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Brooklyn tours and touts its own history

by: Rita A. Leonard, Can you picture Clark Gable working here? This was originally the Pacific States Telephone Company building, at S.E. 15th and Holgate Boulevard, and before Gable became a luminous Hollywood star, he was an employed worker in this Brooklyn building!

On Sunday, August 13th, neighborhood guides hosted an engrossing trip through the Brooklyn neighborhood's history. Don Stephens, Brooklyn historian, with Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood Board member Dana Beck, and Johan Mathiesen, led history buffs on the two-hour tour, which began at Brooklyn Park.

Brooklyn motion picture history ranges from Kiser Studios' silent movies, filmed on Sacred Heart property, to scenes from 'Free Willy' filmed at a Victorian home on S.E. Haig Street. It was also noted that as a young man, no less an legendary figure than Clark Gable worked briefly at the old Pacific States Telephone Company building, at S.E. 15th and Holgate Boulevard, which in later years housed the now-closed Carpet City store!

But that wasn't nearly as far back as the tour's recollections went. Much, much further in the past, about 12,000 years ago, scouring by the series of great Missoula Floods realigned the Willamette River nearby, leaving tons of sand and gravel which has been harvested since 1926 for construction purposes. Dana Beck told his group on the tour how Milwaukie Avenue and Powell Boulevard were sited along historical Native American hunting trails. 'Everything here followed the development of those old Indian trails, which defines Brooklyn as it is today,' he said.

In 1849, pioneer Gideon Tibbetts and his wife settled a land claim of 640 acres in the area along a waterway known colloquially as 'Brook Land Creek'. The creek, which has since been rerouted underground, was used to irrigate Tibbetts' wheat fields and to power a flour mill at S.E. 11th and Taggart Street.

'Tibbetts was known as the first man to build a home of painted boards instead of a cabin,' noted Beck. 'From 1890-1900, the Oregon Central Railroad got permission to come through the land, setting up the rail lines that established the area as a transportation hub. Tibbetts' wheat lands were initially located where the car barns are now, on S.E. 17th Avenue.'

The railroads were instrumental in attracting cheap foreign labor to the area. Land agents were sent to European cities, causing an influx of German and Swiss workers to the area, followed a couple of years later by Italians. As a growing city, Portland needed lumber, and many residents worked at the Inman-Poulson Lumber Mill set up on the Willamette River at the foot of Woodward Street. Many ornate Victorian homes in Brooklyn were likely enhanced by trim from this lumber mill.

With the influx of rail and lumber workers, Tibbetts began to divide his land, and sell it in $50 lots. The Italians, accomplished gardeners, supplied the area with vegetable produce and wines. Since there was no refrigeration around the turn of the century, small groceries and markets were common, helping to establish the Milwaukie Avenue business corridor. These were supplemented with taverns, theaters, and other commercial establishments. Horses and horse-drawn vehicles tied up to the many iron 'hitching rings' that can still be seen embedded along many streets in Brooklyn, and across the city.

Initially, the northern boundary of the Brooklyn neighborhood was located around what is now Division Street. A thriving business district also extended east along Powell Boulevard. The Brooklyn Town Center included such institutions as a fire station, Rexall drugstore, the Brooklyn Library, a bank, post office, cigar maker, baker, and sausage maker. The area also produced manufacturers of brooms, coffins, and confections.

By 1892, the Sellwood trolley line extended from the town center south, with rides costing 3 cents. The trolley traveled about 5 to 10 miles per hour, and carried everything from people to lumber, hogs to barbed wire. The first wooden Brooklyn School, sited at what is now Brooklyn Park, expanded with the growing population. In the 1930's it was torn down and moved to a brick building, which now houses the Winterhaven magnet school. Nearby, Sacred Heart Church provided religious guidance and support for many area Catholics.

Many Brooklyn streets initially had German names, but around 1917, during WW I, 'Teutonic-sounding names' were deemed unpatriotic, and were changed. Consequently, Frankfurt Street became Lafayette, Frederick became Pershing, Bismarck became Bush, and Karl became Haig. Even today, one can see Brooklyn street names and numbers etched into the sidewalks that do not correspond to the posted street sign names. For example, a name in the sidewalk at the north side of Rhine Street at Milwaukie Avenue indicates it was once called 'McLaughlin St.'

Street number changes are attributed to a decision made by the Portland City Council around the time of the Second World War in an effort to simplify the numbering system for visitors and postal workers. Many sidewalk inscriptions along S.E. 13th Avenue refer to it as 'E. 13th St.' More information on the subject can be gleaned from Eugene E. Snyder's book 'Portland Names and Neighborhoods: Their Historic Origins'.

With the construction of the Ross Island Bridge in the 1920's, Brooklyn's business district was cut in half. In 1932 the establishment of McLoughlin Boulevard cut off the neighborhood's recreational access to the Willamette River--still a sore subject. Former residents boated regularly to Ross Island for swimming and picnicking. Today, hikers and bikers can explore the area along the Springwater Corridor via the access at S.E. 4th and Ivon Street, or at Milwaukie just south of McLoughlin.

