Inner Southeast's rural roots (think cows)
Sellwood-Westmoreland is only three miles from Portland's city center, yet it sometimes feels like a world apart. Walking the dog before 7 a.m. on a weekend morning is even more serene, with only the occasional cluck of an awakening hen in somebody's back yard as accompaniment.
One hundred years ago, additional animal sounds to be heard would have included the low mooing of cows and the bleating of goats. A recently completed apartment complex at S.E. Eleventh and Alder Streets has been named The Goat Blocks – because after the site was cleared, it was used for several years as a corral for a herd of goats whose antics provided entertainment, and a glimpse of nature rarely seen in the city.
That name of the building triggered memories of a onetime Sellwood resident known as Goat Annie, and a search for her story expanded into the histories of several other dairies.
As milk-producing animals left our daily lives, and Inner Southeast continued to shift from its rural origins toward its current and more urban form, it was interesting to see just how long the rural thread survived. With the return of chickens, pet rabbits, and the occasional goat – spotted being led on a leash on Thirteenth Avenue – perhaps it is more deeply woven into our neighborhood character than we realize.
Unless a natural disaster or legal ordinance triggers immediate change, change is usually gradual and uneven. This was the case with the slow ebbing of four dairies – three bovine, and one with goats, in the Sellwood-Westmoreland area.
Searching for details of these facilities in the pages of the historic 1920 BEE, I noted in the same issue advertisements for the newest automobile, construction of repair garages, and demands for more paved streets, together with full pages of advice on operating a successful dairy, "Hints for Hens", "Working for Better Bulls", how to control hog cholera, and other farming advice.
The classified section in that issue offered purebred chickens, fertile eggs for hatching, meat rabbits, plowing services, and heaps of well-rotted manure. Conversely, a year earlier, the paper reported on the crash landing of an airplane with a broken fuel line that abruptly descended after a take-off from the Westmoreland aviation field (today's Westmoreland Park); it landed in a wheat field at S.E. 20th and Knapp Streets.
And, in the late summer of 1924, a final crop of hay was cut from large fields between 13th and 14th, and Bybee and Malden Streets. Following the harvest that parcel, commonly known as the Flavel Tract, was surveyed and building lots offered for new homes.
In a Portland City Directory of the early 1900s, at least 90 dairies were listed under that heading, scattered throughout Portland. As the city's residential areas began filling in, the neighborhood dairies disappeared, or moved to the undeveloped edges of the metropolitan area, such as 82nd Avenue and North Columbia Boulevard.
The dairies that were then located in neighborhoods like ours may have had only a few animals – not like the herds of a hundred or more cows that are commonly seen in Tillamook County. Information from the Oregon Dairy Council estimates that at least an acre and a half of pasture (depending on the quality of grass) is necessary to sustain a cow and calf. Translated into 50x100 foot house lots, this means that just over eight and a half lots were needed per animal "unit."
In the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood, blocks can contain a varied number of lots but, for comparison, visualize the newly-cleared Boys & Girls Club block, which was originally divided into twelve house lots. In the spring and summer, covered in pasture grass, that block would easily feed one cow and calf. During the fall and winter months a cow needs 30-40 pounds of hay (a half bale) daily, so a building or barn would have been necessary for storage.Limited technology in the early 20th Century meant that milk had to be delivered on the same day it was collected, as there was little mechanical refrigeration or pasteurization.
A modern dairy cow, depending on the breed, produces an average of six to eight gallons of milk daily (but probably less, one hundred years ago). A family with several children might go through a gallon of milk daily, so one neighborhood cow could easily supply five or six families. Because cows then required hand-milking morning and evening, the owner of a small dairy might not have had time to deliver the milk, so customers would come to the barn with a milk can to collect it themselves.
The milk they received was probably not separated, which meant a bonus layer of cream formed at the top of the milk, to be spooned onto desserts or converted at home into butter with a small hand-cranked churn.
There were many small dairies in the early 1900's; our corner of Southeast Portland was served by three of them, conveniently located for easy provision of fresh milk.
