Southeast History: Sellwood in the Roaring 1920's
It was just short of 100 years ago.
When the 1920's began, America was entering into a new era in which it had suddenly become a world power. After being victorious in the First World War, our nation found itself on an equal footing with England, France, and the rest of Western Europe.
Times were changing, and U.S. servicemen were returning home from fighting overseas. These young men were experiencing the Age of Flight, the rise of Jazz, and a newfound confidence that they, too, could enjoy luxuries and careers that previously only the rich had been able to have.
American workers enjoyed some of the highest wages in the world – and with some of that money, young men wanted the brand new home entertainment appliance – a radio. By the end of the 1920s, over eighty percent of Americans had a radio in their homes, with which one could tune into current news and events. Families also listened intently to entertainment shows like Amos 'n Andy, show tunes on the Palmolive Hour, or the comedy drama of The Goldbergs and Fibber McGee and Molly. Boys thrilled to the adventures of The Lone Ranger and other heroes.
Henry Ford by then was building the inexpensive, mass-produced Model T Ford that workingmen could afford, and gas stations and autos soon filled the new roadways and highways being created to accommodate them. Women had more opportunities than ever before to be accepted into the workforce as secretaries and teachers, and filling various accounting positions.
In Sellwood, in what would become known as the "Roaring 20's", prosperity was everywhere. P.H. Duncan opened up the first Chevrolet dealership in Westmoreland at Milwaukie and Bybee (site of today's U.S. Bank), and when the City of Portland announced the opening of two new bridges across the Willamette River in 1925 – the Ross Island and the Sellwood – it suddenly became easy for those on the west side of the river to drive to the Southeast Portland.
And they would not run short of fuel. Gas stations abounded on the corners of every major intersection. On S.E. 17th Avenue, auto repair shops were available for lube and oil jobs to new tires and engine tuneups. Gas and repair service was also available at the Community Auto Station and ByBee Garage, also at Bybee and Milwaukie.
While "Prohibition" banning the sale of alcoholic beverages was underway nationwide at the start of the 1920's, Portland had already been a "dry" city for four years. The "Mt. Hood Brewery" at S.E. Marion and 11th was reduced to selling "near beer", and later became the site of a storage warehouse for ice cream, and still later of a cold storage facility for frozen fish.
Interestingly, under the Volstead Prohibition Act, alcohol could still be purchased by an individual for medicinal purposes. With a doctor's prescription, patients near S.E. 13th Avenue could slip into the Beaver Pharmacy and present their doctor's order to Peter or Katherine Livingston for a bottle of liquor.
Other medically-needy residents living along 17th Avenue would visit W. Radkel, the druggist at the Spokane Pharmacy, for their bottle of booze. Pharmacies throughout Southeast Portland – like Halldorsson's, Nehalem Pharmacy, and the long-established Brooklyn Pharmacy near Powell Boulevard – saw a nearly tenfold increase in alcohol sales, with doctors' orders.
Unable to sell liquor or beer to their customers, many beer joints and saloons had to close, or serve "near beer", or resort to the sale of soft drinks and sodas. Near beer was a tasteless foamy brew that contained one half of one percent of alcohol, which most drinkers insisted had "no kick to it".
Some saloon owners decided to go underground, selling alcohol beverages in unmarked buildings generally referred-to as "speakeasys" where trustworthy clients were invited to private parties under the surveillance of husky men who made sure enforcement officers were kept at bay. (The atmosphere of such places is lovingly reproduced today by the unmarked "Bible Club", across from the Sellwood-Moreland Post Office.)
It's said that Italians love their wine, and when liquor, beer, and wine were declared illegal to manufacture or possess, the law posed quite a hardship to the Italian community. Wine was such an important part of Italian society that many Italians in Sellwood, Brooklyn, and other Inner Southeast neighborhoods later admitted to having small sheds or basements where they'd concocted the secret beverage for personal consumption – or for birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions.
Soda fountains and confectionaries became a place to hang out for teenagers who congregated after a movie or dance, or just when school was let out. Pre-teens loved the sweet candies, banana splits, and cream sodas offered by the man behind the counter in the white hat -- or simply the fun of sitting on a twirling stool at the counter, and feeling like a high schooler, even though they had a few more years to go.
The Monarch Pharmacy and its soda fountain at Milwaukie and ByBee in Westmoreland, where ZoomCare is now, was the place where mom and dad could spend part of a romantic evening without the kids. Farley's Confectionary and the Sellwood Sweet Shop were also favorite places to stop on a Saturday afternoon, or after church on Sunday.
With so much sugar being consumed in Sellwood and Westmoreland back then, it's not surprising there was an abundance of dentists in the area. Dr. R.S. Stryker, J.W. Lehman, R.R. Hill, and W.H. Springer were listed in directories as part of the tooth patrol in the community.
The Oregon Door Company, Eastside Box Factory, and the Eastside Lumber Mill – situated along the waterfront between the streets of Spokane and Tacoma – in that decade still proved to be the largest employers of men in the neighborhood. The lumber mill ran 24-hour shifts during peak production periods, employing between 300 and 500 men on each 12 hour shift.
