it all, and remembering it all, and still enjoying life at an advanced age, is Woodstock native Jan Mejdell Elliott!
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