What’s next for Milwaukie, Ore.? Look to the past, perhaps.

Milwaukie, Oregon, is an interesting place. No, really. It has a rich, historical past that’s often overlooked. The Lot Whitcomb, launched in December, 1850, was the first steam-powered craft built on the Willamette River. The Bing cherry was created in Milwaukie. Gary Gilmore, the first American to be executed in ten years after the death penalty was re-instated, attended Milwaukie High. So did his brother, Mikal Gilmore, author of Shot in the Heart and a well-known Rolling Stone magazine writer.

It’s mere minutes from Portland. A bus ride up McLoughlin can get riders to downtown in about 25 minutes; if you’re on a bike, you’re in Portland city limits in 10 minutes. Despite its proximity to Portland, Milwaukie also can feel like it’s miles and miles away. Many aging boomers who live in Milwaukie (and the sleeping giant known as Oak Grove, snuggled next to Milwaukie in unincorporated Clackamas county) like it that way. They want to be left alone. They like their privacy and they like the suburban qualities of their neighborhoods and large lots (count the RVs in the driveways).

But change is coming to Milwaukie in the form of light rail. Drive along McLoughlin and around Main Street and one can see the tracks being laid and the stations being built. Those who oppose light rail call it the “crime train” and believe that it will attract criminals and bankrupt the city. (They also want to stop “Portland Creep” but don’t mind commuting to Portland–where their jobs usually reside.) Those who favor light rail think it will bring new blood, new business and a boost to the economy.

Just a few years ago, Milwaukie had a solid jumpstart back what seemed like the beginning of some sort of renaissance. The popular Cha Cha Cha restaurant came to downtown in 2007, and a new restaurant, Hartwell’s, opened in the newly built mixed use project on Main, offering local craft beers, upscale food – both vegetarian and non-vegetarian – and a cool foodie vibe that Milwaukie lacked (and still does). There was talk of more mixed-used projects along McLoughlin with condos on the top and retail on the bottom, while older buildings along the river were demolished to make room.

And then 2008 happened and the bottom dropped. Projects were stalled, businesses failed, Hartwell’s shuttered its doors and downtown reverted back to Sleepytown, USA.

Since then, there’s been new life on Main Street in downtown Milwaukie. Slowly, businesses have come in and existing businesses have expanded. Despite setbacks, like the beloved and popular Milwaukie Kitchen and Wine literally leaving town overnight and shuttering its doors, there seems to be an air of optimism. Retail space is opening up on the ground floor of office properties along Main (with rumors swirling of a yogurt shop and a “Mediterranean restaurant” coming to town) and some of the city’s downtown buildings are getting the retrofits they deserve (many that were desecrated back in the 1960s and 1970s). The riverfront park is slowly coming together (the view of the Willamette is stunning), the unsightly Kellogg Dam will be (eventually) removed and a movement to add murals around downtown is gaining steam. Then there’s the kick-ass Sunday farmers market that grows every year, the addition of the popular Breakside Brewery‘s production facility and tasting room, a First Friday that continues to get better and bigger each summer, and the creation of a Neighborhood Greenway.

Add to this, a younger population is moving to Milwaukie’s historical neighborhoods that want amenities like walkable and bikable communities, restaurants, healthy food options, shopping, cheaper housing (than Portland) and a sense of community.

In fact, a recent poll by the city revealed that:

…the community would like to see more shops in downtown to meet daily needs, such as a grocery store. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents agree or strongly agree that downtown Milwaukie should be a destination for meeting daily needs; 27% of the survey respondents noted that a grocery store was one of the things they would like to see in Milwaukie that is not there today.

It’ll be interesting to see what transpires over the next decade, or even five years. Will Milwaukie continue its reputation as a sleepy Portland suburb? Will it attract new families and new business?

Ironically, 50 years ago downtown Milwaukie and Oak Grove had many of these amenities that current residents want in 2014. Pharmacy? Check. Clothing store? Check. Department store? Check. A restaurant shaped like a tee-pee? Ummmm, got it. Appliance store? Ding ding ding. All of these were small and independently owned. Following are some snaps taken from a local yearbook from 1964 that helps illustrate the changes in the area, what once existed and what could make a comeback. Click on each for a bigger version:


Long-gone New Tom Tom.


Teeney’s – all types of apparel.


Besides the sign, still there (now a teen center).


Be sure to check out the Gay Blade plaque/fountain in front of Enchante.


A different era, for sure.

Lost: Moore’s Flour Mill in Oak Grove


Continuing our look at the Clackamas County Cultural Resource Inventory, we travel down the Trolley Trail to 4001 SE Roethe Road. On the site, there once stood a flour mill. The machinery, built in 1879 was imported from Muncie, Indiana. It was a full functioning mill until the mid-1980s, when it burned down.

The name Moore’s Flour Mill, might ring a bell, however. The owner of the mill in the mid-80s, was Bob Moore. After the fire, the company relocated to International in Milwaukie.

As Paul Harvey might say, “you might know it better these days as Bob’s Red Mill.”

