Preserving the Past

For Mary Jo Morelli, bringing history alive for Forest Grove's next generation is worth all her years of effort
by: , Mary Jo Morelli

If Mary Jo Morelli has her way, Forest Grove's children will one day romp in grassy areas surrounding a historic home that sits along the city's southern border.

They'll lift the handle of a rectangular door that covers the entrance to the basement and marvel at basalt rock walls lining the huge underground room.

And most significantly, they'll hear about how life was back in the 1850s, when pioneers were about the business of settling the Oregon territory - planting crops, raising livestock and building roads.

Morelli, 54, is one of two recipients of the 2006 Elisabeth Walton Potter Historic Preservation Scholarship Award, announced June 20 by officials at the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office.

She has distinct plans for the A.T. Smith House, built in 1854. Already listed on the National Register of Historic Places managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the house had fallen into disrepair after its last occupants moved out 30 years ago.

Between Smith's life and times and today's preservation crusade, members of the Duyck and Zurcher families lived in the home.

Nearly bulldozed by Metro in 1991 to make way for a waste transfer station, the house was saved after a loud outcry from local historians. Further efforts to preserve the Smith house were galvanized by 2002, when Morelli and her husband, David, led a drive to prevent an asphalt plant from locating on adjacent property.

Since then, the stately house has hovered on Morelli's personal radar as an A-list project that demands a good chunk of her time and passion.

It's also the white-dot focus of her work with Friends of Historic Forest Grove, a local education and preservation group she helped organize in 1989.

Using funds from private lenders, the nonprofit group's Committee to Preserve the A.T. Smith Property purchased the home in 2005 for $75,000 - and the race to restore it was under way.

'What we want to do is open it for tours by Oregon's sesquicentennial in 2009,' Morelli said. 'We think that goal is reachable.'

Just last Thursday, she met with a preservation architect and an archaeologist on the two-acre site just behind 84 Lumber. Their professional eyes popped when they saw some original wallpaper in an upstairs room, square nails in corners, ax marks in roof beams and wooden pegs holding trusses together.

'Smith was a craftsman to the point of being an artist,' Morelli said as she walked through the house and up a narrow staircase to the attic. 'This is the coolest space - can you imagine some of the feet that have wandered these steps?'

A carpenter and farmer who grew crops and raised pigs, Smith was also an entrepreneur 'who helped build some of the roads into Portland so he could sell what he raised,' Morelli noted.

He and his first wife, Abigail, headed west to Oregon from Connecticut in 1840 as part of the Illinois Party, intending to start an independent mission among the Native Americans.

Rev. Smith traveled with fellow ministers Harvey Clarke and Philo Littlejohn.

Smith's second wife, Jane, left several decades-worth of her husband's personal diaries to the Oregon Historical Society after she died in 1920.

'It's amazing that he wrote so many things down,' marveled Morelli. One entry, from 1842, gave away Smith's feelings about working with Clarke, who later joined the Whitman Mission.

'They apparently had kind of a volatile relationship,' Morelli said. 'Their passions were similar, but their personalities didn't match.'

She added that the journals provided her with all the motivation she needed to pursue the house preservation project.

'This is the home of the first permanent Euro-American settler of Forest Grove,' Morelli said.

Most of all, Morelli insisted, Smith's life and death - he passed away in Forest Grove in 1888 - provide a tangible link to local history.

'We're preserving all the original features that we can,' Morelli said last week, standing in the front meeting room of the two-story, oak and cedar plank structure that was once the home of Congregational missionaries.

So far, workers have restored all the windows in the 2,200-square-foot house, 'size-wise a mansion from that period,' Morelli said. Plans are to preserve everything but a side porch, which was added in the 1970s.

'Our goal is to restore the house to approximately 1870s condition,' she noted. 'This is a treasure - people are starting to realize how much documentation was left here.'

For Morelli, a self-avowed history junkie, her work is all about creating opportunities for people - particularly children - to learn everything they could ever want to know about Alvin Thompson Smith.

'I see the yard full of kids. I see families taking tours and having a living history experience,' Morelli said.

Those who do will catch the bug Morelli caught when she was a child growing up on a farm outside Gresham, rattling around in an attic filled with family treasures.

'What it took for me was context,' Morelli said. 'There are so many kids who can't memorize history dates and don't have a clue what went on with their ancestors.

'I grew up with the stories. When I got into my adult life, all the pieces started fitting together - and it made sense.'