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Odd Fellows of Portland - a heritage of caring

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


Photo Credit: COURTESY OF ODD FELLOWS LODGE, PORTLAND - The opening day celebration of one of Oregons oldest elder-care homes, the Odd Fellows Home, at 32nd Avenue and S.E. Holgate. Hundreds gathered for this celebration on April 26th, 1902.Life on the east side of Portland in the 1880’s was decidedly rural, compared to the hub of activity on the west bank of the Willamette River. Italians and Japanese who immigrated from their homelands tended acres of vegetables along parcels of open land near S.E. Powell.

The countryside near the Kenliworth and Creston neighborhoods consisted of pasture and fields filled with abundant crops and cows, with a smattering of farmhouses. Communities like Woodstock, Lents, and Brooklyn were isolated from the populous Westside, struggling to grow – until the opening of the Morrison Bridge (1887) and the Steel Bridge (1888).

This is the landscape that the leaders of the fraternal group called the “Independent Order of Odd Fellows” must have seen stretching before them, when they stood on a slight hill at about 32nd and S.E. Holgate. It was here, however, that committee members and Lodge officials envisioned a final community home for aged and disabled members of their fraternity.

Here they would be away from the bustling commuter traffic and smokestacks of urban Portland, able to rest and enjoy the serenity of the bucolic countryside. And what they built then still stands there today, in a jog in Holgate where the modern street goes around the property that was already there.

But – who were these men called Odd Fellows, and where did they come from?

The Order of the Odd Fellows has its origins as far back as the 18th Century when it was first established in England. The official Odd Fellows members’ handbook relates that during this time a variety of tradesmen, craftsmen, and workers, banded together to form a guild that could help comfort those less fortunate than themselves.

It was the odd mixture of various occupations and different personalities in their membership that made them stand out from others, and gave them their name. Many people could not understand why these strange men had such a high compassion and regard for their fellow human beings. When they decided to form a group that would care for the sick, educate and support orphaned children, and provide hope for widowed mothers, the phrase Odd Fellows fit them well.

Together these men organized as the “Independent Order of Odd Fellows” (IOOF). This fellowship of good will eventually began spreading to North America, led by Englishman Thomas Wildey. With the help of four contributing members from the Order of England, they started America’s first order in Baltimore Maryland. April 26th, 1819, was the official date of the opening of Washington Odd Fellows Lodge #1.

The City of Baltimore was suffering through an epidemic of yellow fever and mass unemployment, and Wildey knew that through perseverance he and his fraternity of Odd Fellows could make a difference there too. The government had yet to set up any kind of welfare or social programs to help the less fortunate. Unemployment benefits were nonexistent, and if you died unexpectedly, where would your body be buried? If you were poor or down on your luck, you had to care for yourself.

Wildey became the relentless leader of the Odd Fellows, seeking people of the middle class to join his organization. Dues were collected from club members to be used in humanitarian projects in support of the order’s belief of Friendship, Love, and Truth.

An astonishing early milestone was achieved when ladies were accepted into the formerly male-only fellowship of the Odd Fellows on Sept 20th 1851. This ladies auxiliary, named the Rebekahs, was crucial to the continued success and growth of the IOOF.

The Order of the Odd Fellows became one of the fastest growing fraternal organizations in the nation outpacing groups like the Masons, Elks, Redmen, and Shriners, by a two to one margin. And, the IOOF was present in many small towns. The Oregon Grand Lodge Secretary of the Odd Fellows, Patty Fries, reveals that past Oregon IOOF records show there were 257 Lodges in the region, beginning with lodges in Washington and Idaho.

Oregon’s first Fellowship was granted to the Chemeketa Lodge of Salem in 1852. The Grand Lodge at Oregon City was instituted on May 23rd 1856, followed a year later by the establishment of the Portland chapter. Once the organization was established in Oregon, Grand Lodge Leaders’ main goal was to build a structure wherein the aged and disabled could be housed and open an orphanage.

Their plans were realized on May 21st, 1879, when leaders of the order announced the purchase of a framed building along 100 acres, near Fairview, Oregon. Those accepted into the “Odd Fellows Home for the Elderly” from Portland had to travel twelve miles on a country road by horse or carriage, while supplies and food to support the residents had to endure a time-consuming trip by wagon from the City of Portland waterfront.