Here’s a cool recollection from an Oregon Fresh post on Bob:

“I told Charlee, ‘you know, it’s crazy, but I think that’s an old mill.’ I could see the grinders and mixers; it had been closed for years,” says Bob. He later learned that a rail line used to carry grains to the mill, and when it was pulled out in 1957, there was no longer an easy way to deliver grains there, so it closed. Bob and Charlee made a decision to purchase the mill, and Bob’s Red Mill was born. They started with 11 employees, making 100 different products, including 10-grain cereal and cornmeal.

The mill represents our agricultural past and at time was the last remaining working mill in the Oak Grove and Milwaukie area – until the new Bob’s was built.

Here’s where the mill was approximately located:

Lost: Church in Oak Grove, Ore.

Note: This is a cross-post from my other blog, Oak Grove! (The O.G.). 

Last month there was a discussion on the Oak Grove Facebook page about the empty lot on River Road and Courtney next to the handsome house that sits next to the corner. A commenter mentioned there was – at one point  in time – a church on the corner that had the same style of the well-kept home that sits on the (almost) corner.

Some sleuthing revealed that – indeed – there was a church where the grassy lot now sits. Pouring through the Clackamas County Cultural Resource Inventory book I found a photo (albeit a shitty, Xeroxed one) of the church that had once stood on the spot.

Long-gone church on River Road and Courtney Avenue.

Long-gone church on River Road and Courtney Avenue.

(The book, by the way, is an amazing resource for local historians and building nerds. In 1983, the county sent out letters to residents asking them a few questions about their property (year built, style of home, etc.). The purpose of the inventory was to provide the State Historic Preservation Office with information for possible inclusion in the statewide inventory. Sadly, many of the buildings in the book are no longer standing- like the corner church.)

But back to the photo – it’s not a great photo, but you can clearly see the tip of the existing building in the middle as well as the unique “steeple” above that. Described as “Western Falsefront-Bungalow,” the building was constructed in approximately 1901- 1910 and was still standing in 1983.

What else has Oak Grove – architecturally – lost in the last 30 years? Plenty, if flipping through the inventory is any indication. We’ll occasionally post some of our lost treasures – with the hope that they inspire us to save what we currently have.

‘Mystery’ house on Courtney in Oak Grove

A few month’s back, I posted the below pic of a home that looks like it was plopped down on the corner of Courtney and Arista. It appears to be in the process of being renovated:


Some Googlin’ revealed the following information about the home:

The Frank A. Heitkamper House, built in 1900.
This visually prominent house built on a large corner lot is a good example of Craftsman-style architecture– typically a four-room over four-room configuration with a low-pitched hip roof. The full-width front porch, in this case with Doric supports and a solid balustrade, was also quite common. The bellcast hip roof has wide overhanging eaves and frieze; windows are double-hung sash with architrave molding, and the exterior is surfaced with double bevel siding with cornerboards and water table.

The listing has it as: 2009 SE Courtney Avenue, Oak Grove Legal Description: 21E02DA05000.

That’s down the street from where it currently sits. So, the mystery continues – was it moved? And what is its fate?

(Here’s a link to a wonderful map of historic homes near the Trolley Trail. Clackamas County just launched its new site so the link might not work.)

Oak Lodge History Detectives: Murder at McNary’s

The Oatfields, 1885. That’s Minvera standing, third in. Photo courtesy of Oak Lodge History Detectives.

I had the pleasure of attending my first meeting of the Oak Lodge History Detectives last week. After a couple of misses (I’ve usually found out about their monthly meetings after the fact) I finally made it to their latest meeting.

If you’re not from the area, Oak Lodge is a combination of the Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge areas in unincorporated Clackamas County.

After a roundtable of introductions – many of its members live in houses with familiar, local names – the group did some administrative chatter while others shared various historical artifacts (a crumbling deed was displayed and a few historical tidbits were passed around). Members are also working on an Oak Lodge Street and Place Names document – which will be an amazing resource when completed. (I never knew Oak Grove Blvd. was originally called Central Ave. until the early 1900s. I have a lot to learn about my community.)

This particular meeting also promised a presentation from OLHD Chairman Mike Schmeer on the Murder at McNary’s, which took place in the vicinity of Oatfield and McNary Roads in 1879.

Mike had a full-on PowerPoint presentation, with newspaper clips and photos, that helped illustrate what happened. He read a prepared paper and sprinkled it with news accounts, while another member read snippets from Minerva Thessing Oatfield’s diary, who was the first to find out about the murder.

He mentioned that information was available from 1930s WPA interviews and sure enough, I found the following from the interview conducted with the then-eldery Minerva in the 1930s on the chilling account of the murder:

The old McNary donation land claim is just down the road a short distance. The old house, the photograph of which I am lending you, was destroyed only a few years ago. In the early ’60s a murder was committed there that scared the whole countryside. A woman named Mrs. Hager, two daughters and a son were living in the house. They were supposed to have quite a bit of money hidden away, at least the girls bragged about it.

But as it transpired the son had taken whatever amount there was and invested it in a business elsewhere. Anyway, one day when the woman, Mrs. Hagar, had been left alone, one of her girls came home and found her out in the yard in front of the house, with her head nearly cut off.

