Mr. Frank Dekum

Dear Liza,

Mr. Dekum as he was

Yesterday Auntie Bridgett and I went for a long walk. We enjoyed the dogs and trees at Laurelhurst Park, and the pretty houses of the Laurelhurst neighborhood. We wandered for quite a ways before we decided to turn back towards home.

When we did, I realized that we were very close to The Lone Fir Cemetery and that it had been a long time since we visited the folks there. So we went in.

As you already know, I love the peace and perspective of this old cemetery. We saw familiar headstones; heroic pioneers and shady ladies, revered doctors and just plain folks. And, as so often happens, something new caught our eye. Mr. Frank Dekum.

Auntie Bridgett with Mr. Dekum

We know the name, because a big stone and brick building built by and named for him is on the corner of 3rd and Washington and we pass it every time we go downtown. Mr. Dekum came to Portland in 1853 with his family and started a very successful fruit business. He was also a candy maker, so obviously, a lover of good things.

His tallest namesake

When he had made his fortune in fruit and candy, he started investing in real estate development. He was involved in every building that went up on Washington Street between First and Third. He was on the Boards of banks and water companies, helping bring railroads and fresh drinking water to the city.

When the city was hit by a financial panic in 1893, property investments crashed and Mr. Dekum was badly impacted. He died the next year with only a fraction of his fortune intact. He is buried in our dear Lone Fir along with his eight children, so I can visit the whole family whenever I want.

Gone, as they say, but not forgotten.


Grandma Judy


Downtown Fun

Dear Liza,

The South Park Blocks with Mr. Lincoln’s Statue

My history story about Portland is coming along very well. I actually printed a copy out and had Grandpa Nelson read it! He reads so much that he is a good judge of when a story works, when it doesn’t, and what it needs to make it better.

My story, under construction

He asks good questions, too, questions that I don’t know the answers to…yet.

As usual when I have questions I need answered, I headed downtown to the Oregon Historical Society. Auntie Bridgett came along, but went to the Portland Art Museum.

I spent a few hours reading books about the streetcars that used to run all over the city, and found some really interesting things to use in my story. Did you know there were streetcars that ran on steam engines until 1903? I didn’t!

First Congregational Church and other lights

At 5:00, the library closed and I went to fetch Auntie Bridgett at the Museum. They have so many beautiful things in their gift shop, it was hard to pull ourselves away. We bundled up and walked down the dark, Christmas-lit streets of Portland. The weather was clear and cold, and everything looked so pretty!

We got to Kenny and Zuke’s, our favorite deli, and Grandpa Nelson came downtown to meet us for dinner. When we were full of chicken soup, pastrami and French fries, we walked over to Powell’s bookstore.

Urban Christmas

The author of Lost Portland Oregon, Val C. Ballestrem, was giving a talk about his book. It is a history of a dozen or so important buildings that are no longer standing in Portland, and it is fascinating (of course we bought a copy!)

Some buildings, like the Temple Beth Israel Synagogue , were burned by an arsonist. Another, the Marquam Building and Opera, collapsed while being repaired. And still others, the ones that make me the saddest, were torn down in the interest of urban renewal….. to make room for a parking lot.

There were photographs of the buildings and the lots they stood on, which give a hint of how the city landscape has been molded and changed over the century and a half going from a cabin by the Willamette to urban metropolis.

It is interesting, sometimes sad, always amazing, and I am so glad I get to be here to learn about it!


Grandma Judy

Notable Women of Portland

Dr. Tracy Prince

Dear Liza,

I keep learning more about the history of this wonderful city! Last night we drove through the rain to McMenamin’s Kennedy School, up on NW 33rd. We were there to listen to Tracy Prince and her 15 year old daughter, Zadie Schaffer, talk about their newest book, Notable Women of Portland.

Tracy has a Ph.D in history, is an affiliated professor at Portland State University, and has studied Portland history for years. When Zadie needed a bat mitzvah project, they decided to research the untold stories…. the women who were always referred to by their husbands’ names, the Native Americans who lived on the edges of the city but were a vital part of it, the female welders and doctors who have been forgotten in what Tracy refers to as “the Manifest Destiny version of history.”

