Berry-picking time

By PATRICIA SANDERS

If you talk to long-term Montavilla residents, sooner or later the subject of berries comes up. “Past 82nd Avenue,” you may be told, “there was nothing but berry farms.” An exaggeration— there were other crops like vegetables— but berry crops were a major enterprise in eastern Multnomah County and they stuck in people’s memory, perhaps because so many grew up with berry-picking summer jobs. 

Some of these berry farms were in Montavilla— for example, the 65-acre strawberry farm of German immigrant Nicholas Thomas located a quarter-mile east of 82nd Avenue on the south side of Stark. And Berrydale Park is a reminder of the importance of berry crops in eastern Montavilla.

But most Montavilla children picked berries at farms further east and many of these were owned by Japanese-American farmers, such as the Fujii family farm in Troutdale that has been in business since 1943. (Japanese-Americans, who came from rural areas in Japan with restricted farming resources, applied traditional intensive techniques that produced high yields.)

Strawberry Time in Oregon  Source: Oregon Blue Book, 1911

Summertime meant berry picking. Farmers needed workers to harvest their blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, black caps, and blackberries. Children were out of school and ready to work to put a little money in their pockets.

Several Montavilla residents have told me about their experiences with berry picking and many, many Portlanders have shared their memories on Facebook. Their experiences date mostly from the 1950s through the 1980s. I like these stories because they seem so vivid and personal. Collectively they paint a picture of mid-20th Century Montavilla and East County as it was before the later urban sprawl. 

Most people mention getting up in the dark to catch one of the “berry buses” (old school buses) which fetched workers for a day’s work in the field. It was hot work and backbreaking, especially when stooping to pick strawberries. And with thorny berries, you’d probably end the day with pricked and stained hands. Still, there was fun, too: eating berries—maybe too many and cutting into your profits—, making new friends, having berry fights (which could get you fired).

Brothers Dave and Mike Kaplan, sons of Joseph Kaplan— who owned the old Hammond Portrait Studio on Stark across the street from the Academy Theater— have vivid memories of picking berries every summer from about age 11 until they got “regular jobs” at about age 15 or 16. Dave remembers getting the “berry bus” at SE 96th Avenue and Division Street. Mike took the bus that stopped at Vestal School. (Another stop in Montavilla was at the Ascension grade school. Possibly there were other pick-up points in Montavilla as well.) 

Both brothers remember picking raspberries at what is currently Advantist Health or Mall 205, just outside Montavilla’s east boundary. The strawberry fields they went to were further out, almost to Gresham and Boring. Strawberries earned them 50 cents a crate with a 10 cent bonus if they worked to the end of the picking. It was hard work and, in those days, pickers had no protection from either pesticides or the sun.

Some pickers, instead of catching the daily “berry bus”, camped out near the fields. EmmyLou Johnson remembers camping with her mother and three of her sisters during the week and going back to Montavilla on weekends. The berry farm where they camped was on 12 Mile Road, which seemed so far away when she started picking at age 11 or 12. The girls first picked strawberries, then later raspberries and finally beans, making enough money to buy their own school clothes. One year, EmmyLou missed a week of school because she wanted to finish picking the bean crop to get her bonus.

Such was many a child’s summer in the mid-20th Century. Now children, if they pick berries in quantity, are likely to do it at u-pick farms and earn not cash but toppings for shortcake or ice cream. As for me, I get my berries in my back yard or the Montavilla Farmers’ Market.

Times change. Memories linger.

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here

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