Funky Neighborhood – Or Whiskey Flat Straight Up

The Villa
Gilchrist Hotel as seen in a photograph from 1926 and The Villa in 2008. Courtesy: Tom Stenkamp. Photo: Tor Hanson

Written for publication in Bend Living Magazine – May 2008 (the magazine went bankrupt in late 2008 and the article was never “officially” published)

One of Bend’s most well-heeled neighborhoods was once home to the town’s backbone of millworkers.

Old-timers call it “Whiskey Flat.” More recent Bend residents just know it as a westside neighborhood close to the Deschutes River. In the past 100 years, the area changed from the only place to live, to one of the more desirable places to live.

No matter what the case, what’s left of this neighborhood is Bend’s cultural heritage. The story of the mills is the story of the early development of Bend.

“Swede” Larson lived around the corner. Mom sent the kids to Columbia Grocery to pick up meat for dinner. Summer fun was a swim in the river around the sand bank, and there was always a ball game going on in the neighborhood.

Johnnie’s Place on Gilchrist was open if dad needed a beer after work. The constant hum from the Shevlin-Hixon and Brooks-Scanlon mills, two of the largest in West, could be heard all over town, and the rhythm of Bend was set by the mill whistle.

Today, the flats are still buzzing with activities, but it’s a different rhythm. The mills are long gone. Family-wage jobs are still here, but the morning commute is not done on foot over the dusty roads to the mill. It’s now a quick drive on the parkway or even the much shorter telecommute from home.

Bend Railroad Depot. Courtesy: Deschutes Historical Museum

Bend was a boomtown in the early 1910s. The long-anticipated railroad arrived in 1911. Bend was still a small town with only 536 people. With the advent of the railroad, and abundance of timber and the coming of Shevlin-Hixon and Brooks-Scanlon mills, Bend was poised to become a “real” town. “When the mills came in to town in April 1916, they each hired 500 employees in a matter of days,” said Pat Kliewer, a former local historic preservation planner.

By the time the mills were in place and the railroad started transporting the finished lumber to buyers all over the world, Bend had grown considerably. By 1920, 5,414 people called Bend home.

Both Shevlin-Hixon and Brooks-Scanlon mills had bought up massive landholdings in Central Oregon at the beginning of the century. When they moved west, so did many of their workers from Minnesota, and more mill workers started flocking into Bend from the Midwest.

The pressure on the local real estate market was phenomenal. The housing crunch was so severe that many millworkers lived in large tents with wood stoves for heat. “The block just south of Reid School, most of Pioneer Park, a block along Hill Street near Delaware Avenue, and several blocks along Riverfront were filled with tents,” said Kliewer.

The City of Bend was trying to keep up with the demand for land and many new tracts were platted during this era. City civil engineer Robert Gould platted the Mill Addition in 1915, and the plat was approved on November 4, 1915. The long flat riverbed area along the Deschutes River was held together by Riverfront and Riverside streets on either side. The interspersed roads divided the area into six small city blocks and another four blocks along the river.

Business owners, attorneys and doctors built homes with the hopes of renting them to the growing population of mill workers, Kliewer explained. When mill workers could afford to buy a house, they often brought in extended family or several families into the same home.

“The mills hired people who were used to hard work, a lot of noise and a lot of cold and hot weather,” said Kliewer. “They were ready for hard work and tough conditions. At the same time, they were very community-minded and cared deeply for their neighborhood and their town.”

An early observer claimed in a letter published in the Shevlin-Hixon monthly magazine, Shevlin Equalizer in February 1922, that Bend was a “pay roll city.” A.G. Clark of Central Oregon Motor Company foreshadowed Bend’s future with these words, “Not a merchant or professional man here would likely be able to remain if the payrolls was removed.”

Whiskey Flat was made up of mill workers from all over the U.S. and enclaves of Scandinavian immigrants. “There were Swedes and Norwegians living all along Gilchrist,” said Tom Stenkamp who grew up in the neighborhood. “We were the only Germans in the neighborhood. Each group kept to themselves and did not socialize to any larger extent.

Brooks-Scanlon Lumber Company mill (right) and Shevlin-Hixon Lumber Company mill (left). Courtesy, Deschutes Historical Museum

Nevertheless the mills’ whistle for morning shifts, lunch, afternoon shifts, and quitting time was a compelling social regulator. The morning rush hour was something to see, according to Stenkamp. “The mill workers used to come down Gilchrist in the morning on their way to the mill.” The small pontoon footbridge that spanned the Deschutes River between what is today Columbia Park and the extension of Gilchrist, carried mill workers over the river to the mill entrances.

“All the men in the neighborhood left for work in the morning,” said Denis Berrigan, who grew up on NW Mueller Avenue, the heart of Whiskey Flat. “At noon, they returned for lunch, and then they all went back to work after lunch. At five o’clock the mill whistle blew, and you knew you had fifteen minutes to get back home before dad stepped through the door and dinner was served.”

There were few cars on Whiskey Flat. “My dad walked everywhere, and the only time he used a car was if a family member or friends offered him a ride,” said Stenkamp. Marjorie Skjersaa-Mayer echoed the sentiment that cars were not as commonplace as it is today. “My father, Love Skjersaa, never owned a car in his life,” said Mayer, who grew up on NW Riverfront Avenue. “He walked or biked wherever he needed to go. He even rowed a boat up the river to work on occasion,” said Mayer.

The constant hum from the mill was calming for young Tom Stenkamp. “The sound of the mill often lulled me to sleep at night,” he said. “I remember watching the embers dance in the sky above the giant smokestacks at the Shevlin-Hixon mill.”

