Montavilla Community Swimming Pool, 1935

Photo credit: City of Portland Archives, A2000-025.1035

With two heat waves and a new record high of 116 this summer, who hasn’t been thinking about how to stay cool? 79% of Portlanders have air conditioning today, but that was not true in days gone by.

So how did our forebears cope on those hot summer days of yore? There was no air conditioning; but even then, the weather was getting hotter.

Portland was proud of its reputation for temperate summers, so unlike those blistering cities further East. But Portland was humbled by recurrent heatwaves. Besides, every few years, the thermometer hit new record highs: 102 in 1891; 104 in 1926; 105 in 1935; 107 in 1942.

The Oregonian, July 4, 1906. On this date the temperature reached 101 degrees at 5 p.m.

Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Today we know this was an early phase of global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated in its 2020 Global Climate Report that the Earth’s temperature rose .14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1880. Some were already identifying this as a trend in the 1930s.

By the 1930s, meteorologist Joseph Burton Kincer (1874 – 1954) of the United States Weather Bureau, for example, said that data about temperature and melting glaciers collected since the early 1900s showed that the climate had been getting warmer. And these were not opinions tucked away in obscure scientific journals. In the 1940s, The Oregonian periodically published articles about Kincer’s latest findings about climate global climate warming.

Portland newspapers regularly reported on the effects of mounting high temperatures. On July 14, 1926, The Oregon Journal printed a city notice that hot weather had created a water shortage. John M. Mann (1872 – 1942), Commissioner of Public Utilities, ordered yard watering days cut in half (The Oregon Journal, July 14, 1926).

July 6, 1906, The Oregonian described asphalt so hot that it softened to where pedestrians’ shoes sank into it.

During the heat wave of 1907, the Willamette River bridges stopped working. To get them back into service, they had to be sprayed with water (The Oregonian, July 31).

How to stay cool before home AC

While the first machine that cooled air by means of refrigeration was invented in 1902, it was initially used for commercial uses, and only became common in homes beginning in the 1950s.

Until then, you had to find other means to get cool. You might escape to an air-conditioned theater, like Montavilla’s Academy Theater, which opened in 1948. For more on the Academy Theater, see my previous story here.

Fans would seem like a good alternative, but in the early 1900s these were a luxury because electricity was expensive. Anyway, today’s FEMA says fans don’t really cool body temperatures, but do give a sense of comfort.

And you could always hook up a sprinkler to a hose and let the kiddies cool down in the yard, as long as it wasn’t a no-water day.

Two girls playing in a sprinkler in a Portland neighborhood in the 1920s. I think that’s my mother on the right.

Source: Patricia Sanders Collection

Ice was also in demand. You needed it especially on hot days to cool drinks and, of course, to keep food fresh. The ice delivery man was a welcome sight.

The Ice Man’s Reception, The Oregonian, July 31, 1907

You could also cool down by going to the coast or the mountains, if you could afford it. And some in Montavilla could.

The Montavilla Times of July 22, 1926, for example, reported on several leaving town. Chiropodist Mr. Fiorello D. Deveny (1897 – 1938) his wife Erma (1899 – 1974) as well as grocer Fred Eiler (1894 – 1984) and his family were heading for the beach.

On the other hand, Rev. Ulysses Chester Smothers (1875 – 1938) of the Montavilla Methodist Episcopal Church and his family were enjoying a three-week vacation at the Wilhoit Springs Resort (now a Clackamas County park).

Advertisement for Newport Resort, The Oregon Statesman, June 1, 1928

Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

If you were less affluent, you could take the streetcar to The Oaks amusement park, which claimed to be the coolest recreation spot in Portland.

Ad for The Oaks amusement park, Oregon Daily Journal, July 30, 1907

Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

And then there were swimming pools

For cooling off, having fun, and getting exercise, what could be better than a swimming pool?

