An interview with Patricia Sanders, Montavilla historical writer, on how to research your own ideas

By PATRICIA SANDERS & ANDREW WILKINS

As an editor, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing a writer or reporter that’s super passionate about their work.

Village Portland gives space for non-traditional and niche writers and reporters, and it’s really interesting to give them space to do what they do best and gently edit their work and story selection to— in my humble opinion— best connect to issues and readers.

Everybody has a voice and an opinion and it’s interesting to help people develop that through multimedia reporting / storytelling. The work Patricia Sanders does in her Montavilla Memories articles is a special kind of magic to me.

Read all 16 of Patricia’s “Montavilla Memories” articles and her self-introduction to the community below.

Village Portland reports: “Welcome to Montavilla Memories”

One of our goals with Village Portland is to inspire people to tell their own stories. Obviously, social media is an option, but a lot of folks could benefit from some guidance with that effort.

Patricia’s work has humbled me to the complexity and conflict that our elders endured to create the world we have now. I hope this Q&A gives readers some skills to turn their curiosity into research, their research into and stories, and their stories into a better understanding of how the world we have now came into being.

Patricia Sanders with Dianne Dixon-Lawrence, who Sanders interviewed about her family’s drug store in Montavilla.

Can you briefly describe your experience as a historian?

My academic background is in art history. I earned my Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley and I taught art history for some 30 years, mostly at San Jose State University. My basic research skills and methods I use to write about local history derive from my art history training.

After I retired from teaching, among other things, I started doing genealogical research. But moving to Montavilla in 2013 aroused my curiosity about this neighborhood’s history. I felt particularly connected to the area because my mother and her parents lived nearby on the north slope of Mount Tabor and as a very young child I lived there too. Living close to Montavilla, my grandmother shopped on Stark Street and my mother used the Montavilla Branch Library on 80th Avenue.

In a way, this is like a return to my roots and I wanted to know more about Montavilla’s past.

Since I’m relatively new to local history, I’m teaching myself how to research and always learning as I go. I don’t consider myself an expert and I think anyone who’s really interested can do it. There are also books you can consult written by more experienced local historians, such as Carol Kammen‘s book “On Doing Local History”.

What interests you about the past? 

I like knowing what Montavilla used to be like. With all our old houses and commercial buildings, the past seems very present to me. How could I not be curious?

As I learn about the people who lived here long ago, I can walk around Montavilla and think, “John Brown’s son Salmon used to live here”, or “Montavilla’s Buffalo Bill look-alike used to live there”, or, “that used to be Hope Presbyterian Church“, or, “here’s where the streetcars ran”. This makes me feel connected to Montavilla in a really physical way.

I also like learning the stories of the people who lived here, how they contributed to the community, the roles they played, where they came from, what they were like, what they looked like. They become the actors in the stories I unearth about Montavilla.

What do you think is important for people to be aware of their history?

History helps us take the long view. People just like us faced many of the same challenges and problems we do today. How do we make sure our children get a good education? How do we keep our families safe? How do we come together as a community and get things done? 

Some of the challenges were even bigger in Montavilla’s history because the new residents had to fight for water, schools, roads, sewers— the basic infrastructure we take for granted. History teaches us about our basic human nature. We face hardships and we persist. We disagree and we come together. We make mistakes and we succeed. We mourn and we celebrate. 

Was there a specific moment that you knew you were interested in history?

Not a moment, but moments, going back to elementary school. But I did my first serious local history research for a high school California history class; I surprised my teacher with a 60-page paper on a Spanish land grant. That’s when I discovered a passion for research, which later continued with my art history, genealogy, and now local history work. I feel lucky to have found and followed my passion.

Are there ethical guidelines for historians, and what are they?

This is a complex question and I think the answers change over time. You could read many articles and books about this, but I’ll try to give you my own short answer.

I think every historian would agree that it’s important to be as accurate as possible. This requires being thorough and using good sources.

Thoroughness, for me, means digging deep, and locating as much relevant information as I can. Because little has been written about Montavilla history, this means beginning with things like old newspapers and other old periodicals, city directories, census, etc. I crosscheck a variety of sources for inconsistencies.

When I begin my research, I start with a topic that interests me. As I research this topic, I look for an interesting story, like how the community managed to get something accomplished or why something is the way it is today. My idea of the storyline often changes as I get more information.

I’ve often been surprised when a new fact completely changes the way I thought something had happened. It’s important to stay open until you feel you’ve collected all the relevant material you can find on your topic. 

You need to be a skeptic. You can’t believe everything you read or hear. For example, I’ve heard people say, and even write, that the origin of the name Montavilla is Mount Tabor Village. This is not correct.

Historic documents show it comes from the name of the first real estate tract in this area, Mount Tabor Villa Addition, which went on the market in 1889.

The Morning Oregonian, June 13th, 1889, from newspapers.com.

From a previous “Montavilla Memories” story, “The Montavilla Streetcar Line” I wrote this:

The Montavilla streetcar line opened as the Fairview branch of the City & Suburban Railway on July 26, 1892…

The Fairview branch was soon renamed the “Montavilla” line, a contraction of the name of the housing tract at the line’s terminus, Mount Tabor Villa Addition.

The first usage of the name “Montavilla” that I’ve found is in the United States Post Office’s record of appointments of postmasters in Multnomah County. That was in 1891. In 1892, the residents of Mount Tabor Villa built their own school.

