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The Way Things Were

The old gang from downtown Gresham gathers to reminisce on life before fancy, high-rise condos
by: John Klicker, From left, John Andrew, Margaret Maggy, Dorothy Stone, Maggie Splawn, Muriel Morgan, Pauline Ellis, Louise Dix, Betty Chaney and Liz Bartholomew line up in front of the Beranger building in downtown Gresham.

The kids who grew up in downtown Gresham recently gathered on the sidewalk where they used to play hopscotch. A laughing gang of mostly 80-somethings, they raised a ruckus as they lined up and linked hands.

Drawn by the noise, a woman stepped out on the terrace of her shiny new condo on the second floor of Beranger building, and peered over the rail to see what was going on.

She might very well have hollered, 'What are you kids doing down there?'

It was John Welsh's idea to gather friends and classmates who grew up in single-family neighborhoods that were once part of downtown Gresham. Some still mourn that community, the Gresham of 1930 when 1,150 people lived in wood frame houses, mostly painted white, centered in green yards. The shops on Main and Roberts avenues were only blocks away. A kid could walk all over town. It was not unusual to see a farmer on the street with a team and wagon. Both a harness shop and blacksmith were still in business. John Andrew remembers that Gresham had two of most everything, two dentists, two doctors, two clothing stores, two competing dry goods and grocery stores and two lawyers. It had just one 5-and-10-cent store and one jeweler.

The 80-somethings shake their heads at the way things have changed. The old houses are vanishing. Multi-use buildings like the Beranger, with businesses on the street level and windowed condos on the upper floors, are the norm.

'One hundred and eighty thousand dollars,' one of the 'kids' yelped at hearing the cost of a new condo. 'Can you believe it?'

In the 1930s John Andrew's father rented a house two blocks into downtown Gresham for $12 a month. Those were the days when people kept chickens in the backyard and if they didn't, the McKillican Chicken Farm was in operation at Powell Boulevard and Cleveland Avenue.

'Remember when we used to say that Cleveland was way out there,' laughed Louise Wall Dix.

Over lunch, the gang recreated their old neighborhood. Satter's Grocery sold bootleg liquor, Maggie Splawn said with a wink. Vern Cook, who would later be a state senator, sold toy monkeys on a stick at the fair in Gresham. And the Splawn family made Gresham famous, cooking hamburgers and onions at the fair.

The fair was Gresham's big event. It clogged up Main Avenue for more than a week. Louise Wall Dix lived adjacent to the fairgrounds. 'All the kids came to my house to climb to the top of the chicken coop and hop over the fence to get into the fair for free,' she said.

Curious kids - John Andrew was one - were drawn to any exotic attraction. He remembers it was about 1932 when the Ringling circus arrived. 'It came by train to Troutdale, then mostly by foot up Fairview Avenue to a large vacant field on what is now the Gresham High athletic field. The whole circus marched up Main, circled around the center of the intersection of Main and Powell and then back to the field where it would perform for the next several days.

'Opening night went well but during the next few days it rained and rained. The tents leaked, the elephants sank into the inundated field up to their ankles. It was a mess. During the night the circus left town, reportedly leaving unpaid bills and very messy grounds.'

Muriel Comstock Morgan, now 81, and her brother were among the first children to get bicycles in the neighborhood. They were used bikes, but the ownership of a bicycle of any kind made a kid popular.

The sport was softball for Pauline Greene Ellis, 81, who lived just behind where US Bank is now. Her home, she remembered, was her family's first with indoor plumbing. 'There was a vacant lot we used for a softball field. Every night after school we had a softball game.'

Dorothy Miller Stone, 82, played on the back steps of the Zion United Church of Christ, which still stands at the corner of Fifth Street and Main Avenue. One of her playmates was Bob Wright, who would become the town barber. Dorothy would marry clothier Gordon Stone and run a business just across the way.

Gresham was nearly as white as its houses. The children who grew up in Gresham remember its only black resident as 'old Charlie Rivers.' Japanese immigrant Henry Tajima washed the windows downtown and owned a monkey. He disappeared in 1942 when Japanese were interned. And swarthy Frank Escobar, of Latin descent, 'had the greenest lawn in Gresham.'

At least once a year the Indians from the Warm Springs reservation came to town for the fair. Despite warnings not to 'go near those Indians,' John Andrew couldn't stay away.

The most exotic sight in town for Maggie Splawn was the stuffed alligator in the glass case outside the Larsen Auto Court. 'I'd go by there shopping with my mother, and I just looked and looked. Pretty soon she'd drag me away saying I'd seen that thing enough.'

At 16 you were old enough to work in the cannery. Girls walked home at 2 and 3 a.m. from their cannery shifts, not worrying about being out at night.

Betty Peterson Chaney, 81, was born in the house where Central Café sits now. Louise Wall Dix was just next door. 'Louise's mother and my mom were best friends, and they kept moving and when they did, the other would move to be near her,' Chaney remembered.

The Beranger building, with its lofty windows and balconied condos, could not be more alien to the neighborhood they remember if King Kong was clinging to the top floor.

As each of the old houses comes down in old Gresham, phone callers complain of the loss.

'But some of those old houses had to go,' says Elizabeth Bartholomew Jones, who still lives in the home at Fourth Street and Hood Avenue where she moved in 1954. Her neighborhood is still unchanged.

'All the condos are on Third Street,' she says. 'Thank goodness.'

A stranger coming to Gresham, old neighborhood kids say, wouldn't know his way around. It reminds Maggie Splawn that when Bill Stone, now a local dentist, was a child, he came to Gresham from his rural home and got lost in the 'big town.'

'I laugh about that all the time,' she says.