Second of Three Parts: The life and times of a neighborhood store and its people
This is the second of a three-part series about the early days of the Alberta business district, written by Northeast Portland neighborhood historian Doug Decker. To read more of Doug’s research and writing—or to read the full text of the early news stories mentioned here—visit his blog.
By Doug Decker
A quick Alberta District History 101 refresher from Part 1, which ran last month: In 1910, the Alberta District feels a bit thrown together and rough-and-tumble. But investment and expansion are impressive. A strong sense of neighborhood identity is emerging thanks in part to early business owners, residents and real estate developers. People are arriving in the district from near and far because property is cheaper here than in other eastside neighborhoods and there’s a new streetcar that provides dependable service.
Plus, plans underway for a new Willamette River crossing that in 1913 would become the Broadway Bridge were changing the way people thought about living and working in Portland.
Built and Run by the Smyths
Enter Michael and Mary Jane Smyth, shopkeepers from Ireland who were running a mom-and-pop grocery near 79th and Southeast Stark (then known as Baseline Road). Michael was born in Ireland in 1842 and immigrated to the US in 1864. Mary Jane was born in 1850 and arrived in the US in 1875.
By 1910, the Smyths had run several small retail shops in Portland and at least one in eastern Oregon. The couple never had children and may have seen the Alberta District investment as setting themselves up for retirement. At ages 68 and 62, they were starting their new venture on the northwest corner of NE 27th and Going somewhat late in life.
The original plumbing permit for the building shows construction complete at the end of September 1910, three years before the curbs and sidewalks were installed by local contractor Geibisch and Joplin, and well before the streets were even paved. According to the Polk City Directory, the Smyths opened their business in 1911 as a men’s furnishings store. By 1914, the listing had changed to dry goods and the Smyths were living six doors to the north, with the residence side of the new building rented out.
Mary Jane died on October 12, 1917 and her funeral mass was held at St. Charles Catholic Church, which was then located near the corner of NE 33rd and Webster, two blocks south of today’s Concordia New Seasons (the parish church relocated to NE 42nd years later following a devastating fire and financial hardships). After Mary Jane died, Michael took a rented room in the neighborhood and continued to run the dry goods store on his own until 1921 when he sold it for $3,375. Michael died on February 20, 1922.
The Coulters Take Over: Alameda Park Grocery
William and Isabella Coulter, immigrants from England via Canada, bought the business from Michael Smyth, having seen it advertised in the March 2, 1921 edition of The Oregonian as a “very fine bungalow-grocery.” They had shopkeeping experience from several years in Missoula, Montana. It’s unclear if they gave the store its name, or if they adopted the name used by the Smyths, but there it is, listed in the 1928 Polk Directory as the Alameda Park Grocery.
This is unusual for a couple reasons: 27th and Going is near but not actually inside the Alameda Park plat; and, there was a much more prominent store on the southwest corner of 24th and Fremont known as Alameda Grocery. This must have been confusing, at least. No word about what that rivalry may have been like, but the 24th and Fremont business advertised widely with its name, and the bungalow grocery with its slight variation never shows up in any newspaper advertising or any other annual Polk Directory.
While the naming convention might have been confusing, we know it to be fact thanks to a photograph from David White, grandson of the Coulters, that clearly shows the name Alameda Grocery painted in big black letters on the side of the store.
William Coulter passed away in the mid 1920s, and Isabelle took over the business on her own, with help from daughter Agnes, until 1943. This 22-year period was probably the best era for this little building and its business: Isabelle ran a tight ship and took good care of the place.
Next up: After the Coulter years, as shopping patterns change and big grocery chains emerge, the bungalow grocery slides almost to oblivion before being rescued from the wrecking ball.