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This month, we trace the history of Inner Southeast Portland through a single business, changing with the times

COURTESY SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE - In the 1920s, the newly built Sellwood Transfer Company showcased its fireproof stone block building, keeping stored furniture and luxury cars safe. The business also delivered not only furnishings stored there, but everything from coal, lime, and plaster to  the cords of wood stacked just to the right of the building. Among the many places to live in Portland in the early 1900s, I'm wondering what made William Copenhafer choose Sellwood as the desirable place to live? William was a contractor who hired out to build homes for other people. Every day he would trudge up a ladder to nail siding to a house he was building in the Alameda District of Portland, or maybe he'd be laying down a row of shingles on the roof of a new home in the St. Johns neighborhood.

When you're up on the top of a house, and able to look around at your surroundings in various neighborhoods, you have a lot of time to think about where you want to put down your own roots. Where is the right place for me? Why he chose to live in Sellwood, of all the districts of Portland then, we may never know — but apparently in 1906 it seemed to him to be a perfect fit for himself and his wife Emily.

And, to be fair, there were many reasons why families would want to move to Sellwood. It was an easy commute to Portland for people who worked downtown, but who wanted to live in a more rural area. The Eastside Streetcar provided transportation to the busy business section of Portland — and that also meant easy access to the many entertainments downtown; there were high-class vaudeville shows at the Marquam Grand Theater, comedy acts at the Baker Theater, and Cordray's Theater was a popular family destination. And if the stage wasn't your thing, there were always the big department stores and specialty shops offering merchandise not found anywhere else in the city.

As for getting around, few people owned cars, horses were expensive to keep, and if you couldn't get where you were going on foot, people in Sellwood either traveled by the streetcar, or caught the ferry or steamboat at the foot of Umatilla Street.

Our contractor friend William had a lot of thinking time while standing on a ladder hanging siding, crouching on the ground installing a wooden floor for a client, or hanging doors and windows for a neighbor. He and others in the trade had to travel to different sections of town, and could see for themselves how the city was growing.

In 1905, a real milestone in the history of the Rose City — over a million people from cities on the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, and indeed from points around the world had descended onto this new town, Portland, in the wilderness of Oregon, and paid to attend the Lewis and Clark World Exposition in the northwest part of the community. .

What they found when they arrived was a modern city, its streets lit with electrical arches, busy with trollies going this way and that, and with plenty of entertainment and outdoor activities to satisfy everyone's taste. Portland's bankers, businessmen, and politicians put on quite a show for the visitors, and those who came for a week or two to see the sights often discovered afterwards that they didn't want to go home. A good portion of the visitors to the Exposition decided to settle here, and the housing boom was on! The four and a half month run of the World's Fair Expo in Portland had invigorated the local economy and boosted its population.

Diagonally across town from the Exposition, Sellwood was growing fast, and by 1906 more than 5,000 people were reported to have settled in the neighborhood — and by 1909 a new community, Westmoreland, centered initially around the intersection of Milwaukie Avenue and Bybee Boulevard, was beginning to stir, and to offer new homes.

Jobs were plentiful, as men were needed to run and repair the streetcars that ran through the various neighborhoods. Just the following year, a new large streetcar barn structure was built along Ochoco Street and 13th Avenue in Sellwood, employing more than 200 men, with vacancies available on three different shifts.

Along the waterfront of the then dead-ended Tacoma and Spokane Streets, the Eastside Lumber Mill was cranking out loads of lumber for the housing going up across the city and region. Men were needed to fill positions — from bull chain operators to deck workers, block setters to graders. If you aspired to work your way up to the position of a millwright, or to one of the head saw crewmembers, very little experience was required since local owner John P. Miller just needed steady workers.

Not content with continuing his back-breaking work as a contractor, in Sellwood William was considering owning his own business. Already, the commercial district along Umatilla Street was filling up fast with businesses of all sorts. There were three grocery stores, two meat markets, a confectionary, a dry goods store, a barbershop, a bakery, a dressmaker, and laundry cleaning and drying businesses.

Business was brisk, and our friend William Copenhafer, from the porch of his newly-built home overlooking the waterfront, could observe steamboats puffing their way along the Willamette River, arriving at Sellwood three or four times a day to unload cargo, supplies, furniture, and baggage for new home owners.

What was lacking was a moving company; and seeing the Umatilla waterfront clogged with trunks, produce, and supplies stacked along the docks awaiting a delivery wagon or carriage, William found his calling.

At the time, there were plenty of transfer companies, moving services, and drayage businesses available to transport cargo from one place to another — but most of them were located in Portland's bustling downtown commercial district. A few warehouses for storage and horse-drawn delivery wagons could be found along Grand Avenue in East Portland, but none anywhere near Sellwood. In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Milwaukie Avenue, 13th Avenue, and even busy Umatilla Street were all just dusty unpaved farm roads — they were particularly hazardous to travel in the winter — and few drayage companies wanted to haul heavy goods south of Powell Boulevard.

