Featured Stories

An old Sellwood building holds many memories


Photo Credit: COURTESY OF TERRY DAHLQUIST - Shown here is the interior of the 1920 addition to Smiths Market - its now the dining area of A Piece of Cake. Gus Smith and his brother George Schmidt are shown behind the counter. As the year 2014 comes to an end, the economy is improving – which is good for individuals and businesses that have been struggling for the past five years, and my wish for New Year is that prosperity will continue.

There is a downside, of course.

As I wrote a few months ago, quoting a contractor friend, a poor economy is a gift to older buildings, because funds are not available to demolish and replace them. Now that loans are accessible, builders who had very little work (and who have had to lay off employees) during the recession are busy once again. Structures that appear to be in sound condition are disappearing across the city, including in Sellwood-Westmoreland.

While we may hope for sensitive remodeling and thoughtfully-designed “new builds”, those seem to be in short supply. As a self-described “despairing optimist”, I try to focus on houses, whether restored, remodeled, or replaced, whose owners have given some consideration to the character of their surroundings.

In a similar vein, I would like to end the year by sharing a story that might have been sad but turned into a celebration. It is centered on a building that is 107 years old, and is still operated by a local small-business owner.

The building is in Sellwood, at the southeast corner of S.E. 17th Avenue and Umatilla Street. Since 2000 it has been the location of “A Piece of Cake”, a bakery operated by Marilyn DeVault, who began her business in Lake Oswego in 1978. She has been forced two times to move when her leased premises were demolished for new construction.

After seventeen years in her first location, she moved into an old gambrel-roofed house at the corner of S.E. 13th and Lexington Street in Sellwood. Five years later, her bakery was again displaced by the construction of the Sellwood Lofts and the new Sellwood-Moreland Branch Library.

Moving a business, especially a bakery, is a disruptive and expensive process that DeVault did not want to repeat. For her third and final move, she purchased the building at 8306 S.E. 17th. It had been constructed, with a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor, in 1907. It is a mix of “live/work” space. That sounds modern, but it is an historic combination, and examples are scattered throughout the neighborhood – especially on S.E. 13th, S.E. 17th, and Milwaukie Avenue.

It is unclear who the original owner was, or what business first occupied the ground floor, but in 1918 a 30-year old butcher named Gus Smith opened Smith’s Meat Market there. And, he and his wife Maybelle, and their one-year old daughter Betty Pearl, moved into the upstairs apartment.

Gus was born as August Schmidt in Chicago in 1888. At the age of fifteen he moved west and first settled in Portland’s Lents neighborhood. He then worked for two years for Alexander Poole in his grocery and general merchandise store at the corner of S.E. 17th and Harney Streets. It was probably while he was working for Mr. Poole that Gus learned that the storefront at the other end of the block would soon be available.

In 1915 he and Maybelle (who was from Forest Grove) had married. Family descendents do not know why or when August Schmidt became Gus Smith. It could not have been simply because of the virulent anti-German hysteria that was increasing during World War I, because his brothers, one of whom worked with Gus, retained the Schmidt last name. The Gottschalk family, with whom the Smiths were good friends, ran their beer parlor and café on the opposite corner and retained their last name, too.

Perhaps Gus’ choice to adopt the name Smith was a whimsy to honor his new wife, whose maiden name had been Smith. In any case, their only child, Betty, had the last name of Smith, and her birth announcement in THE BEE in 1917 reported her parents’ name as Smith as well.

According to his 1944 obituary, in his almost 30 years as a Sellwood merchant, Gus was known as a “square dealer” who by featuring “quality merchandise” had built a loyal customer base. A 1934 advertisement in THE BEE boasted that he sold “wienies that are wienies.” It also included praise for Smith’s house-made lard. Mrs. Bryant of Bidwell Street had entered a pie-baking contest at the city auditorium; in a field of 2,000 entries (it was during the Depression) she won the award for Best Pie. Her testimonial gave credit to Smith’s superior lard, which she had used in her crust.

By 1919, just one year after he opened Smith’s Meat Market, Gus had prospered enough that he could afford to expand. A one-story section was added to the south side of the original meat market. While Gus ran the butcher shop in the older part of the building (the section that is now the bakery and service counter for Ms. DeVault’s business), the new section carried general grocery items. A photo that accompanies this story, with Gus and his brother George at the counter, shows canned goods, garden seeds, bread, and bulk goods such as flour and beans. There was also a shed behind the meat market that was used to smoke sausages, turkeys, and hams. On the south side of the new addition was a large fenced area that served as a private garden and play area for Betty. She was able to go in and out of the store or apartment without her parents worrying about the increasing traffic on S.E. 17th Avenue, which until the mid-1930’s was the primary highway on the east side of Portland!

Smith’s Market managed to survive the Depression, especially with the help of Maybelle (who worked only in the grocery side of the business) and later, Betty, who attended Sellwood School and a local high school. By the time Gus died, his daughter Betty had married Herb Dahlquist and produced the first of the Smith family grandchildren, Terry. Her husband also worked in the market. Through World War II Betty and her young son lived with her widowed mother Maybelle over the market, which they continued to operate. After the war Betty, her husband and two boys continued to live in the Sellwood neighborhood, and Terry attended Llewellyn School through the sixth grade. The family then moved to Lake Oswego.

Approximately five years after “A Piece of Cake” began operation on S.E. 17th, Terry Dahlquist brought his mother Betty back to the shop for cake and a conversation with its current owner. When Betty died in August of this year, Terry arranged to have his family’s post-memorial service gathering at “A Piece of Cake”.

With an invitation from the upstairs tenants, Terry was able to enter his childhood apartment for the first time in 60 years and share with Ms. DeVault and the residents how things had changed (which was not very much). For the Smith descendents, this sad occasion became an opportunity to share many family stories.

An old building can act as a touch screen to the memories of those who lived and worked in them, and walking through the space elicits so much more information than looking at a photograph.

This was one of those rare but happy occasions when an old building is still used for a purpose for which it was originally intended, and when the current owner values the connections.

On another subject – during the Holiday shopping season, it has been my custom over the years to suggest books of an historic nature by local authors that I have found interesting. I have two recommendations this year.

“My-Te-Fine Merchant – Fred Meyer’s Retail Revolution”, by Fred Leeson, is the first published biography of Fred Meyer, who built an empire of retail stores that began in Portland and spread as far as Alaska. He was a multi-millionaire who loved his work, but seems not to have taken much pleasure in the money he made, most of which he left to charity through the Fred Meyer Foundation.

Leeson’s account reveals many previously-unknown details about Meyer (like Gus Smith, he had a German name that he changed), how he created his business, and how he treated his employees. A former newpaper reporter, Leeson’s writing clips along at a lively pace, but his information is well-documented. It’s available at Wallace Books in Westmoreland, and the Architectural Heritage Center on S.E. Grand just past the Morrison Bridge.

A second choice is by Eastmoreland resident Thomas C. Hubka. His book, “Houses Without Names”, describes the homes that many of us live in, whose style just can’t be nailed down. What is my house, if not a Cottage, Bungalow, or Four-Square? And what, for heaven’s sake, is an “Old Portland” style house? Hubka, who taught historical architecture both at the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is well-qualified to lead the reader through a new way of considering and describing architectural styles. He has also been writing occasional articles on the subject in the Oregonian. The extensive photographs are helpful as well. It’s good guide for walking around the “checkerboard” neighborhoods of Southeast Portland. Available at the Architectural Heritage Center, and (if you must), on-line as well.