In 1930, Montavilla Park got a new swimming pool. Here was another way for Montavillans to cool off— and it was close by. As proof of its popularity, when the thermometer hit 101 on Sunday, July 12, 1931, 2,500 people headed for this pool.

Swimming pools were popular in America from the 1920s to the 1940s. Not only were they popular places to swim, they were also places to socialize.

Jantzen swimsuit ad, The Athena Press, June 20, 1930

Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Was the Montavilla pool open to all?

A not so pleasant side of the swimming pool fad in the US was segregation— and not only in the South. Since Portland’s history of racial discrimination in places of public accommodations— hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, hospitals, etc.— is well known, I wondered if the Montavilla pool discriminated against people of color.

This certainly happened at the two pools at the commercial Jantzen Beach and Blue Lake amusement parks. At a time when Portland was being recognized for improving its race relations, a denial of access by these two venues fell like a bombshell.

Both The Oregon Journal and The Oregonian reported on August 3, 1951 that two Black men, members of the 123d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, were refused admission to the Jantzen and Blue Lake pools. The Methodist Federation for Social Action urged churches to boycott. But the public scandal did not stop Democrats and Young Republicans from holding their annual picnics at Jantzen Beach.

In contrast, Superintendent of Portland Parks, Harry B. Buckley (1902 – 1982), said the City’s ten municipal pools did not discriminate (August 3, 1951, The Oregon Journal). The same claim was made in the October 8, 1950 Oregonian, which published a close-up photo of boys of different races in a city pool. The caption read: “In the city swimming pools, discrimination is no problem.”

The context for the photo was the hotly contested ballot issue intended to overturn an anti-discrimination ordinance passed unanimously by the Portland City Council. Voters negated the ordinance by a margin of 5 to 4.

So based on the two Oregonian accounts, all municipal pools, including Montavilla’s, were color-blind— at least by 1950 / 1951.

But what about the years between 1930 when the Montavilla pool opened and the 1950? I combed through every document I could find in newspapers, reports, articles, and books. I queried several people I thought might have an answer, including historians of Portland and Black history, City employees, and Black organizations. I could not find a definitive answer.

Is it possible? Yes. Amusement parks felt justified in limiting access to their pools. And Portland did have at least two segregated public pools: those at the Couch and Shattuck schools. A lawsuit challenging segregation of the Couch School was brought by Beatrice Morrow Cannady (1889 – 1974) in 1916.

Cannady, co-publisher of The Advocate, a major Black newspaper— and, I might add, a frequent guest in Montavilla homes— sued the Portland School Board, demanding equal access to the pool at Couch School. After the new Couch School on NW Glisan opened in 1915, the Board made its pool available to the general public as well as to students.

As a Black woman, however, Cannady was only allowed to swim on Saturday nights, whereas white women could swim on Tuesday and Friday evenings. She wanted to use the pool the same nights as white women.

Judge Henry E. McGinn (1959 – 1923) ruled against Cannady. As reported in the November 1, 1916 Oregonian, McGinn based his decision on his belief that “natural prejudices would exist for a long while to come” and that there were more white women than Black women in Portland.

Judge McGinn was certainly right about prejudices persisting. Oregon’s first public accommodation bill, which would have covered amusement parks, was introduced in 1919. After several similar bills were introduced over the years, one finally passed in 1953. This law made discrimination in any public venue illegal. On the 1919 public accommodations bill see my story here.

A final bit of evidence regarding non-segregated public pools comes from articles in The Portland Inquirer, a historic Black newspaper. During the summer of 1945, this newspaper published several articles about city pools being open. It seems unlikely to me that this newspaper would mislead its readers about such an issue.

So it seems likely that by 1945 or, at least, 1950, the Montavilla pool, like other municipal pools, was not segregated. But what about the years since the pool opened in 1930? I found no evidence one way or the other. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. And maybe someday we will know.

If you have information that will help solve this mystery, please feel free to add a comment at the end of this article.


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

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