So, after buying two lots on the north side of Umatilla Street between S.E. 11th and 13th Avenues, William put his construction skills to work and built a huge storage barn and office; and his Sellwood Transfer Company was officially opened for business in 1906. Merchants who previously had to drive their own wagon down to the waterfront to pick up their daily deliveries (some storekeepers even just walked and used a wheelbarrow to transfer goods) could now rely on the Sellwood Transfer Company to pick up their orders, and to deliver them to the front of their store.

Much as we see in Portland's homebuilding and apartment building frenzy today, some projects had to wait until contractors were available to build them. One who had to endure such a delay was Dr. Grim, who was waiting to have a new two-story craftsman home built on his property on 13th Avenue. He set up a tent on his property for his family to live in until their home was built — but, now, his furniture didn't have to be in the tent also; it could be stored in the Sellwood Transfer Warehouse, to be brought over by the facility's workers once his new residence was finished.

But the scope of William's new business went far beyond such private clients. Since commercial cargo was heavy and bulky and often had to be brought to Sellwood by boat, Sellwood Transfer specialized hauling heavy loads. The business had horse-drawn carts, using specially-bred "dray" horses — and the horses drew wagons without sides, to allow boxes and crates to be easily slid across the bed of the wagon from either side. And they slowly traversed the incline of Umatilla Street to their final destinations a few blocks away.

Groups of idle boys, or merchants taking a break from their everyday tasks, gathered along the waterfront to watch the husky men from the Sellwood Transfer Company loading up just such a wagon. Dishes, glassware, and breakables were packed in wooden crates filled with hay for safekeeping, and loaders would use a hay-type hook to grab hold of the crate. An experienced loader would then roll the crate onto his thigh and hoist it up with brute strength into the wagon bed. Most drivers and loaders wore leather chaps to protect their jeans from wearing out quickly under such daily use.

Pianos were a popular instrument in the home from the 1900's to the 1940s, and were particularly heavy to move. Dr. Sellwood, who lived and practiced where the Sellwood Medical Clinic is now on S.E. 13th, raved about the new organ he had just purchased -- but the Sellwood Transfer men were the ones tasked with delivering this heavy instrument to his home. Regular advertisements in THE BEE, at the time, from the Sellwood Transfer Company announced "Safes, Pianos, and Furniture moved, and Storage Warehouse available".

COURTESY STEPHEN KENNEY COLLECTION - After another successful day of delivering all sorts of things, the Sellwood Transfer crew and their horses headed back to the stable - with perhaps a further stop at a local tavern for the men. Operating a moving company more than 110 years ago wasn't an easy chore. Husky men were needed to load and unload, drivers were needed to drive the horses and wagons, and there had to be storage space for both the horses and their feed. In addition to the moving men themselves, the business needed horse caretakers, secretaries to book appointments, planners to schedule arrival and departure times, and accountants to bill for each delivery. It all added up to a pretty large staff.

Times were quickly changing, and when 1911 arrived, something really new — autos and trucks — were beginning to draw attention as a faster mode of transportation. Delivery trucks could deliver heavier loads and arrive at their destinations faster, than could a horse and wagon.

But buying a fleet of trucks was expensive! So rather than sink more money into the business, William decided to sell, and the new owner — Frank E. Fruiht — quickly updated Sellwood Transfer Company. Frank was one of the first in the city to order a fleet of trucks from the Federal Truck Company, and in April of 1913 he built a new warehouse, and invited the community to a Grand Barn Dance in it on opening day.

Then Frank, spotting a new business idea with real potential when the Columbia Gorge Highway opened in 1913, purchased a touring car and offered it to paying customers weekend trips to Mt. Hood or over the Cascade Range, and for excursions to Hood River and The Dalles.

Frank Fruiht tended to spare no expense. That seven-passenger Reo Touring Motor Car cost close to $1,385 — about $41,500 in todays' money. (A seven passenger Indian Summer auto, ordered from Detroit, Michigan, could set back an owner close to $2,400 over a century ago. Both models were a favorite among the public.)

Since cars were so pricey, what a thrill it was for groups young and old to rent a touring car from Frank for a jaunt down the Columbia River roadway. But nobody knew how to drive an auto back then, and of course few passengers knew which road to take to their designated camping spot — or even how to read a road map. So the rental of the car included the driver, who doubled as a mechanic. Cars broke down constantly on the rough roads, and only a mechanic would have nuts, bolts, and parts on hand to fix them on the spot. It wasn't uncommon to have to change a flat tire on every trip — or even two or three times a day on the same journey.