A surge in the population in the 1920's led to the opening of new stores and services along the main traveled streets. The Peerless Laundry Company at 13th and Tacoma, founded by Jay "Doc" Dannell, had over 50 employees. The drivers of Model T trucks would make laundry deliveries throughout the city, and in the outlying areas beyond Portland. Customers were charged one dollar for every 30 pieces of clothing that needed to be washed.
As for entertainment – the Sellwood, Star, and Isis Theaters provided weekly shows on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the theater corner, Spokane and 13th Avenue. In the newer community just north of Sellwood, the opening of the Westmoreland Theater in 1925 at the corner of Glenwood and Milwaukie was big news.
During the summer, Oaks Park provided numerous comedy acts and entertainment along with their summer concerts; and roller skating was in fashion during the 1920's. Every child that grew up in Sellwood spent time in the historic Sellwood swimming pool; and baseball was the main attraction at Sellwood Park, where elementary school kids and adults held their league games continuously through the summer. The Sellwood Community Center on S.E. Spokane Street hosted basketball and wrestling for restless boys, and offered crafts and gymnastic for the young ladies.
Residents no longer had to travel to downtown Portland for professional services; both 13th Avenue in Sellwood and Milwaukie Avenue in Westmoreland hosted offices for doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and real estate agents. For those who were injured or sick, there was the Sellwood General Hospital on S.E. Umatilla just west of today's Sellwood Middle School, where Dr. Sellwood treated patients. A mainstay of the hospital was helping expectant mothers and dealing with simple surgical needs. If you needed more serious treatment, most Southeast residents traveled to the major hospitals on the west side of the river for what they perceived as better care. If ailments proved far more severe, the Kenworthy Funeral Parlor in Sellwood was among the undertaking services conveniently available.
Berlin Davis Shoes, Hepp's Racket Store, Rust's Haberdashery, Brill's, and Trenton the Tailor provided all the suits, ties, shirts, and clothing that a businessman in Southeast Portland would need for work and church gatherings. Gentlemen did not need to shop at the expensive men's stores downtown, when the latest styles were available in Sellwood!
On the weekends women still dressed in their finest for a trip via the street car to the major department stores of Meier and Frank, and Olds, Wortman, and King, as an all-day outing and social affair.
Shop owners not only worked in Westmoreland and Sellwood they also resided close to their places of business, and raised their families here.
Wages were at an all-time high – and, with disposable income, young couples wanted more thrills in their lifestyle than simply attending church services every weekend and seasonal picnics that the older folks flocked to at Oaks Park. Small cafes and family restaurants began popping up along the business district as wives could be treated to a night off from home cooking and household chores. Pete and Helen Leipzig opened the Leipzig Confectionary on 13th Avenue on the north side of Spokane Street. Leipzig's offered tasty, tongue-tickling drinks from their fountain, warm coffee, and the best pie around town.
As mentioned earlier, after the Sellwood community had been petitioning the Portland City Council for ten years on the importance of building a bridge across the Willamette River there, on December 15th, 1925, a new Sellwood Bridge was officially opened for motor vehicles and pedestrians. The Sellwood Bank moved to Tacoma Street, where business was brisker. The real estate market in Garthwick, East Moreland, and West Moreland was a hotbed of action, as new residents could now travel to and from the area by car. THE BEE, already 19 years old, had six real estate companies in its classified directory ready and waiting to assist first-time homebuyers, and those wanting to put their house on the market
Men enjoyed the evening camaraderie of fraternal organizations like the Elks, Masons, Odd Fellows, and the Redman's Organizations – and women and children visited the local theater every weekend for a movie or a live show. Billiards and pool in taverns offered an option for men who preferred not to be part of large fraternal groups – and, in Sellwood, the Lavender Club was an alternative for older women.
Back in 1921 the Westmoreland Community Club had been established to help "improve the neighborhood". Some of its first meetings were held in the Bohemian Hall – now a residential house at 14th and S.E. Duke. Events included numerous dances, as well as fundraisers from which the money secured was used for additional street lighting, sidewalk improvements, and support for a new building for the students at Llewellyn school in 1926.
They were instrumental in blocking the Southern Pacific Railroad's grand plan of adding additional train tracks along their right of way between the West Moreland and Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Workers, merchants, businessmen, bankers, artists, and politicians were enjoying the good life of prosperity that seemed would never end. The common man was able to participate or watch sporting events, own an automobile, and sit back at home and listen to the national news, live music, comedy, and drama on the radio. Ladies were finally able to vote, start a career for themselves, and purchase modern conveniences like refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines, all of which allowed them free time to enjoy other pleasures. Cosmetics were widely available, the latest dress styles could be bought just down the street, and magazines were delivered to their front door. Regular pleasures included a night out at the movies or local restaurant or sweet shop.
But the good life of the Roaring '20's ground to a dramatic halt in October of 1929, when excessive margin buying and speculation popped the financial bubble that had been building, and the stock market completely collapsed, putting the nation into an economic tailspin. Suddenly, prosperous and employed citizens found themselves without a job, and saddled with debt and outstanding loans.
As the 1930's started, residents of Sellwood, Garthwick, and West and East Moreland were faced with a future of uncertainty for their children, neighbors, and their own well-being. The decade of the 1930's would be a true test to their strength and the stability of the community. But that is another story.