Tuesday, June 09, 2020


My paternal grandparents came to South Dakota as homesteaders and schoolteachers.  My great-grandfather Archibald had a fixation on Thomas Jefferson and wished to be a gentleman farmer, so he brought his three teenaged children and his long-suffering wife to America where he had one more child, a boy.  Luckily, he was an ace finishing carpenter because he wasn’t much of a farmer.  He paneled a house for a South Dakota rich man which became locally famous.

My grandfather and his four barely adult children went to Swan River, Manitoba, and discovered that raising potatoes are hard work, and something mysterious gave my grandmother a major goiter.  (It was lack of iodine.)  So they began to invent farm machinery and built up a nice little business in Brandon, but the politics began to close down the border.  So they sent my father to get a Master’s degree at the Oregon State ag college and bought a big house on NE 15th in Portland.  This was Depression, but my uncle was re-selling re-possessed houses and my father, who had a job buying wool, proposed to my mother by offering her one of those houses.  That’s where I grew up.

By this time my grandparents had had high hopes for a business but WWII intervened and they went broke.  The big house was sold and a small place on 63rd was bought.  When they came to visit our house on 15th, we three kids would escort them to their car and then, still in primary school, would yell,  “Race you to the corner!” and run pell-mell to 15th and Alberta.  My grandfather would drive slowly enough for us to win.

Such a strange thing to have a massive demonstration have as a goal NE 15th and Alberta.  I’m pleased that as marches go, this one was massive but not tragic. 

My mother came to our house when she married in 1938. She left in a body bag in 1998. I took my third of the sale of that house and came here to Valier, Montana. In my childhood during and just after WWII, Alberta was consciously named for Queen Victoria’s daughter.  A clanging street rocked down it in rails, straight across the river to downtown.  Fare was one dime, and I carried the dime in the tip of my white crocheted gloves because in those days even little girls wore gloves downtown.  

Alberta was a quiet merchandizing street with Euro-ethnic shops: the Greek grocery store, the English five-and-dime, the equally English local Pub, a Swedish bakery, and then the corner where you turned to go a half-block to the branch library.  Across the street from the big house my grandparents had bought at first was a small Jewish synagogue.  On Alberta is a Catholic cathedral with a school, St. Andrews. At Evensong their bell rang and dogs howled with it in the gloaming, the wolf hour. It was a Hans Anderson/Brothers Grimm sort of place because of the many losses and old European cultures. On one side of us was a Swedish woman and other was an old German couple, who had once lived on a boat, which they still kept in their backyard. 

Behind the German couple was a lot owned by “Mr. Brown” who was an anthropologist.  I remember the first taste of pemmican he gave us, putting a pinch in each of our mouths.  My 4th grade teacher was Mildred Colbert, Chinook elder celebrated on her home rez. She took us to the PNW artifact display at the Portland Art Museum, a great dim hall of masks and potlatch canoe.  The images still come at night.

Native Americans, assimilated, lived here and there among us, and the first Chinese immigrant in my classes came when I was in the fifth grade, ten years old. The first black girl was Etta May — last name lost. The 1953 graduating class began reconvening for lunch in the Nineties when they were middle-aged, but most of them couldn’t remember Etta May. She came just before we graduated, probably forced by truant officers, but she was much more mature than the rest of us.  A very big isolated person, a little intimidating, I went to her once to offer friendship.  She said, “Thanks, but I’m fine.”  In other words, “go away.”  

I was a bridesmaid for my Chinese classmate and she came to Montana in an RV to visit a few years ago.  Her family has done very well, all children with degrees and careers.  She and her husband are faithful, active Christians but my childhood Presbyterian church was right behind their house and the minister hated the family because they dried fish on their swing set and relatives sent them live turtles in a scuttling box.  Low class.

Once I found the deed and earliest description of the land when “ownership” first arrived.  It was claimed by an Irishman who died.  His brother came from Ireland to take possession, but he couldn’t get rid of an old woman in a rough cabin at the edge of the homestead.  She hung on until she died there.  “Alberta Park” across Killingsworth from my grade school is full of tall Douglas Fir but they are second growth.  The Irishman would have sold the timber from the first clearing. Then he would have been able to see across the Columbia to Fort Vancouver in Washington.

Alberta Street after I left in 1961, slid into deterioration as the small businesses failed.  The Vanport flood displaced all the Southern country Black folks Kaiser had imported to build boats during WWII. They moved to old houses along the river and then along Alberta.  Some did well and Union Street was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. I forget the name of the restaurant with the specialty of barbecue ribs, but the Portland Trailblazers were involved and I do not forget a very tall black man tying a bib under my chin. 

These were the early steps toward gentrification of Alberta which at first was Black, then Gay and Hispanic, and finally “Art”.  For a while a symphony director was living in the house where I grew up.  

Remember Archibald from Scotland?  He married one of five sisters who also came from Scotland.  A great-granddaughter of another of them married an architect and lives across the street from the big house the Strachans bought when they first came. So our lives weave in and out, moving and hoping and hanging on.  15th and Alberta was not so much the goal as a checkpoint.

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