Trips to the Oregon Coast were then rare, but the most-requested trips and overnight stays were to the forest around Mt. Hood. Fraternity groups, businessmen's associations, and college students were among those renting a touring car or two for a summertime jaunt that became a lasting memory.

COURTESY OF MARK MOORE - Dont pro athletes ride to their baseball games in luxury? Well, apparently the sponsor of this early-1900s Sellwood Baseball team missed the memo. Sellwood players traveled to their road games in this special wagon - reserved especially for the team by the Sellwood Drayage Company. Even the semi-pro Sellwood Men's Baseball Team booked a special traveling vehicle for use when taking to the road to play "away games" in Vancouver across the Columbia River, and Salem, Eugene, Hood River, Astoria, or at Rockaway. The Sellwood Drayage Company at 6th and S.E. Tenino had a barn where this wagon was kept in private reserve for the use of the local baseball team.

For those who could afford a luxury vehicle, a garage was needed to house it safely and conveniently. Frank offered space for such owners to store their auto in his garage for a fee. A gasoline pump was installed in the front of the Transfer Warehouse, primarily for the use of the moving trucks, but it was also available to anybody else who wanted to save time driving to a service station. Frank boasted that his pump was one of the first to offer gas in Sellwood.

To increase his income, Frank also included additional services besides just moving and storage. Wood and coal burning stoves were used by eighty percent of Portland of residents in 1910, and Sellwood Transfer would deliver coal to anyone's front porch for a fee. Lime was another product that could be ordered and delivered to construction companies and contractors. Lime could be used in stabilizing the improved surfaces of roads and airfields, and was also used in building sturdy foundations. It was also mixed with cement, concrete, and mortar, to provide a more flexible material when working on construction projects.

By the 1920s, warehouse fires had become a particular concern for the Portland Fire Marshall — especially at storage buildings made of timber. Frank made the decision to tear down the wooden garage barn built by the previous owner of the business, and replace it with a concrete block one-story garage. Frank advertised his new warehouse as offering "fireproof storage", which was quite appealing to customers who feared losing their prized possessions in a blaze.

When population growth began to the centers of business north from Umatilla Street in Sellwood, it was time to find a more central location for the moving company — which, by then, had been sold again. The latest owner was Harry B. Gibbs, and he decided to relocate the Sellwood Transfer Company into a new warehouse at S.E. Milwaukie Avenue and Duke Street a couple of miles north, in the new Westmoreland neighborhood. That warehouse location, until recently, hosted a now-vacant Bank of America branch, and is across the street from today's QFC Market.

Frank Fruiht and his wife Grace, having prospered by selling Sellwood Transfer to Harry Gibbs, then retired to the coast at Taft, Oregon, just south of Lincoln City — where he operated an auto court for the use of travelers for the next seventeen years.

So just who was this latest Sellwood Transfer owner, Harry B. Gibbs? He was born in 1890 in Chicago, Illinois, and once he arrived in Portland, he stayed and became a resident of the Rose City for the next sixty years. He chose at first to be a "purser" (a handler of money) for the Oregon-Washington Railway and Navigation Company. He continued that profession as a purser aboard such notable Oregon steamboats as the Hassalo, the T.J Potter, the Harvest Queen, and the Lewiston. He later became an assistant superintendent of the McCormick Steamship Company.

Though he was good at managing money, Harry preferred a more challenging career, and wanted to own his own business. That's how he came to buy the Sellwood Transfer Company in 1931.

Moving vans and freight trucks changed through the decades. Truck cabs became larger and longer to haul more freight, and the open cab was enclosed, to give more protection for the driver from the elements. By the 1930s, all cabs were fully enclosed.

For the next twenty years The Sellwood Transfer Company served the Portland Metro and Inner Southeast Portland, focusing mainly on storing furniture and moving it in or out of that Milwaukie Avenue warehouse.

Then came another sale of the business — and Franklin High School graduate Oscar Pederson took charge of it in 1948. By 1958, Lloyd R. Weisensee was the latest new owner, moving the Sellwood Transfer Company way out of the area it began in — all the way northeast to 81st and S.E. Yamhill where he found a more affordable warehouse space.

In contrast to these colorful years, now long past, the moving business today is pretty uneventful. Local and national moving companies can send people to pack up your furniture and heirlooms for you, and then move them safely to your desired destination. Or you can save money, and rent a U-Haul — hopefully coaxing a few friends or neighbors to help you in the loading and packing! "Drayage teams" are no longer around, but the very old Sellwood Transfer Building still stands on Umatilla Street in Sellwood, and is still housing furniture and valuables for some private homeowners. A walk down Umatilla Street to the Willamette River today can remind those of us who know the history of all those times when horse-drawn wagons struggled up the dirt road from the old boat landing there — which welcomed new residents and their belongings to the new rural community of Sellwood.


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