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The curious case of Mrs. Harstines cow

by: , Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, this old photo of Mildred Smith’s house at S.E. 16th and Ellis Streets--the closest we could find to the address housing a cow on Ellis in 1931--suggests a rural lifestyle which continued in parts of Sellwood and Westmoreland well into the 20th Century.

In June, the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation reviewed the National Register nomination for the Sellwood Community Center. As author of the document, I was present to answer potential questions. The most interesting one came from an historian who asked about my statement that construction of the Community Center (as a branch Y.M.C.A., in 1910) represented Sellwood's ongoing transition from a rural to a more urban neighborhood. Since the neighborhood had streetcar service by 1893, the year that Sellwood was annexed to Portland, he thought that after almost twenty years of such close rail connection to downtown Portland the area must therefore have been more 'advanced' than I had suggested.

While I agreed that improved transportation caused a significant increase in population (from 1,800 citizens in 1890 to 6,000 by 1908), it was my conclusion that the process was incomplete until the 'superhighway'--McLoughlin Boulevard--opened in 1937. Some of my opinions were based on hours spent reading THE BEE, which until well into the early 1930's contained many articles in which residents reported the produce in their gardens, the fruit and nuts from trees in their yards, and eggs from their chickens! In the same time period there were both a dairy goat farm and a large poultry farm in the southeastern section of Sellwood.

A week after the meeting, a brief article in the Oregonian further confirmed my judgment. In October of 1931, a controversy arose in Northmoreland (as the section north of Yukon Street was called at the time).

According to the account, Mrs. Arlo Harstine, mother of six children, was keeping a cow on her property. While some neighbors did not object, others were unhappy, and claimed the animal was housed at S.E. 21st and Ellis Streets, in a garage without adequate ventilation and drainage. The paper announced that the City Council would deal with the issue.

A few days later, the situation was reported as follows: 'City Commissioner Barbur championed the mother and cow on the grounds that it would help keep the family together, and help make ends meet. [This was during the Great Depression, remember.] He said that the mother has to get up at 4 am to sell papers to get necessities for her children, and that any woman who will make an effort like that should be helped by the city. However, J.A. Copeland and others declared that the cow's presence in the neighborhood is in violation of the city laws, and that there are 14 cows within two blocks. He said these cows walk on the sidewalk and graze on vacant lots.'

Unfortunately, in spite of examining many weeks of the newspaper, I could find no report of a conclusion of the dispute. Curiously, THE BEE did not cover the matter at all.

Both Eastmoreland and Westmoreland had been part of W.S. Ladd's 800-acre Crystal Spring Farm until May, 1909, when the Westmoreland plat was filed. Construction of houses began soon after; and shortly before the Sellwood Bridge opened in December of 1925, THE BEE announced that the final lot had been sold. However, it appears that in pockets beyond the subdivision boundaries, earlier customs prevailed. The area between the eastern edge of Westmoreland (22nd Avenue) and the railroad tracks was composed of well-watered pastures bordered by brush and blackberries.

The south end, near Johnson Creek, had been the site of Wilson's Dairy Farm, whose barns were not demolished until 1936. Earlier, in the vicinity of S.E. Holgate Boulevard, was the Midway Dairy, which seems to have vanished around 1900.

Obviously, the fringes of the neighborhood retained their rural ambience for several decades after the opening of the streetcar line on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue. They might have remained so for an even longer period of time if the 'superhighway' had not been built.

Perhaps the matter of Mrs. Harstine's cow was finally resolved when construction of McLoughlin Boulevard began in the mid-1930's.