Seafaring man puts down roots, works for trolley, plays the tuba, divorces, and becomes a preacher
- Dana Beck
- The Bee - Features
From fireman to shipbuilder, streetcar worker to preacher, William E. Leppert wore many hats during his lifetime. This is the story of his family, and the times they lived in here.
In the early 1900's Leppert first worked with a man named Martin Noffsinger, learning everything he could about building boats. He gained considerable experience operating the U.S. Mailboat, and delivering mail to people living along the Siuslaw River.
By 1916, this pioneer Oregonian had been named the Captain of the ship 'Beaver', and it was right about then that a tall, slim girl with black hair and eyes named Ruth Noffsinger - by coincidence, Martin Noffsinger's daughter! - caught his attention.
Grand-daughter Judith Leppert today describes her grandmother Ruth as 'a shy, self-effacing, and rather reclusive' lady. If she lacked ebullience, it must have been her beauty and intriguing personality which won the affections of Captain Leppert - for in May of that same year he proposed to, and soon married, the sixteen-year-old Ruth in Junction City, just north of Eugene.
Ruth, now married to a seafaring man, came to realize that life in the shipping business was a come-and-go affair. For the next few years, William and Ruth lived in a variety of locations in Oregon - from Mapleton to Portland to Junction City to Sellwood: Home was wherever work was available. Along the way, a family was started. Son Robert was born in November of 1916, and in 1920 the happy parents welcomed Marcel (Eleanor, as she preferred to be called) into the small family circle.
By 1921, the Leppert family had settled into a house at 8th and Ochoco in the Sellwood neighborhood. With Robert and Eleanor enrolled at Sellwood School, William decided to stay in one place, and hired on as a regular with the city trolley line, car barns for which were close by. The Sellwood car barns were located on the east side of 13th between Ochoco and Linn Streets, at a stopping place known to the locals as 'Golf Junction'. There's a small park with that name there today, at S.E. 13th and Linn Street.
For recreation, William joined the CarMen's Musical Band - and, with a tuba on his shoulder, he would walk to the two-story brick CarMen's Club House across the street from the car barns.
Built in 1910, that clubhouse at 11th and S.E. Linn was a stopping place for the conductors, motormen, and company employees, to rest between shifts or during off hours. Pool tables, billiards, and card games were offered for amusement - and cots were available for new hires to sleep on, until they could locate other housing. Now occupied by the Dunthorpe Marketing Group, the CarMen's Club House building has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Downtown Portland was a hotbed of nighttime entertainment by the early 1900's, with concerts, parties, and dances practically every night in the week. William took his tuba and, with the band, hired out for different events in the heart of the city.
Later, after the trolley, William found occasional work as a fireman for the Union Pacific Railroad, or - returning to his former profession - scouring the docks of the riverfront as a hired mariner.
By the 1930's William had created his own boat-building business - the Willamette Boat and Manufacturing Company on Macadam Avenue. William's and Ruth's grand-daughter, Judith Leppert, recalls that 'as the great depression continued, fewer people ordered boats', and soon William had to look for another occupation. His wife Ruth helped supplement the family income, hiring on as an assembly-line worker in a textile factory.
'Other jobs that Ruth took included cleaning houses, and performing assorted odd jobs for busy schoolteachers who could still afford to pay for hired work; sometimes she brought in the only money they had available to put food on the table,' reflects Judith.
After graduating from Sellwood School, their son Robert attended Benson High, worked at the Oregon Shipyards, and then worked as a salesman at his father's boat business, before it closed down.
Hoping to escape the military draft, Robert tried to earn a job in the shipyards, having expertise in boat building. He was turned down; and when a friend warned him (illegally) that his draft notice had already been mailed out, Robert quickly enlisted with the Army Air Corps. He became a flight officer, flying bombers - and was never sent to the war front overseas.
Robert Leppert met his future wife, Lila, while lifeguarding at the Montavilla Pool, and they were married in 1942. Daughter Judith was born in 1945. Robert went on to graduate from the University of Portland, and the new couple settled into a peaceful life in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the marriage of William and Ruth Leppert was coming to an unexpected end in the late 1940's, when William left a stunned Ruth and married Doris Rush. Together, and perhaps surprisingly given the lack of any prior experience in the clergy, William with Doris started Wesleyan Holiness Brethren Church, which was located in the Kellogg Park Housing Development in Clackamas County.
The Kellogg Park Development was among seven Clackamas County housing projects financed by the federal government and built during the start of the Second World War. Only war workers and their families were eligible to occupy this low-rent housing.
Kellogg Park contained over 600 one- and four-bedroom units that rented for from $36 to $45 a month. The community included an administration building, a community hall, a 60-foot wooden water tower, an elementary school with 89 students, and then, with the arrival of William and Doris, a church.
William Leppert moved an existing boathouse which he had previously built himself from the Willamette River to Kellogg Park, added a steeple and entrance door, and invited all the people living in the Kellogg Project to join him in weekly services. At one time some 160 people filled the pews of the church.
In the 1950's, the Federal Housing Authority shut down Kellogg Park, and ordered that its houses be auctioned off and removed. The Kellogg Project was demolished, the site was sold, and the land was converted into today's Milwaukie Industrial Park. The church stood on the bank of Johnson Creek until the early 1970's, when it was torn down to make way for a new business complex.
Preacher Leppert went blind with diabetes, and died in 1972. His second wife, Doris, supported herself as a waitress, and also worked at the Sellwood Bee newspaper, before she moved to Seattle, and passed away in 2000.
Ruth, William's first wife, continued to live in the neighborhood while working at a creamery, and then for many years worked at the Iron Fireman Company, which installed and serviced heating equipment. Ruth lived a tough life after her divorce, working long and hard hours, but she was proud of the career path that her son Robert had pursued.
Robert was a teacher, a journeyman lithography cameraman, and also was a Federal Reserve Bank guard. Robert's favorite passions were singing, and photography. He sang principal roles with various Portland opera companies for nearly thirty years, and once his singing roles diminished, he became the official photographer for the Portland Opera Company.
When Robert died in 1981, his daughter Judith Leppert donated his photo collection to the Oregon Historical Society, where the pictures can now be viewed.
Judith followed in her father's footsteps, becoming a teacher. She is now retired but still lives in Westmoreland, witnessing the many changes that have occurred in the neighborhood over the years. THE BEE appreciates her assistance in telling this family story which spans more than a century of Southeast Portland history.