Tours highlight historic details few residents realize

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATHLEEN ROHDE - When leading school tours, Mary Jo Morelli stands at the gate of this community garden and asks students, Why are you standing in the middle of the train tracks? An old rail line used to run right through there.Buggies being hauled into the air, raging fires, floodwaters high enough to cover Giant Sequoias — all are connected to the history of Forest Grove.

Buildings and trees that city residents now pass every day have hidden stories, says local historian Mary Jo Morelli, who offers $7 customized city tours every Wednesday evening through September 5.

Morelli’s Sojourn Forest Grove drew a fair amount of customers last summer, but has seen hardly any since opening for business again in June.

Morelli knows so much about the city’s history that she can tailor the tour route to her customers’ interests, even taking it past their own homes.

“I switch it up depending on who comes,” Morelli said.

On a recent tour, for example, she pointed out how the eaves on a tour-taker’s home were flush with the outer walls, indicating the home was built during World War II, when resources were scarce.

“The buildings contribute to the cultural significance of this city,” said Morelli, who serves as president of Friends of Historic Forest Grove and is co-author of “Images of America (Forest Grove).”

Morelli’s tours focus on the city’s architecture, trees and even geology. She explains how the Missoula floods that swamped the area thousands of years ago would have been high enough to cover the giant Sequoia tree at Pacific Avenue and B Street.

That Sequoia, by the way, is the tallest in the state and was brought here during the Gold Rush, Morelli NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATHLEEN ROHDE - The street builders of 100 years ago lined certain curbs with metal to protect them from the buggy wheels that crashed against them.

Metal from the early 1900’s still lines the corners of several intersections, where it once protected cement curbs from the destructive blows of heavy wagon wheels.

Around the same time, the building which now houses WSC Financial Services held buggies on the top floor and horses on the first floor. Part of the pulley system that hauled the buggies upstairs is still intact, Morelli said.

The city’s street names went through several incarnations before 1950 and some of the long-outdated labels are still visible, such as the “Second Street” stamped into the curb at 18th Avenue and Birch Street (See sidebar below).

Morelli chronicles some of the major fires that occurred during the early 1900s, including one that burned the entire block now housing Maggie’s Buns. In an effort to stop such destruction, the city passed a law requiring all future buildings to be made of brick, thus helping preserve Main Street’s now-historic buildings.

Morelli also tells stories focusing on historic figures such as Tabitha Brown, who ran the orphanage that became the Tualatin Academy and eventually Pacific University.

“I want history to be relevant to kids. Kids retain information through stories,” she said.

Morelli offers more than just a tourist-eye introduction to the city. She offers locals a new and intriguing way to see their community, which boasts three historic districts and many state- and nationally recognized historic buildings.

Over her tour-guide career, Morelli has led groups large and small, old and young, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and schoolchildren.

“I have a passion and it shows,” Morelli said. “There’s so much to see in Forest Grove it doesn’t get old.”

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