Lodge officials realized that a new home had to be built closer to civilization! A movement was begun among members across the state to secure another site in Oregon, and the final decision favored the current Kenliworth neighborhood location.

During the planning stages of building, leaders of the Lodge received an unprecedented surprise in 1900. Mrs. Elsie Riley deeded seven acres of her estate along Holgate for the paltry sum of $6,500 to their cause, relieving the Fellowship of having to rent the property. A two-story craftsman-style house with nine comfortable rooms was also included in the sale, to house the elderly until a permanent home for them could be built. Men of the Fraternity were charged 30 cents and ladies of the Rebekah Lodge 10 cents to help raise funds for a new building.

With over 37,000 members in the various Lodges in Oregon contributing funds, augmented by many fund raising events, the IOOF Fellowship was able to dedicate a new retirement home. On April 26th, 1902, in observance of the 83rd anniversary of the IOOF in America, thousands of citizens and Odd Fellows members from around the country gathered in Southeast Portland for the celebration. Rallies and speeches continued throughout the day, praising the opening of Oregon’s first orphanage and home for seniors and homeless wives financed by a fraternal group.

The Oregonian newspaper’s archives show that in 1915 there were 23 men, 10 women, and 19 children living at the Holgate House, with many of the children being orphans of deceased parents who once had been members of the Odd Fellows. IOOF Secretary Patty Fries reports that “the children roomed in one section, and the men lodged on the opposite side of the ward. Women who had lost their husbands were assigned rooms in between.”

The Kenliworth Home also included on its staff a matron and assistants; a nurse, cook, and wait staff; chambermaids, laundresses, and a “chore man” for outside duties. The Craftsman house first used as an elderly care facility was converted into a hospital, and a two story Queen Anne house located on the acreage was used as a dormitory for Lodge members.

Lodge anniversaries and special fundraising events at “The Home” were full of pageantry and pomp, and a children’s band was organized to perform for guests and visitors during such occasions. Since automobiles were scarce during that period, attendees were encouraged to ride the Woodstock/Waverleigh streetcar to Gladstone Street, and then hike the remaining distance to Holgate. Out-of-town visitors could ride the Southern Pacific Railroad (today’s Union Pacific), and disembark for a brisk walk up the hill to attend the festivities.

A self-supporting farm was formed, with tilled gardens to provide fruits and vegetables for the residents – and a co-op for local farmers was established on the grounds of “The Home”. An annual celebration called the Harvest Festival was begun, sponsored by merchants and farmers, and drawing many people from the surrounding communities. Delivery wagons filled to the brim with fresh produce arrived during the early morning hours, and booths were set up selling vegetables along with local arts and crafts. Music, bingo games, and other events were offered to attendees, with a percentage of the proceeds donated to the Odd Fellows Friendship Fund, to be used for maintenance or furniture for “The Home”.

Declining membership in the Odd Fellows after the Second World War strained remaining funds to support the Odd Fellows Home, and new state regulations required stricter rules for housing homeless children. GI’s returning after the war were not interested in joining fraternal clubs like the Odd Fellows or Masons.

Architectural historian Eric Wheeler, who has held classes on such fraternal organizations at the Portland Architectural Heritage Center, stated that, “the old cult stuff was passé. Wearing folded aprons, and using secret handshakes and passwords were tiresome, and young newcomers didn’t need to join a fraternal organization to enhance their social advancement”.

Television, movies, barbequing, interactive sports, and cars drew the interest of the next generation of possible lodge members. Wheeler summarized, “The Golden Age of fraternal organizations ended by the late 1930’s.”

When the 1970’s arrived, the Odd Fellows Board of Trustees for “The Home” were faced with an aging building and new federal laws requiring retirement facilities to follow strict regulations. Relying on federal and state funds for support, board members made major changes to the Odd Fellows Acreage.

A new Friendship Health Center was built in 1973 for people needing skilled nursing, followed by the completion of a modern Odd Fellows Home for independent care in 1978.

Meantime, the original Fellowship building was renovated into low income apartments, and renamed The Kenliworth Park Plaza. The Odd Fellows, their ranks leaner these days, continue to care for the elderly and less fortunate in their public works.

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