November 13, 2010 by John Chilson
My last post I talked about the present Oak Grove and where it might be headed during the next decade. Obviously, I’m curious about the history of Oregon’s cities and towns and am always looking for first-hand information from townspeople on what it was like.
I first ran into local photographer Tom Rutter, based in Portland, last year when he allowed me to re-publish some of his photographs from the infamous 1972 McGovern rally. I think I had originally stumbled on his site, Photomic, through a Google search for “Oak Grove” which landed me here. In his posts on Oak Grove, Tom talks a bit about his childhood during the mid-1960s – and some of the changes the neighborhood had seen during the past few decades. What’s interesting though is how much the area has stayed the same, like a museum of sorts. Our descriptions of the neighborhood’s population – his from the late 50s and mine from 2010 – sound almost alike.
I sent Tom a few questions on what growing up in and near downtown Oak Grove was like and he graciously answered my questions. His family lived in Oak Grove from 1956-1965, where he attended Oak Grove Grade School [now Sojourner] and then moved further south in the Concord School District until the 1970s.
What shops and stores were on Oak Grove Blvd. [between River Road and Arista] when you were a kid?
The pharmacy with soda fountain and large selection of comics and paperback books was there throughout the 60s. Across the street there was a bakery, and a fairly nice small grocery store. I also believe there was a post office in that small cluster of buildings that are still standing. The south side of the street was tree lined with large chestnut trees back then. The small group of buildings at the Southeast Corner near Arista have always been there as far back as I can remember. There also used to be an old building on the west side of the tavern that has been torn down. The building on the South side of Oak Grove Blvd. east of Arista was a hardware store and lumber supply. Further down at the east end where River Road intersects with Oak Grove Blvd were two service stations and another larger grocery store. Both of the grocery stores were operated by Japanese families I believe their name was Miramatsu.
Was McLoughlin as busy as it is today? Many stores?
Much less developed though there were still large open areas. At Concord there was a large holly farm that covered acres. There were lots of large open spaces and there was the Super 99 drive-in that was still operating in the 70′s (the screen blew down in the Columbus Day Windstorm). Also a lot of trailer parks, service stations and small motels and a large lumber supply business. I remember when that McDonalds opened there probably around 1964, and the Fred Meyer in 1960-61.
What are some fond memories of Oak Grove as a youngster?
We had a very “free range” childhood. Free to wander in lots of wooded areas outside of adult supervision, ride our bikes all over and no one would have thought of a helmet. The interurban railroad tracks were a good way to go long distance north or south and my older brother claims he used to cross the trestle over the Willamette in to Lake Oswego. The film “Stand by Me” makes me think about growing up in Oak Grove in the 50s.
What were some of the seedier aspects?
In Phil Stanford’s “Portland Confidential” he says a lot of whorehouses were out in Milwaukie close to the county line. My mom said once that there was a run-down motor hotel just off McLoughlin where it was rumored a woman performed abortions.
I also remember a long-going feud between a family and their neighbors on River Road about the family’s run down property. It was a junk yard and it smelled. A neighbor would complain to the city and the father of the family would hire an attorney. That went on for probably 20-30 years well in to the 80s. The house isn’t standing anymore. I won’t mention the families name but if you ask around about it some old timers around there can probably tell you about it.
What I always remembered was the diversity of economic classes in the area. It was always like that, old established families in very expensive homes, some descendants of early pioneers like the Risley family, and other old established families living in shacks. Maybe not so much “white trash” but “working poor.”
There was little racial diversity at all. Everybody was white though there were some Japanese and Chinese families. My mother’s high school class at Milwaukie in 1939 had one black student. My high school class in 1971 had none.
I described Oak Grove Blvd. in the original post as once bustling – was it ever really? Or has it always been kind of sleepy?
The downtown core area was a tad more vibrant. I don’t know if I would have called it “bustling” in my time. The loss of the street car probably didn’t help.
Do you remember taking the streetcar from downtown Oak Grove to Portland? What was the experience like?
It ran along Arista from Courtney Road to Concord. I do remember when it was in operation probably in its last couple of years in 1957-1958. It ran right behind our home, we would catch it at the Silver Springs Station and take it in to Oregon City and to Milwaukie. I don’t recall how it proceeded north to Portland beyond Milwaukie but it probably ran through Sellwood. The rail bed is pretty visible from where River Road connects to McLoughlin which was called The Island Station, and you could probably walk or bike it south from there through Oak Grove all the way to Jennings Lodge.
After the trolley, Southern Pacific ran freight along it I know as late as 1968 and I remember sometime around 1969-1970 they tore up the rails and ties. The ride wasn’t like Max, I recall the cars seemed to rock back and forth a bit as they went along the track. Also they let out this piercing whistle that scared the crap out of me when I was little.
You mentioned in one of your blog posts that your grandparents lived in Oak Grove – did/do they have any interesting stories about the area?
My mother’s parents were Czech immigrants who moved out West from Chicago in the 1920s. They lived in the area around Oatfield Road near Roethe Road. My father’s parents lived right in Oak Grove and both of the homes they lived in are still standing.
I’ve been interested in researching my maternal grandfather who was committed to the state asylum system in 1927 by a Clackamas County Sheriff named E.T. Mass. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what he did to bring about such an extreme reaction by a local authority. I have most of the state’s documents, hospital records etc. but I’ve been meaning to check out the local newspapers from the area around the time it happened at the Oregon Historical Society library to see if I can find any clues there. It’s an ongoing project I’ve been working on.
Do you ever go back to visit?
I like to go back and walk or drive around the old neighborhood a couple times a year. My mother still goes to the same dentist office in Oak Grove and when I take her there for appointments I usually walk around the town and take pictures. I used to take bike rides from SE Portland out to Oak Grove at least once a year but I haven’t done that in a long time. I am always surprised at how the area where I grew up has changed very little.