To many young boys, the draw of the Miller Lumber Company wood yard, on the opposite bank from today’s McKay Park, was a place for adventure and imagination. Miller Lumber used the big field to store the slab wood from the mill until they sold it during the fall and winter for home heating.

“The kids in the neighborhood had rubber-gun wars in the piles of slab wood,” recalled Stenkamp. “We built giant forts and tunnels from the huge round slabs of wood.” The field also offered another attraction. “There was a huge pile of wood chips, the hog fuel pile, on the field. Bend High School gymnasium fired its furnaces with the wood chips,” said Stenkamp. “We played King of the Hill on top of the hog fuel piles.”

The mills even played a supporting role in the kids’ river adventures. “We used to tie together a couple of two by fours and sail down the river, long before it became popular to float the river,” said Berrigan.

Bend Police circa 1929. Courtesy Deschutes Historical Museum

The 1920s brought Prohibition, new challenges to a community that valued a drink and perhaps the namesake “Whiskey Flat.” The Scandinavians liked their home-brew and nothing was going to stop them from enjoying it. “My father built a secret brewing room underneath the stairs down to the basement,” said Mayer. “He was very clever. You had to move one of the steps before you could fold up the staircase to reveal the brewing room.” The Prohibition officers never found the secret room, and Skjersaa and his friends enjoyed home-brewed beer throughout the dry days of Prohibition.

Stenkamp suggested that the original name for the area may have been “Beer Flat,” but Whiskey Flat sounded more interesting.

One of the most recognizable buildings in the Mill Addition is the Gilchrist Hotel on the corner of Riverside and Gilchrist. Today it is an apartment building called, The Villa. “My dad, John Stenkamp, and my grandfather built the hotel in 1926,” said Stenkamp.

The Stenkamp family first moved into one of the homes on NW Gilchrist, but when Prohibition ended in December 1933, Tom’s dad decided to move into the hotel and open a tavern. It was the beginning of the Great Depression, and the tough economic times were starting to affect employment at the mills. “Economic downturn will sometimes cause an upswing in the consumption of beer, and for a while the business at Johnnie’s Place was brisk,” said Stenkamp.

The heyday of local hooch ended in the early 1940s when the neighbors petitioned to close down the hotel. “After the closure, the hotel was rented to the United States Army to house Women Army Corps members assigned to Camp Abbot.” The Stenkamps finally sold the hotel in 1950, and it was later turned into an apartment building.

Newspaper carriers for the Bulletin. Courtesy: Deschutes Historical Museum

Everett Turner, a longtime realtor in Bend, started out his career as a newspaper delivery boy in the area in 1949. “My paper route went from the Third Street underpass all the way to Tumalo Bridge. I had to pick up my 129 newspapers at the railroad tracks at Kearney Street and then bike them all the way back before I could start my route.” Most of his subscribers were mill workers or people who worked in offices or retail stores in downtown Bend. “The monthly subscription rate was $1.75, and every Christmas I got a dollar tip from many of my customers,” Turner fondly recalled.

The blue-collar neighborhood ebbed and flowed with the success and failure of the mills in Bend. The Shevlin-Hixon mill finally closed its doors in 1950 and sold the operation and its landholdings to Brooks-Scanlon.

The Roses moved to Bend from Missouri in 1963 to seek work at the mill. Alvin got a job at the mill as a grinder in the molding department. It was different times when the Roses came to Bend. “My husband told me that I could not take a job outside the house.” Ellen Rose was busy enough minding three boys and a daughter.

The Roses’ household ran on odd hours. “My husband worked the evening shift, so he went to work at four o’clock in the afternoon and came home around one in the morning.” That made for quiet mornings, as quiet as you can get with three boys in the household.

Ellen Rose’s daughter, Linda Bach, remembers the neighborhood as a great place to grow up. “There were plenty of kids in the neighborhood. During the winters we turned the steep hill down Shasta Place into our sled hill. The guys from the road department used to come by and hang warning sign for motorists on Riverside about kids coming down the steep hill on sleds. It was a different time back then.”

“It was a ‘real’ neighborhood. Everybody knew everybody,” said Berrigan. As wonderful as Whiskey Flat must have seemed to its residents, the neighborhood didn’t have the best reputation in Bend. “If people considered an area as being a slum in Bend, the Flats was it,” said Berrigan. “The area was a true blue-collar neighborhood and even though it produced school teachers, a Fullbright Scholar, newspaper editors and other well-educated people, it was still thought of as Bend’s poor neighborhood.”

The recession during the late 70s and early 80s brought Bend to a lull. The buzz of the old mill neighborhoods fizzled to a whisper.

As Bend fell deeper into recession, a new generation of homeowners and renters moved into the neighborhood. “The area was considered a low-rent neighborhood, and the renters definitely fit that category,” said local architect Gary Johanson, who lived in the neighborhood at the time.

The recession was the low-point in the history of the Mill Addition. The Flat’s new residents weren’t hard working immigrants but ski bums, bikers and druggies.

As the recession turned for the better, the area’s next generation of speculators arrived. In the 90s, the rumor around town was that Whiskey Flat was the place to scoop up great investment properties. The Roses, for example, bought their home on Riverfront Ave. in 1963 for $7,500. In 2005 the home sold for $725,000.

Today Bend’s heritage as a mill town run by Swedes, Norwegians, Germans and folks from the Midwest is slowly changing again. The old dilapidated homes are being razed and brand new homes are springing up in their places. As realtor Turner explains: “It happens when the value of the land outstrips the least valuable home in the neighborhood.” The risk is that the old mill homes will eventually disappear, and the rich heritage of the area will be lost.

The ghosts of the yard-pilers, pond monkeys, lumber graders, and knife grinders are still present, but in another twenty years the stories of Whiskey Flat may be all that’s left.