Sarah Wrenn was having trouble establishing a rapport with the proprietor of the cigar stand in the lobby of the Davis building. When they me the day before, Billy Mayer claimed to have stories from Portland's early days, which he had already shared with a famous author. His manor and dapper clothes suggested he had been somewhat of a man about town in his day and he seemed enthusiastic to talk. She made an appointment to return the next day for an interview. Now, as they stood in the dim, mahogany lined lobby, the frequent interruptions by his customers (they all bought cigars, not cigarettes, she noted) seemed to make him clam up.
The Davis building, where Sarah Wrenn interviewed Billy Mayer on March 23 1939 was on the east side of Third Avenue, between Washington and Stark. It was built in 1886 as the Abington building and once had a central tower that made it the tallest building in Portland until 1889. The building was demolished in 1967 to make the surface parking lot that still occupies the site. -Photo courtesy of Doug Magedanz. (click on pictures to expand)
Sarah Wrenn's job with the Federal Writer's Project for the Oregon Folklore Studies program made her used to conducting interviews. She decided to pull back a bit and soft peddle the questions. After awhile he reluctantly produced a small book: The Guide, a description of amusement resorts of Portland, Oregon and vicinity.
Mayer explained as he flicked through the pages:
"There was a back on it that had advertised the old White House, out on the Willamette River, where the fine homes of Riverdale are now. There was a little race track out there -a quarter mile track I think it was -and all the bloods with fast horses used to drive out there on what was called the Macadam Road. It was the only road of that kind in the country. That's how the street leading out that way got its name. It had verandas out over the river...
Here's an advertisement of the old restaurants in town, and there's advertisements of the theaters and pool rooms too. Those old restaurants, with their private booths and dining rooms, could some tall tales. There was the Louvre, and up on West Park there was the Richards Restaurant. That was a big place, with side entrances where they served fine food and wines and liquors if every sort. There was a dining room, of course, but likely most of the paying business was in the private, small dining rooms leading off from the narrow corridors.
Mayor Harry Lane, afterwords U.S. Senator, was responsible for closing up the Richards place. He had it raided and closed. Seems some of his women relatives, or one of them at least, frequented it. There was quite a scandal at the time. Nah, I don't remember the details. Anyway, Lane closed up Richards, and shortly after all the other places with booths was closed up."
"Ah here, you might as well take the book and copy the stuff. I haven't got time to read it all..." -William (Billy) Mayer to Sarah B. Wrenn. March 23 1939.
Sarah Wrenn took the small book and hand copied the contents. The next day she submitted a typed transcript of the interview and the book's contents to the Federal Writers Project.
What follows is The Guide, as transcribed by Sarah Wrenn, with my annotations. It sheds some light on Portland's notorious "North End" with its human trafficking on an almost inconceivable scale, and a forgotten district of "amusement resorts" to the south of Burnside, whose madams were celebrated in poetic verse.
A description of amusement resorts of Portland, Oregon and vicinity
This is a guide without avarice tainted
A "tip", as it were, before you're acquainted.
And now, my good friends, you've had my excuse;
I could have said more, but what is the use?
This thing I've "writ" and its dedicated
To strangers and those who're uninitiated
A FAST LOCALITY
In Portland is a notorious locality, known by the name of the "White Chapel District." It is the home of the most abandoned members of the demimonde, and on a small scale resembles the famous section of London, after which it is named. Within its boundaries are several hundred women, most of whom live in small one story houses or cribs. The inmates of these cribs represent every nationality, with French predominating.
On Lower Second Street can be seen Japanese and African women.
The district lies north of Ankeny street, and owing to the surveillance of Portland's admirable police department, is perfectly safe for the stranger to visit, provided he does not got too familiar with the occupants of the "cribs."
The "North End", defined in an 1915 Oregonian article as "about 4th Street, 3rd Street and Burnside, Couch, Davis and Everett streets" was regularly described by drawing comparisons with like districts elsewhere: "White Chapel," "Barbary Coast," "the Bowery," "the Bad Lands" and "the Tenderloin" were all terms used by the press in reference to the area.
Newspaper accounts place its origin to around 1889, after the area had been abandoned as a residential district. Prior to that, from the time following the Great Fire of 1873, the "Tenderloin of Portland" was on the "north side of Yamhill street and the east side of Third and scattered about a general district converging on Third and Taylor" (Oregonian, December 15 1915). Political pressure from the First Methodist Church, that was surrounded by it, caused prostitution activities to move to the North End, in "frame shacks built specifically for that purpose."
