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The final days of Sellwood's 'Black Cat Tavern'

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


by: DANA BECK - Table shuffleboard games surged in popularity during WW II, as soldiers and sailors played the games at overseas taverns and USO Clubs. In the 1950s the servicemen brought the game back to the States, and many tournaments were held. This is one of the three shuffleboards that remained in the Black Cat Tavern as it prepared to close for good.After over 68 years, the Black Cat Tavern – a landmark in Sellwood, on S.E. 13th at Umatilla Street – will make its last call for beverages and spirits later this month, to the loyal customers who have patronized the establishment over the years.

According to its longtime manager, Deby Ververs, August 18th will be the final day that The Black Cat will be open, and a grand celebration for everyone to attend will be held on Sunday, August 11th, from noon till 9 pm, with live bands all day and barbeque. Eight days later, on Monday, August 26th at 10 am, an auctioneer will sell absolutely everything. The building will then be demolished for a new four-story apartment house.

The history of the Black Cat started in 1935, when Edanna M. Myers wanted to open a lunchtime shop to attract local daytime workers and busy housewives. With prohibition still in effect, Myers likely served nonalcoholic beverages and closed early, unlike the current tavern, which services late night enthusiasts and party-goers looking for entertainment, food, and spirits. The Black Cat Sandwich Shop as it was called when it started, was located on the west side of S.E. 13th, near the corner at Umatilla.

Geraldine and Oliver Morgan bought the sandwich shop eight years later, and moved the Black Cat into its current location. The building in which the Black Cat Tavern resides itself has an interesting background!

A construction frenzy in the early 1900’s was led by business owners and wise investors building two and three story buildings along roads in the small rural districts in East Portland. Situated along 13th Avenue in Sellwood, and Milwaukie Avenue in the Brooklyn district, they hovered over the small family bungalow homes, and even the larger two story four-square houses.

The arrival of the electric streetcars along these avenues made them less rural and more metropolitan, and created new or larger commercial districts. Boarding houses and large storefront structures were needed to support the needs of new residents and workers arriving in the area.

Sellwood’s existing business district, built east-west along the main road of Umatilla Street, was gradually disappearing in favor of the bustling activity north-south along 13th Avenue.

The century-old structure in which today we find the Black Cat Tavern was one of many commercial buildings being constructed at that time.

Built during the height of the streetcar era in 1906, in the very year THE BEE started publishing, the two-story wooden structure was completed on the northeast corner of 13th and Umatilla, housing three separate storefronts and with rooms available upstairs for use as office space or medical and dental clinics. Dr. G.J. Fanning and H. M. Brown, a dentist, occupied the corner street-level space in the first year; Dr. Fanning lived upstairs near his practice.

Florence Harmony was one of the few women who operated her own business, in 1907; it was the Harmony Hat and Millinery Shop. Adjacent to the doctors’ offices, the millinery store remained for about six years, at the same time as J.M. Canfield briefly occupied the premises with his clothing store. Both renters later moved their merchandise over to Spokane Street, which is where most senior Sellwood residents remember them being located.

By the 1920’s, the Maple Restaurant had taken over the space vacated by Canfield’s Clothing store, and had become a favorite for families and fraternal organization get-togethers. During the holiday seasons, reservations were required at the Maple Restaurant, and many community events were scheduled there. When the Sellwood semi-pro team won the greater Portland City baseball championship in 1927, a special dinner was prepared, free of charge for the heroes of the neighborhood at the Maple.

The Pieper and Walker store, which sold paint and wallpaper, opened in 1928 in the northern section of today’s Black Cat building, next to the restaurant. Owner Berlin Davis and his Shoe Shop briefly occupied the space before the paint store arrived; and when the two doctors, Fanning and Brown, left, he transferred his shoe inventory over to the corner shop.

Berlin set up an eye-catching display in the huge picture windows, and attracted potential shoe customers from both sides of the busy intersection. Providing back-to-school shoes for children, and the latest footwear for ladies and men, Berlin serviced residents for over 25 years, until his death in 1952.

The Davis Shoe Store was often referred to as the Sellwood Shoe Shop; when it closed in the 1930’s, the St. Louis Trading Post became the next tenant. The Trading Post, which repaired and sold stoves, opened in 1935.

As the effects of the decade-long Great Depression were wearing off, and business activity was on the rise, new owners Geraldine and Oliver Morgan then moved The Black Cat Sandwich Shop in 1943 into the old Maple Restaurant.

A view via the Sanborn map in 1950 reveals that a major remodel took place in The Black Cat, as the north wall was torn down, doubling the size of the sandwich shop. William Larsen took over as the owner of the Black Cat, and with it a new name, the Black Cat Tavern, as listed in the city directory. Over the next thirty years, small office spaces and clinic rooms upstairs above the tavern were converted into living quarters, and the final wall on the main floor was eventually taken down – and the Black Cat Tavern occupied the entire building on the ground floor.

Shuffleboard became a popular bar sport in the 1940’s, and three long shuffleboard tables were added to the Black Cat. Indoor sporting games and entertainment increased customer traffic, and enticed patrons to stay longer to consume food and drink and increase the revenue to the tavern. Shuffleboard tournaments were held regularly through the years.

The Black Cat also sponsored various local basketball and summer baseball teams. The tavern went through a succession of owners after William Larsen retired, Mrs. Elva Haugen in the 1960’s and Violet Van Camp in the 70’s and 80’s.

Susan Moreland and Nancy Shire purchased the Black Cat Tavern on April Fool’s Day 1991, and one year later Deby Ververs was hired as a waitress – later promoted to Manager. During Deby’s 22-year tenure, many celebrities and notables graced the bar stools of The Cat.

Christopher Knight, formerly known as Peter Brady on the Brady Bunch, visited for a few nights when he was filming in Portland, and former Multnomah County Sheriff John Bunnell stopped by for a friendly social visit.

“Bernie Coulson was hanging out every night after he finished with his part in ‘Dick’s Town’,” recalled Deby, the movies “Eddie and the Cruisers II” and “The Flop House” were a few of Bernie’s better-known movies. When ex-Trail Blazer Channing Frye visited, he left behind his wallet – and though he has been contacted, the wait staff is still wondering when he will return for it. Hopefully before the auction of all the fixtures and furniture on August 26th, or as Manager Ververs smilingly remarked, “We might have to sell Channing’s wallet, if he doesn’t claim it before we close for good.”

One of the more robust characters in the history of the tavern was bartender Steve Bunch, or “Old Red”, as he was called for the brightness of his red hair. Besides serving drinks and chatting amiably with customers, Steve was an excellent artist. He painted a 1960’s-style caricature of a black cat that has been hanging on the wall near the rear exit. He also created the cat scenery along the front plate of the now-nostalgic cigarette machine by the old shuffleboards. “Old Red” passed away a few years back, and his artwork and personality are one of the many lasting memories left in the Black Cat.

Dentist A. Farid Bolouri purchased the tavern from Susan Moreland in 2011, and plans to have the historic structure torn down sometime shortly after the auction. From accounts in the Daily Journal of Commerce by Lee Fehrenbacher, Bolouri plans a four-story building, with retail space on the ground floor, and 21 apartments above. A few covered parking stalls will be available for renters.

Whether he is aware of it or not, Bolouri is echoing that trend on S.E. 13th in the early 1900’s – when the big-building construction boom resulted in storefronts on the street level, and private rooms on the floor or floors above.