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A century at Edgefield

McMenamins Edgefield celebrates 100 years on Saturday
by: Jim Clark Hotel guests enter the front doors of McMenamins Edgefield. It’s a very changed environment from the old county poor farm.

Multnomah County's Poor Farm in Troutdale was never the kind of place you wanted to end up.

Built in 1911 long before Social Security and most welfare programs were established, the poor farm was where the county sent its disabled and impoverished residents, who ranged from flat-broke workers to down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs and business owners.

But in stark contrast to its predecessor, Hillside Farm in Portland's West Hills - which was described by reformers at the time as archaic and 'deplorable' - the Multnomah County Poor Farm was built by forward-thinking pioneers in social welfare, looking to provide the farm's unfortunate residents a chance to become self-sufficient amid fresh air and country living. The poor farm's manor was the second brick building constructed in Troutdale - complete with electricity and central heating and more luxurious than most homes at the time.

The poor farm became an East County institution. Its 345-acre property contained a tuberculosis hospital, a dairy and pig farm and laundry where prison inmates worked.

In 1964, it became a well-regarded nursing home. It later closed and faced demolition until a committed group of local historians, community members and two brothers decided to rescue and renovate the historic property.

These days, McMenamins Edgefield is a popular draw for Portland-area residents and tourists looking to enjoy food and drink, live music, weddings, golf and holiday festivities or a relaxing vacation.

It's funny how things change with time.

McMenamins Edgefield celebrates its 100th anniversary Saturday, July 2, with a day of activities commemorating its long history and the diverse people who have passed through it during the years.

'Part of the celebration is to pay tribute to the fact that this building is still here and to celebrate its historical significance,' says Tim Hills, McMenamins historian. 'For a big white elephant like this to make it is amazing.'

Hills is teaming with Outlook columnist and local historian Sharon Nesbit to present a history of the Edgefield property. He encourages anyone with a connection to Edgefield to come and share their story.

Diverse people called Edgefield home

As part of the celebration, Hills hopes to pay tribute to the people who resided at the property for years.

Hills says he searched through the admittance files at the Multnomah County Archives, which often contained certain biographical details about the person to lead him to more information through census and city directories.

His research 'turned up an amazing array of people who would never, ever come together in any other circumstances, but they all lived under one roof here over a period of decades.' They included military veterans, former slaves and slave owners, once-successful business owners, prison inmates, sea captains and immigrants, he says.

Frankie Baker, a dancer from St. Louis, Mo., in 1899 murdered her boyfriend and inspired a popular ballad, 'Frankie and Johnny.' She later moved to Oregon and spent her last years at the poor farm, dying in 1952. The Urban League of Portland, a civil rights organization, honored her with a lifetime achievement award for activism in the community at a meeting that may have been attended by the McMenamin brothers' mother and grandfather, Hills says.

Another black resident at the poor farm came from Deadwood, S.D., where he lived during the same time as Wild Bill Hickok.

Then there was Rufus Barringer Jr., a nephew of Confederate Gen. Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, who was alienated from the family over money issues and committed to an asylum. He later became a printer, traveling from city to city. He settled at the poor farm and lived to be 102.

The Great Depression brought even more people to the poor farm, Hills says. In the manor's basement, some residents set up a bazaar of sorts and used their talents to make some extra money.

'Word got out to Portland and the surrounding towns that you could go have your watch fixed or your shoes repaired here for an incredibly good deal,' he says.

During World War II, he says, the county government was instructed to do a survey of any potential saboteurs and war criminals. The county went through all the Edgefield patients, which included Germans, Italians, Russians and some Japanese.

Nellie Latourette, a 100-year-old nursing home resident who never married, remembered the young man she fell in love with at age 16.

'She spoke of her boyfriend in the present tense,' says Nesbit, who once interviewed Latourette for a story. 'I asked her, 'Is he still alive?' and she said, 'Only in my heart.' '

During the month of July, McMenamins Edgefield will pay tribute to Harry Schaefer, one of the Northwest's noted artists in the early 1900s, by exhibiting a few of his paintings.

Hills says Schaefer was a relatively successful artist who was left destitute by the Great Depression. His wife and son left him and he drifted into alcoholism. He entered the poor farm in 1936 and spent his last years there in relative obscurity.

'This place is full of amazing stories like that,' Hills says.

What to look forward to Saturday, July 2

• 11 a.m. on the front steps of the main lodge: Champagne toast and the ringing of the Edgefield bell. (The original Edgefield bell was stolen in 1982 a week after the nursing home was shut down.)

• 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Blackberry Hall: A gathering of former Edgefield staff, residents, family and friends; and an exhibit of Edgefield artifacts, photographs and documents from the collections of the Troutdale Historical Society, Multnomah County Archives and McMenamins.

• Noon, 2 and 4 p.m. in the Power Station Theater: Screening of a newly produced Edgefield Centennial video.

• 1 and 3 p.m. in the main lodge's ballroom: An Edgefield history presentation by Sharon Nesbit, who spearheaded the effort to save Edgefield; and Tim Hills, McMenamins historian.

• Property-wide festivities run from 11 a.m. till late.

• Harry Schaefer's art: A special exhibit of Northwest artist Harry Schaefer, who spent his last years at the poor farm, will be on display in Edgefield's reception area throughout July.