The Guide then shifts to describe activities in another area, bounded roughly by Ankeny, Fifth, Morrison and Park; a residential neighborhood under pressure by the expansion of the downtown commercial district, where madams catered to a more genteel clientele.
Four brothels are visible in this picture, a portion of a panoramic photograph taken, circa 1893, from the tower of the Oregonian building at 6th and Alder. The original Trinity Church as well as the Cyclorama building (near the right corner) can also be seen.
"Here are the verses -Sam Simpson, the old poet of Oregon is said to have written them. I don't know. But they advertised the "madams." Yes, they were all called "madam" then. I don't know why they all have "Miss" in front of their names here." -William (Billy) Mayer to Sarah B. Wrenn, March 23 1939.
MISS MINNIE REYNOLDS
89 Fifth Street
In handsome parlors, skilled to please,
Fair Minnie waits in silken ease,
And at each guest's desire supplies
Dear pleasures, hid from prying eyes.
With such a haven ever nigh
Who could pass her parlors by?
The two story white frame house near center is at 89 5th street (old numbering system), the home of Minnie Reynold's establishment. Below: the site today, (near the doorway of the Oregon Trail building).
Minnie Reynolds appeared in Portland City directories as Miss Minnie Reynolds at the same address until 1902.
151 Seventh Street
Lets live while we live;
We'll be dead a long while,
And tho Fortune may frown,
Fair Miss Fanshaw will smile,
If a kiss will not sooth you,
She has pleasures that will;
The chalice of passion overflowingly fill,
And your troubles and cares,
You will lightly ignore
When love's rich libation
This Charmer will pour
"Madam Fanshaw and her girls were extremely polite, but you didn't sit around there a great while without spending substantial sums of money. It was no place for the loggers, the miners and the fishermen."
-Stewart Holbrook in the Oregonian, August 9 1936.
Lida Fanshaw operated her establishment, across 7th from the opulent Marquam Grand theater until around 1900. Donald R. Nelson's piece in the September 28 2001 Portland Tribune tells what is known of her story.
The Broadway building is on the site of Lida Fanshaw's establishment at 171 7th (Broadway).
MISS MABEL MONTAGUE
94 Fifth Street Cor. Stark
Here is a mansion, of which is related
That on all this Coast it is not duplicated.
Its well-furnished parlors the fashionable seek,
For comfort is here, joined to the unique,
And the girls who respond to the visitors call,
Are the pride of Miss Mabel, and the pride of her hall.
94 5th Street (the Italianate house on the corner). The large commercial building at the end of the block is a harbinger of things to come, built on the site where the original Temple Beth Israel stood until 1888. Below; food carts on the site of Mabel Montague's house.
MISS DELLA BURIS
150 East Park, between Alder and Morrison
Here is a lady of such ways all admire
She no flattery from the best does require
Modest as a maiden, youthful,
Good-natured as she is truthful,
Della Buris has a name
All might enjoy, none can blame
"Della Buris' place was no joint. It was patronized largely by men who have since made their mark in the city's professional and business life." -Stewart Holbrook in the Oregonian, August 2 1936.
Ankeny at Park during of June 1894, three and a half blocks north of the house of Della Buris and two months before the publication of The Guide. -City of Portland Archives.
The site of 94 East Park.
MISS DORA CLARK
MISS MAUDE MORRISON
95 Sixth Street, Cor. StarkNo man in this City who is known as a sport
But will tell you he's seen and enjoyed this resort
It's a house full of beauties, whose rooms dazzling bright
Shimmer and glimmer with mirth and delight
The roof of 95 6th street is visible at the left corner, partially obscured by the flat roofed building across Stark from it. The original Trinity Church, beloved by the Portland establishment, is a block south. Below: the site of 95 6th street today.
MISS IDA AURLINGTON
No. 90 Fifth Street
To reign is beauty's queenly right,
And he is but a shabby knight,
Who is not charmed, aye wholly won
by lovely Ida Aurlington,
Whose grace of manner and of form
Takes every manly heart by storm.
Ida Aurlington's house was directly across 5th from Minnie Reynolds, between the large commercial building and Mabel Montague's house on the corner. Below, the site today.