The first, the Midway Dairy, was situated near the intersection of S.E. Milwaukie Avenue and Holgate Street, where there were several open tracts of land. It operated for at least ten years until the late 1890's under the guidance of brothers Jacob and Ernest Groce.
The second, City View or Upham's Dairy, was owned by Harry Upham, an immigrant from England. His business and home were located on Milwaukie Avenue between Flavel and Knapp Streets; the residence was located on the site of the Velo apartment building. As houses were only scattered throughout the area, Upham could graze his cows on open lots, west to S.E. Thirteenth Avenue, and into the aforementioned "Flavel Tract." His dairy operated from at least 1895 to approximately 1909.
The longest-lived, and probably largest dairy was known as the Willsburg or Wilson's Dairy, located at 26th and Tacoma Streets. This was east of the railroad tracks (and now McLoughlin Boulevard), on the edge of Johnson Creek. Business there commenced in the early 1890's under successive dairymen Benedict Tannler, Gustave Dangoisse, and Christian Meng; the latter partnered for a short time with Augustus J. Wilson, who then became sole operator in 1900 until his death in approximately 1922.
His widow Nellie continued the business for several years, under the supervision of hired managers, until 1926-27. The long survival of Wilson's Dairy was possible because this corner of the neighborhood remained relatively rural until construction of "the Superhighway" (McLoughlin Boulevard) in the late 1930's. The area had parcels of open land used for truck gardens, hay, and pasturage, all well-watered by nearby Johnson Creek. The southern-most sections of what is now Westmoreland Park may have provided additional grazing, as the area was not cleared for development until the mid-1930's.
McLoughlin Boulevard was in the future, and a herd of cows had only to cross the railroad tracks to graze (mindful of the occasional airplane taking off, landing, or crashing). Wilson's Dairy was large enough to sustain a separate hay barn. THE BEE reported in 1914 that that barn, about 100 x 40 feet in size, containing 30 tons of hay, burned to the ground. Although the dairy ceased operation by 1927, the milking barn survived until March, 1936, when it was demolished.
In 1919, Polish-born immigrant Anna Sandman established a dairy goat farm at S.E. 23rd and Harney Streets. She developed a herd of Saanen goats which won many awards at livestock expositions and county fairs. If a contemporary term might be applied, Anna would qualify as a "goat whisperer", and an incident reported in 1936 in the Oregonian suggested how close her relationship was with her animals.
While Anna and herd were being transported to an event, the truck's driver fell asleep and the vehicle overturned. The driver was unconscious and Anna and her goats spilled out. Suffering a broken leg and injured shoulder, she lay on the ground, her animals surrounding her. They bleated in distress for an hour until they were spotted by a passing motorist and Anna was rescued.
Affectionately known as the "goat lady", Anna and her sister Fannie operated Sandman's O.K. Goat Dairy until Anna's death in 1953. Her legacy extended to the Portland Zoo, which accepted one of her top billy goats, O.K. Chief Multnomah, Jr. Ten years later the zookeeper stated that Junior's Saanen descendents were still charming visitors.
The small-scale dairies dwindled as the neighborhoods became more increasingly residential. In addition to producing six to eight gallons of milk per day, a cow offloads about seventeen gallons of manure. While residents may have valued the manure for their gardens, as infill progressed, the benefits of warm and creamy milk were nullified by the odors of the second bovine product.
In 1915 a city ordinance was passed requiring dairies with more than two cows to maintain a distance of 100 feet to the closest house. A yearly operating license was needed, and dairy owners had to seek the written approval of neighbors. Imagine a checkerboard of 50x100 lots, slowly filling with houses. Move the cow around the board, attempting to maintain 100 feet of space in every direction, and you will see it eventually is boxed in until it has no barn to call home.
In the past century, modernization of the dairy business, refrigeration, improved sanitation, and strict health and safety regulations have increased efficiencies in the dairy industry, and assure consumers of a safe milk supply. But it is interesting to consider the livestock that historically lived alongside us, and the easy access we once had to their products – although today we might feel queasy about the conditions under which the milk was historically produced.
My thanks to Josh Thomas of the Oregon Dairy Council, for his technical information for this article.