Portland City Directories continue to list this as Mount Tabor Villa School until 1906, but newspapers, like the Oregonian, frequently refer to it as the Montavilla School. As you can see, it’s important to check authoritative documents yourself.

This attitude encourages caution to suspend judgement. This can be exciting because it keeps us in suspense a little bit. It keeps us from jumping to conclusions. We’ll probably still make some mistakes and new information will inevitably surface, but historians owe it to their readers to strive for optimal accuracy.

A more difficult guideline is being aware of our biases. This has come up a lot recently among historians in the attempt to write history that consists of more than wars and rulers. Many historians, not just local historians, have been trying to recognize and account for the diversity of our populations over time and the variety of human experiences.

Local history is great for this kind of history because it tends to be about ordinary people. Local newspapers give us a glimpse into these lives, but I dream of someday finding a stash of letters written by old-time Montavillans for a closer and more personal view.

When did you move to Montavilla and what was your first exciting discovery about the neighborhood?

I moved to Montavilla in 2013. My first exciting discover was finally finding the location of the Montavilla branch library, where my mother used to borrow books. My first article for Village Portland was on this topic.

How do you get your ideas for Montavilla Memories stories?

This varies, but it’s largely driven by curiosity and happenstance. I start with a topic or question. What was that old building originally used for? How did Montavilla get a park? When did Montavilla get its first school? Are some of the sewers in Montavilla really 100 years old?

Sometimes I’m doing research on one thing and I come across something else that looks interesting. For example, recently I was trying to get information on Montavilla before there were many building here and I came across a mention of Montavilla bike paths along Stark Street. (I plan to write articles on both topics.) 

Sometimes I get ideas by talking to people who’ve lived in Montavilla for a long time, like their memories of berry picking and sledding. Sometimes I’m reading an article or book on a general topic, such as, the story of how American women got the vote, and I start wondering how Montavilla might have been involved in that effort. Ideas just seem to pop up and multiply. I have a long list of these. Being curious is the main thing.

It’s really awesome how you can find out so much about the past. Could you describe your research process?

I mainly do my research online. It’s so much quicker than my library research in the old days and searchable databases help me locate a broader range of resources. Sometimes the resources I need are only available in archives and libraries, so that’s when I leave my computer.

Of course, I do general Google searches, but I go well beyond the first page to find little nuggets of information. Google Books and Google Scholar are also useful. Probably most of my time is spent with newspaper databases. The ones I use regularly are NewsBank (free on the Multnomah County Library website under the Historical Oregonian), Historic Oregon Newspapers (free on the Library website and through the University of Oregon Library website), Chronicling America (free through the Library of Congress), and Newspapers.com (for a fee). Since many Montavillans came from other states, I also sometimes use newspaper databases for other states.

Google Books and the library have old and specialized books online as well as scholarly articles (e.g. JSTOR on the Multnomah County Library website). When I’m researching individuals, I also use Ancestry (fee required) and FamilySearch (free) to find vital statistics (such as censuses). I also look at city directories for a person’s occupation and addresses. I often find old photos and maps provide important details. Old photos are searchable by name or subject on the Oregon Historical Society and the Portland City Archives websites. The library website has some useful old maps. I’m also grateful to the individuals who have shared photos with me.

I’ve also used the Oregon Historical Society library, Portland’s Central Library and the University of Oregon Library. The University of Oregon Library is the only place where I’ve found microfilms of two Montavilla newspapers, The Montavilla Sun and The Montavilla Times, which have been invaluable sources. I have yet to find any issues of The Montavilla News, but I’m hoping someday I’ll find copies in someone’s private collection.

In searching databases, I use a wide variety of search terms (or keywords), including different spellings of names and different forms of names (first and middle initials then last name, full name, first and last name, etc.), related terms (such as, Montavilla, an organization the person belonged to, relatives), terms or spellings used in the time period I’m researching. Since database indices don’t include every instance of a term, I use search several databases with the same terms.

As you can see, this gets tricky and time consuming. And you really need to use your imagination to think of new ways to get at the information you’re looking for.

Persistence is the main thing. Sometimes I think I’ve found out everything I can about a subject and then I have a brainstorm about something else to check, which may lead to one of the crucial bits of the story I’m working on.

Besides all this nitty-gritty research, I like to see how an episode in Montavilla history relates to the bigger picture, whether that’s Portland, the United States, or the world. The Montavilla experience is usually related to some larger context— say Prohibition, the women’s vote, the Spanish Flu, road building. For this, books and articles are my go-to tools.

Are there any other neighborhoods that you are curious about? Why?

Since two generations of my family (not counting my own first two years) lived on Mount Tabor, I keep my eye out for interesting information about the Mount Tabor neighborhoods. I also know that if I want to learn about the Montavilla area before it was called Montavilla, I need to research the Mount Tabor vicinity. The histories of Mount Tabor and Montavilla are very closely linked, at least, until they became rivals.

For people interested in learning more about their past, are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share?

If you have a passion for it, get started. Follow your interests. There are many, many stories waiting to be told.

Many people have told me that the Historical Society Museum library staff has been really helpful to them. If you’re researching a new subject or if you’re new to local history research, that’s a good place to begin. 

Be a skeptic. Don’t believe everything you read.

Keep digging. Don’t give up researching an idea too soon. Be creative. See if you can think of other ways to pursue it.

Relate Montavilla [or your neighborhood] to the big picture. It’s more interesting if you can see how it is connected to Portland, to Oregon, to the United States, or even the world.

Be persistent and have fun!

***

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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