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Ex-Governor rumored to be lurking in villa

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


This is a published sketch of William Wallace Thayer - it appeared in the Morning Oregonian, in the issue dated October 17, 1899.It is time to tie up some historical loose ends for this year – starting with responding to an inquiry made in Letters column of the November issue of THE BEE. Residents near the intersection of S.E. 44th-45th and Holgate Boulevard wanted to know if there were any truth to neighborhood lore that a former governor of the State of Oregon, one W.W. Thayer, lived at the spot. In fact, they found fragments of a foundation in the basement of several adjacent houses which seemed to support the idea of a very large house having once been on the site. To avoid being inundated with research requests, I usually encourage the questioner to attend one of the “How to Research Your House” workshops offered at least once a year at the Architectural Heritage Center, at S.E. Grand and Alder Streets.

However, because as far as I know, we can claim just two other state governors, the Hon. Barbara Roberts, and Victor Atiyeh, from the east side of the Willamette River, I am making an exception.

The letter writer had done some preliminary searching at the Oregon Historical Society, hoping for a photograph of Gov. Thayer’s house, but to no avail. If any pictures were taken, and survived among the possessions of his only child, Claude, they have not yet been located. And while several days of research have been expended in trying to pinpoint the exact location of the Thayer house, I am unable to provide an address, Block and Lot number, or precise legal plat. Despite these limitations, I suspect his house was actually near S.E. Cora Street between 46th-52nd Avenues – slightly northeast of the rumored site.

As for the Governor, William Wallace Thayer was born in July, 1827, in Lima, New York. Like his older brother Andrew J. Thayer, W.W. studied the law and became an attorney. In November, 1852, he married Samantha Vincent in Tonawanda, New York. In the spring of 1862, after a few years in Buffalo, he – and presumably his wife and four-year-old son Claude – traveled overland to Oregon.

Here he reunited with his brother A.J., who was an attorney in Corvallis. Following a short stint in Lewiston, Idaho, W.W. (now age 40), Samantha, and their son, settled in Portland in 1867. Thayer established a law practice, partnering with W. Lair Hill and Richard Williams. Their office was in downtown Portland, on the west side of the Willamette, but the Thayers lived on the east side, near N.E. 3rd and Glisan Streets. The firm’s 1871 advertisement stated that they would “practice in Federal and State Courts,” and it was perhaps this very public casework that raised Thayer’s profile.

In 1878 he was nominated for Governor of Oregon on the Democratic ticket, and won. After completing a single four-year term he returned to his law practice, but two years later, in 1884, became a winning candidate for Chief Justice on the Oregon Supreme Court. In the intervening two years, he had helped establish the Metropolitan Savings Bank with Oregonian Editor Harvey Scott, Van B. Delashmutt, and Harrison Oatman. The latter two investors were also real estate developers. Between 1883-1890, when he juggled multiple interests as Vice President of the bank, practicing attorney, and then State Supreme Court Judge, Thayer lived on the city’s west side, at S.W. 12th and Clay Streets.

At the end of December, 1890, Oatman (also from New York State, and Thayer’s age) and his wife Lucena filed a plat for a development on the outer edge of S.E. Portland – with the grandiose name of Villa De Oatman. It was six blocks in size, each with twenty-two 50x100 foot lots. The boundaries were Oatman (now Cora Street) on the north, the County Road (now Holgate Boulevard) on the south, Marion (now 46th Avenue) on the west, and another County Road (now 52nd Avenue) on the east.

Although it was a separate, somewhat isolated subdivision, approximately a half-mile north of the Woodstock plat, the city directories gave the Thayers’ location as “near Woodstock”. I believe that the house was probably located within the “Villa de Oatman” subdivision. Those six blocks probably did not fill very rapidly. The Woodstock plat was opened in 1889, but the Waverly-Woodstock streetcar line was not functioning until late 1891. When the line was completed, it was at least a five-block walk to the Villa development.

As the Thayer house was probably substantial, and any neighbors would have known it as the house of a former Governor and Supreme Court Judge, it did not need a street address, name, nor number.

Between the Thayers’ occupancy in 1891 and W.W.’s death on October 15, 1899, the house was described as “near Woodstock”, “Oatman Station”, and finally, “south side of Oatman Road, two blocks east of city limits.” In any case, the Thayers were near their old friends the Oatmans, who lived on the north side of Oatman Road, one block east of the city limits.

Even at the time of Mrs. Thayer’s death, just three months after her husband’s, the funeral was listed in the newspaper as being “from the residence at Woodstock”. The Hon. W.W. Thayer and his wife Samantha were both buried in Lone Fir Cemetery. Their only son Claude had married Estelle, one of the four daughters of Asahel Bush, banker and newspaperman of Salem; but the couple lived in Tillamook for many years where Claude was a banker and attorney. Their daughter Eugenia died as a young woman in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The Thayers later moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where Claude died in 1923, at age 65. Despite several days of searching, I have been unable to find a fire insurance map showing the exact location of the Thayer house, any photographs, or a printed account of the fire which allegedly destroyed it, “sometime in the early 1900’s”.

A final honor (or element of confusion!) was extended to W.W. Thayer in 1910, when the “Thayer” plat was filed with the county surveyor. This was a small, 3.5 block development, between Holgate and Long Streets, between 43rd and 46th.

As the property owners making the original inquiry live within, or adjacent to, this subdivision, their legal description would include the word Thayer, and that may have created some additional confusion.

I should point out that some of my sources are online, including plat maps for Multnomah County (through the county surveyor’s website) and the Bureau of Land Management (Donation Land Claim maps). The Oregonian newspaper, from 1861-1987, is online, accessible with your Multnomah County Library card.

And don’t forget that if you are a resident of Multnomah County, you have free access to both the library and the museum of the Oregon Historical Society. Check hours of opening for days and hours of the library before you visit.

Happy Holidays, and may you enjoy a New Year filled with exciting historical research opportunities!