Just the sight of a playground can send me back to the thrill of play. Leg hooked over a bar spinning around and around until the back of my knee was sore. Seeing how high I could go on a swing. Getting dizzy on the metal merry-go-round. Oh, the joy!

Ad for Everwear All-Steel Playground Apparatus.  Source: The American School Board Journal, vol. 65, 1922

Didn’t every child have this experience? Wasn’t it a child’s right? Well, no.

Playgrounds don’t actually go back that far and the first ones— dating from the 1880s in the US— were pretty modest, just sand in a big box, called sand gardens, set up in crowded eastern cities. 

Early Sand Garden in Boston.  Source: Clarence Elmer Rainwater, The Play Movement in the United States, 1922

Very soon, however, reformers and parents wanted more elaborate play areas for children of all ages. They advocated for safe, outdoor play areas with a variety of activities— games, sports, classes— which they believed would develop healthy bodies, sound minds, and good citizenship. So convinced was the American public, across the spectrum from progressives to conservatives, of the virtues of organized play that a playground movement gradually took shape in the early 20th Century. 

By 1900, 14 cities already had public play areas. The movement picked up speed and intensity in 1906 with the founding of the Playground Association of America. To promote playgrounds the PAA sent speakers around the country, published a magazine called The Playground and held annual conventions. When the PAA held its first convention in 1907, Portland’s Mayor Harry Lane appointed delegates from the People’s Institute Club and the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association).

By this time, Portland already had its first playground, located on the North Park Blocks between Davis and Flanders Streets, the result of the women of the People’s Institute, which lobbied the Park Commission for space and play equipment. Like other playgrounds of the day, girls and boys had separate areas and play was supervised.

North Park Blocks Playground.  Source: Portland Parks and Recreation, “Play Areas Technical Paper,” June 2008

Soon neighborhoods like Montavilla were clamoring for their own playgrounds. In 1909, the Montavilla Home Training Circle and the Montavilla Rose Association advocated for a Montavilla playground and put in a request to the Board of Education. However, it was not until 1921 that Montavilla finally got its wish but, at first, the play area was minimal at best.

If playgrounds were such a big deal, why did it take Montavilla more than ten years to get a playground? There are many possible answers from other issues claiming attention to failing park bonds, but it certainly was not for lack of effort. Here’s run-down of what I’ve found in local newspapers about those these:

1912: the Montavilla Parent-Teacher’s Circle, forerunner of the PTA, tries to stir up interest.

1913: the Montavilla Board of Trade advocates for a playground at Montavilla School. A tract is acquired, but by 1914 we find a huge school garden instead.

1915: Montavilla Sun publisher James Irving Crabbe issued an appeal for a children’s park.

1916: Inveterate Montavilla letter-to-the editor writer, Sarah Hinds Wilder, complains in The Oregonian about gangs of schoolboys breaking into houses and laments that lack of a community playground or a civic center in Montavilla. (A reason many Americans wanted playgrounds was to get kids off the streets.)

A more forceful effort is made in 1920, one more likely to succeed since a parks and playground measure had passed by a 2:1 vote in the 1917 general election. Now Montavilla churches, fraternal organizations and the local PTA band together to hold rallies. More than 300 Montavillans create the temporary Montavilla Welfare League and send a proposal to the City Council. Success, at last! In 1921 the City agrees to buy a tract of land at the northeast corner of 82nd Avenue & NE Glisan Street.

Today we call this Montavilla Park, but initially it was Ruby Park, named for Alfred Curtis Ruby, the previous owner. He was well-known in the community as the President of the Montavilla Savings Bank and as a prominent horse importer and breeder. Gradually, however, people started to call it Montavilla Park and gradually it became a multi-purpose park and community center.

In 1921, the City only had enough money to lay out two baseball diamonds, which quickly became popular venues for bush league games. Montavilla’s team played for the first time on May 14, 1922.

With only baseball fields, the park was pretty bare, lacking the beautiful landscaping of other Portland parks. The City didn’t even provide trees, so in 1921, Montavillans had to buy and plant trees. The City provided roses and shrubbery. (More trees were planted by the Vestal School Forestry Club boys in 1937 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the US Constitution.)

In 1924, Ruby Park got a lawn. And, finally, in 1925 playground equipment arrives: swings, teeter-totters, flying rings, chutes (slides). Children thronged the park. And more was to come: tennis courts in 1927 and a pool in 1930.

Montavilla Park with shade trees and old lamp post. Are these some of the trees planted by Vestal Park students in 1937?

It’s interesting to note that the pool and adjacent building, used as temporary changing room spaces in the summer when the pool was open, were designed by architect Roscoe Hemenway (1899 – 1959), a familiar name in Portland architectural history. In 1930, he was at the beginning of his career, but he would become one of the architects most sought-after by Portland’s elite.

It’s hard to know what Hemenway’s original park building looked like, since it has been added to and altered over the years, eventually becoming the Community Center and gym we know today. (Incidentally in 2006 the gym was dedicated to Larry Krohn aka “Mr. Montavilla”, director of the Montavilla Community Center for some 40 years.)

Since its inception in 1921, Montavilla Park served a wide variety of functions besides play space for children. Sports, as we’ve seen were—and still are— prominent. Besides baseball, tennis and swimming, there were also horseshoes, handball, and volleyball for both women and men. (The Montavilla Times of July 21, 1927 reported that the women’s volleyball team was so good they had challenged the men’s team.)

The Park also put on events like concerts, picnics, and dances. Child beauty contests were popular in the 1920s, and in 1929 the Park hosted one for children under five. After races, a picnic dinner, and dancing, the beauty contest ended with a tug-of-war with the losers— playfully, I’m sure— being dragged through the wading pool. The Park also offered a variety of classes for children and adults: swimming, dance, handicraft, etc. 

The diversity of the fully developed Montavilla Park is exactly what the proponents of children’s playgrounds envisioned in the early 1900s. It just took time and effort to get there.


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