I can see and hear that girl now, as she came shrieking down the road on her horse, screaming that her mother had been killed. It was an awful sight, and everything in the house had been turned inside out by the murderer as he hunted for the money.

Even the feather beds were pulled to pieces and feathers were everywhere. A number of men were arrested, but it was years after, when a man was tried and condemned for another murder, that he confessed to six, among them that of Mrs. Hagar.

Mike’s presentation expanded on this and added lots of personality and life. One note he brought up was that onlookers from the community and surrounding Portland rushed to the crime scene, there was courthouse drama and many lurid headlines. Some things never change.

The meeting adjourned and a few folks milled around. I met a couple of local historians, exchanged information and, of course, joined the organization. If you’re in the area, you should join, too.

As the evolution of my local knowledge slowly grows, it was another community building moment. It was fascinating hearing stories, and even more eye-opening to hear local street names such as “Naef” and “Oatfield” being used to describe people and their homesteads. It’s a connection to the past and more than just street directions and paved over suburban streets.

Oak Grove Beach, 1917-1929

Oak Grove Beach, 1920s. If you squint you can see the rail bridge in upper left-hand side of photo that still stands today. Photo: OHS.

I’ve written about Oak Grove in the past and plan on writing more in upcoming posts. (You’ve been warned.)

Downtown Oak Grove is ripe for a renaissance. It’s mere minutes from Milwaukie and Sellwood. Younger families are moving in – or moving back. Land is cheap – and many take advantage of it with urban farms or robust gardens in the area. Some just let nature take over (“The lawn doesn’t need mowing. It’s called “naturescaping.”) or others decorate their front yards with 365-a-day garage sales and plastic blue tarps (insert banjo music here). That’s Oak Grove in a nutshell – from million-dollar homes on the river, to HUD housing blocks away – it’s a mixture of incomes and lifestyles.

It has its history, too. After living here for close to a decade, it’s taken that long to connect with others, learn about the history and really get a sense of community.

One recent fascinating discovery was Oak Grove Beach. I had read about it in the past in Willamette Landings but didn’t think it was an actual destination until I started poking around the Oregonian archives.

From what I gather, the beach was a natural stretch of shore just south of what is now Rivervilla Park. “Beach goers,” mostly from Portland, Milwaukie and Oak Grove, could swim in the Willamette and enjoy the warm sun on the shore. The below map shows the Rivervilla Park near the bridge at the top. The beach was most likely located between the bridge from Milwaukie to Lake Oswego and River Forest Lake:

It had different owners through the years. One owner had some problems with the county and was denied a petition for a dance license in 1922. One presumes that this was eventually approved since later newspaper ads advertising dancing.

As years passed, Oak Grove Beach offered more to visitors than just a swim in the Willamette. Festivities for New Year’s Eve at the Rio Vista Pavilion in 1923 was advertised with the promise of “lots of noise, good music, favors for everyone, wonderful floor.” Half-fried chicken was 50 cents. For Thanksgiving, diners could enjoy Percy Brown’s Troubadours, a seven-piece orchestra in the Rio Vista Pavilion and Restaurant, with $100 worth of turkeys given away. New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving in Oregon? That doesn’t scream “beach weather.” Which means the Pavilion and cottages were constructed to draw visitors year-round. It also means that there were structures along the shore at one point. Intriguing.

Oak Grove Beach wasn’t without tragedy or (some very mild) controversy. In January 1925, Portland youths were found guilty by a jury on possession of “intoxicating liquors.” They were arrested in one of the cottages on New Year’s eve with six young women of Portland by state prohibition agents who declared in court that the kids had chugged a large portion of a gallon of moonshine.

Later that year in July, Ed Hillery of Portland drowned while swimming at night in the Willamette. His swimming companions reported Hillery missing shortly before 10 at night. His body was recovered the following night.

On a lighter note, Oak Grove Beach provided the backdrop for various groups, including camping for organizations and a “newsies frolic” that promised races, baseball, swimming and diving exhibition.

Getting to Oak Grove Beach seemed easy enough. Located a mere 2 miles south of Milwaukie early owners of automobiles on the east side would go south bound to Pacific Highway to Oak Grove and turn right to the beach. Admission at one point was 35 cents for women while men paid 65 cents. Trolley riders would take either the Oregon City or Oak Grove car. Steamboats would bring visitors from Portland.

At the recent unveiling of the wonderful new Trolley Trail, a ped/bike path that follows the long-gone trolley line, there was a trolley on display that perhaps once took visitors to the long-gone Oak Grove Beach.

The beach and pavilion appeared to disappear around 1929. Land on and near the beach was sold to homebuilders who quickly took advantage of the impressive views. Nowadays, the beach is home to private residences and is only accessible if you live in one of the homes or passing by on a boat on the Willamette.

And who knows. On late, warm summer nights if you listen hard enough, maybe you can still hear the strains of Percy Brown’s Troubadours playing a waltz or some hot jazz number to Oak Grove Beach revelers.