Construction of the 'Super Highway', McLoughlin Boulevard, in the 1930's, also resulted in demolition of the stately Inman home, a mirror image to the historic Poulson House still standing at 3040 S.E. McLoughlin Boulevard, to provide an entrance ramp for the 99-E expressway. The nearby MLK Viaduct, which is currently being removed and rebuilt, was constructed on a heap of sawdust fill in a swampy area where the Brooklyn Slough joined the Willamette River--which is the reason the west section of the viaduct is sagging, and the reconstruction project is now necessary.

Many rooming houses and smaller homes were established as lodging for single or temporary workmen. Brooklyn's neighborhood spirit was based on the immigrants' common bonds of hard work, low pay, and family loyalty. Tour visitor Ron Nugent, who grew up in Brooklyn in the '50's and wrote a short history called 'The Mayor of Brooklyn', noted, 'When I grew up here, it was a very open place, where people got along. It was marvelously integrated and open-minded. It's too bad that much of that diversity has been chased out by the high prices of homes.'

The Brooklyn tour guides pointed out examples of 'Portland Foursquare' homes, bungalows, and 'Craftsman' style homes. The wide variety of homes in Brooklyn provides much of its charm. The Adam Hemmrich House at 1516 S.E. Pershing, built in Farmhouse style, is considered the oldest home in Brooklyn. Built in 1883, it used to have an adjacent barn, as does the Mantia Home at 3354 SE 14th Avenue. Sawdust in the walls provided homespun insulation, to preserve homegrown produce for the family.

Many examples of Queen Anne Victorian homes still dot the neighborhood, such as one at 3384 S.E. 16th Avenue, built in 1891, which also features an ornamental 'Norwegian' porch on its second story.

The tour guides related that what is now known as the Brooklyn Park Pub had a wide and varied history. Built around 1900, it served in many capacities, especially as a workmen's tavern. Located across Haig Street from the former Doc Watson's Nickelodeon and Dance Hall (dated 1910, 3390 S.E. Milwaukie Avenue), its second floor is rumored to have served as a brothel.

Further south, at 3608 S.E. Milwaukie Avenue, Gordinier's Art Glass Studio with its stocky silhouette and display windows served first as a hay barn, then as a grocery store. One of the tiny twin garages at 3517 SE Milwaukie in front of the Schienfiele Home was the site of the first 'Macheezmo Mouse' restaurant (1982) in Portland.

Up through Brooklyn Heights, also Benedictine Heights, a 'Dutch Barn' style home sits at 3505 SE 8th Avenue. This home features unique gothic arches framed with shingles. Prairie style, Mediterranean stucco style, and a new 'uber-modern' home were also noted in the Heights, along with more Victorians and new Craftsman style housing built to blend in with the neighborhood history. Mathiesen told his tour group that 'painted lady' Victorians represent a fairly modern color scheme. 'Most Victorians were generally originally painted white,' he said.

A number of Brooklyn buildings were moved into the area, arriving by river barge, by wheeled vehicles--or in the case of Sacred Heart Church, pulled by horse and wagon.

Restored Workman's Cottages were pointed out on S.E. 10th Avenue near Brooklyn Park, along with the old-fashioned espaliered fruit trees across the street. Brooklyn Park, where the neighborhood will host their annual Ice Cream Social in the Park on September 10th, has 'more use per square foot' than any other park in the City of Roses.

Long-time Brooklyn Park attendant Craig Montag, who has guided summer activities there for over 25 years, was praised for his contributions to neighborhood stability. 'He's just wonderful,' said Mathiesen. 'He gets the kids to respect each other and help out, and maintains a full schedule of activities for all ages.' Brooklyn Park hill is the site of the famous water slide that appears during hot weather. Many generations of families have enjoyed 'The Hill' during summer, and also for winter sports when the occasional snow falls.

Kathy Orton, former neighborhood historian, authored the illustrated, self-guided Brooklyn Historical Tour booklet that can be purchased at the Brooklyn Pharmacy or at True Brew Coffee House. Another fascinating publication is 'A History of Sacred Heart parish 1893-1993', compiled by Parish Historian Doris Doerfler in 1994.

Don Stephens is the current Chairman of the Brooklyn Historical Society, which sells home research kits for $2. Call 503/235-2174 for information.

The Brooklyn Historical Society meets the first Monday of every month at the new Loaves and Fishes dining hall at Milwaukie and Center Street. The BHS sells Brooklyn Historical Markers for $35 each through their address, P. O. Box 42651, Portland, OR 97242, or call 503/241-4540. People requesting these markers need to supply the date their home was built, factual information related to original owner or use (if applicable), and current owner's name, address, and phone number.

Stephens says, 'In the past, the BHS had members with architectural history and oral history training, but those folks have moved on. We're always interested in hearing about neighborhood history, either from professionals or from other residents.'

Future tours plan to address more thoroughly Brooklyn Rail, the Sacred Heart Church, and lumber history. The neighborhood has been working on becoming an official historic district for the past five years, hoping to achieve a balance between preserving historic resources without restricting progress.