The Book!

The resulting book, a “photographic history”, covers white women and women of color, Native Americans, and of Chinese and Japanese ancestry, from the 1840s to the present. The publishers limited Tracy to 75 words per photo, so each person’s story is told briefly, almost as an illustrated outline of history.

A photo showing a Native American woman selling her baskets in the Northwest part of Portland



I got to talk to Tracy before the presentation, and when I told her about my story project, she was gracious enough to give me her email and encourage me to contact her for more detailed information. I look forward to learning what she knows and using it to make my story better.


Grandma Judy

Tanya Lyn March, Historian

Dear Liza,

Tanya Lyn March, Ph.D

Last night, we walked to the Belmont Library to listen to local historian Tanya March, Ph.D, talk about “Ghosts, Criminals and Murders in Slabtown”. It being the Halloween season, the subject matter seemed fitting, and I am always looking for more Portland history.

The meeting room for the talk was decorated with a wonderful quilt made in 1988 to celebrate the centennial of the Sunnyside neighborhood, with embroidered squares showing local landmarks like the library itself and The Avalon, the neighborhood theater. It was a work of love, friendship, and considerable skill.

1988 Sunnyside Quilt

We were early for the talk, so got to visit with Tanya. She is a very energetic young woman who digs into history and ties it to current projects, like protecting old buildings or neighborhoods because of their history. I love that she uses her academia for social good.

Her rapid-fire talk, which included very helpful slides, ranged from stories of murders and hauntings in northwest Portland (called “Slabtown” because of the early use of slabwood for stoves) to the KKK, to reputing the tales of Shanghai Tunnels. She covered so much ground that I thought I would trip over my brain trying to take notes fast enough!

Pretty patch

Most interesting to me, however, was her mention of Mrs. Nina Larowe, who I had just learned about that morning while researching activities for the kids in my story.  Born in 1838, Mrs. Larowe had been a well-to-do lady and actress in New York, and had traveled to The Holy Land on the ship that Mark Twain wrote about in his book “The Innocents Abroad”.

According to Tanya, Twain wrote about Mrs. Larowe as one of the Pilgrims who would break into tombs and take ancient religious relics, then carelessly throw the precious artifacts overboard when their suitcases got full. This damaged her reputation in New York, she got divorced, and moved to Portland for a fresh start. Mrs. Larowe came to Portland in 1888 at the age of 50. She used her knowledge of the theater to open a dance hall called The Esquire, where she taught dancing, gymnastics, and elocution (public speaking).

Tanya included Mrs. Larowe in her talk because of her “criminal” status for defacing ancient tombs, but the lady was successful here in Portland, dying at the age of 83 and remembered in her obituary as a cultural icon and trainer of several generations of young men and women in the social graces.

My brain felt like one of Mrs. Larowe’s overstuffed suitcases, full of wonderful new things that will take some sorting out. Exhausted but happy, we walked home through the dark neighborhood, realizing it is time to break out my well-lit winter coat again!


Grandma Judy

Leach Botanical Garden

Dear Liza,

Pathway through the Garden

On Saturday, Grandpa Nelson had a surprise for me. He took me to see a garden in the city that I had never even heard of, the Leach Botanical garden in the far southeast, just off of Foster Road and 122nd Avenue.

When a park has someone’s name on it, you think: Who was this person? Why is there a park in their honor? In the case of Leach Botanical Garden, there’s an easy, delightful answer. This 16 acre garden was their garden, and the house on the property was their house! The garden was their gift to the city.img_0625.jpg

But of course it’s never that easy.

John and Lila Leach were married in 1913 and were an unusual couple for their time. He was a pharmacist and businessman, and she was a scientist, studying botany and teaching science at Eugene High School. They belonged to a group called the Mazamas who hiked, camped, and skied in the Oregon wilderness. On their trips, Lila discovered two new genera of plants that had never been seen before!