MADAM FLORA (likely Flora Hoyt)
130 Fifth Street
The gay rose gardens are (illegible)
But blooming Flora is still here
To make us quite forget the rose
Has sighed her gentle adios.
The peaked roof of Madam Flora's appears beside the flat roof on the right side of the picture. A block east, the low slung building with awnings is the Louvre Restaurant, between the elaborate Washington Block and the four story Holton House building, where the Louvre eventually moved to. Below, the site of 130 5th.
If you're out for a lark, or that is your passion,
Just call on this house, so lately in fashion.
With its fairy like nymphs and Dora Lynn its queen,
Where privacy, rest, and all is serene.
There are a great many Doras, but I write this one down
As the best one that ever has lived in this town.
In his 1936 Oregonian series on Portland's moral crusades, Stewart Holbrook states the "parlor house" operators were raided by police in an 1895 campaign that resulted in no convictions, but the long term affect of which was to consolidate prostitution activities to the North End by 1906.
Sarah B. Wrenn first appeared in the 1905 city directory as a stenographer for the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company. She likely married a Bert Ramsey in 1910, a union that ended within two years. From 1912 on, she would appear sporadically in city directories, sometimes with long gaps in between. In 1939 she lived in the Elk's building on SW 15th.
Most of the work of the WPA Federal Writers Project in Oregon was published anonymously. The recently digitized American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1937 , that this piece draws upon shows Sarah Wrenn's keen eye for detail, both in the description of the interviewee and surroundings. She would use earlier interviews to build upon her questions. Two months after Billy Mayer mentioned the White House, she brought it up to another subject, who added that there was a second, less elaborate resort known as the Red House on the Macadam Road, and the road once had a toll gate.
In the early 1950s Sarah Wrenn worked for the Portland Chamber of Commerce. She last appears in the 1960 directory.
It is unlikely that a copy of The Guide exists outside of her transcription.
William (Billy) Mayer first appears in Portland directories in 1905 as a clerk at a boarding house (there are numerous prior entries but it is impossible to ascertain which one is him). In 1909 he ran a billiards hall at 390 East Morrison, that moved to 113 4th in 1911. It moved once again to 133 1/2 in the Couch building in 1917. He closed the pool hall in 1936 but continued to sell cigars in the Couch building's lobby. He moved to the Davis building in 1939. In 1944 he was managing the lunch counter at the Miami Club at 610 SW 4th. His last appearance in the city directories is in 1950, with his wife Ina, whom he married in 1918.
Stewart Holbrook (1893-1964). Billy Mayer claimed to have shared his stories with a "famous author." Stewart Holbrook, a raconteur who rigorously combed Portland's streets for anecdote, is a likely suspect. If so, Billy Mayer could have been a source for Holbrook in his Oregonian columns and works such as The Portland Story (1950).
Samuel L. Simpson (1845-1899). Did Oregon's first Poet Laureate, author of Beautiful Willamette, write the verses in The Guide as mentioned by Billy Mayer? In Oregon Literature (1899) John B. Horner refers to the troubled Simpson, born of a prominent family and beset by alcohol problems, as "the Edgar Allen Poe of Oregon." A denizen of journalism's Grub Street, familiar with all strata of Portland society, the verses in The Guide could have been just another job to make ends meet.
"The Louvre Nude" once hung in the Louvre Restaurant on 4th Street, an advertiser in The Guide. After the restaurant closed the painting disappeared. Years later it emerged from the closet of a prominent Portland woman whose husband had acquired it from Louvre owner Theodore Kruse, in payment for a cigar bill. Walter Holman, the owner of Jake's Famous Crawfish, bought it in the early 1960s. Initially covered by a red and white tablecloth, the painting was finally unveiled at Jake's on April 27 1962. It hangs above the bar there to this day.
Thanks to Doug Magedanz for the use of the picture of the Abington / Davis building and Mark Barthemer for tipping me off to the "Louvre Nude"!
Now on Facebook!
One of my frustrations (along with not having enough time in the day) is that there is no good way to mix updates, short pieces and arcane facts with the posts on this page. So now, Cafe Unknown has a facebook page where I can post finds, like this wonderful stereoview of the the Great Light Way that I purchased on ebay. I can also give a heads up when a new post is finished. Talk Portland History, badger me to get back to work if I take to long between posts, post early and post often... Enjoy!