Delightfully threatening skies

In the 1930s they bought 16 acres of land on Johnson Creek and built a small stone cabin. They hired a landscape architect to help lay out the steeply sloping property, and began putting in plants. They named the property Sleepy Hollow.

When World War II started, Lila volunteered with the Red Cross, and after the war, the two were active in supporting the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. They worked in the garden and lived in the larger house they built later until John passed away in 1972. Lila moved to a care facility in Lake Oswego and passed in 1982. Their ashes were spread in the Oregon wilderness they loved so much.

Well loved dinosaur!

In their wills, they both had stated that the house and property was to be given to the City of Portland. But after ten years of typical civic squabbling, the city was ready to let the property go to developers when Parks Commissioner Jordan went to visit the garden and decided it was too precious. It was developed and is maintained by a combination of public and private funding.

It hosts weddings, parties, composting classes, children’s activities, and seedling sales. You can learn more at

Fall colors in the garden

And that is your Portland history lesson for today!


Grandma Judy

The Process is Progressing

Dear Liza,

As you know, I have been working on my children’s history story about Portland for a little over a year now. For the first six months I read about Portland history so I know how it became a city and what sort of interesting things happened here. The Oregon Historical Society and Belmont Library became my favorite hangouts.

A Young Lady in 1903

I chose to put my story in the spring of 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt came through Portland on a country-wide tour. There was a parade, a ceremony in what is now Washington Park, and a banquet. It was a very big deal and I think it would make a good backdrop for a mystery story. But as I told you, I don’t know much about mysteries.

So, I studied that, too. For a few weeks, I read Nancy Drew books and articles about mystery story plots, character development, and clues.

But as a teacher, I never really understand something until I need to teach it. So I pretended I was teaching someone about how to make a mystery story.  I cut shapes out of paper to show everything that happened in the story: action, characters, description, distractions.

A new way of seeing a story

I practiced using these pieces to map out the first eight chapters of The Bungalow Mystery, #3 of the Nancy Drew books. I could see when action happened, when characters were introduced, how the chapters alternated between action and description, and how each chapter ended in a new mystery or dangerous situation.

This took some of the mystery out of writing my mystery! I am now working on my own story, using these paper pieces to  make the characters move to solve the riddles of the story and come to a happy ending. If I don’t like the way it is going, I just move the pieces around! I feel organized, less confused, but flexible enough to create and re-create the story until it is right.img_9480.jpg

Of course, once I have this visual outline done, I still have to write the actual words….but that’s the fun part! I am happy to have found a way of working that works for me.


Grandma Judy

Dr. C. Gee Wo

Dear Liza,

I love researching history! Since my story takes place in 1903 Portland, I am getting to know about people who lived here then, and how things were for them. One thing that was really different was that there were laws against some people living here. These were called Exclusion Laws.

But life usually finds a way, as in the case of Dr. C. Gee Wo, a real Chinese person I have learned about and put into my story. Dr. Wo was from China and was an herbal doctor, using teas and herbal medicines to help make people better. He studied for many years, in China and America, to be good at his profession. He moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he had a popular practice for eleven years, from 1889 to 1900.

Dr. Wo’s ad in Portland newspapers, 1900 to 1910

During that time, he married a white lady name C. DeWitt (I can’t find her first name anywhere, just her first initial. Maybe Caroline? Celestine? Charlotte?) In 1900, they moved to Portland, Oregon, and Dr. Wo opened his herbal medicine practice.

At that time, the Exclusion Laws said Chinese people couldn’t own property, so Chinese needed to rent apartments, mostly in the neighborhood on the west side of the river. But Dr. Wo’s wife was white, so she could buy property where they wanted. They bought a small house, and, when business was better, built a bigger house next door.

His ad from 1910 to 1920

As the years went on, Dr. Wo became a respected member of not just the Chinese community, but of the city of Portland. He donated to victims of the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906. He contributed to local causes and invested in businesses. He helped the city grow.

Dr. Wo retired about 1915, but stayed active in the community at least until 1921, when he made a large contribution to the local Community Chest fund. I haven’t found any information about him after that time, but I will keep looking. Being a history detective is exciting!


Grandma Judy